Our capacity to pay attention, that is, our ability to selectively concentrate on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things, is limited.
Ever been to a party and struggled to listening carefully to what someone was saying while ignoring other conversations in the room? Perhaps you have been talking on the phone whilst driving and realised after the conversation you have no recollection of how you got to your destination? Or maybe you have been overrun by your internal monologue of negative thoughts, stress or anxieties?
These are very common examples of how we struggle to stay focused and attentive.
Want to see just how limited our attentional capacity is? Check out this is a classic psychology clip demonstrating the phenomenon of attention via YouTube
While we tend to have a limited attentional capacity, we can work to improve and develop it. In many ways attention is like any other muscle in our body. The more we use it, the stronger it will become. And the stronger it becomes, the easier it is to stay present and focused in the moment.
So here are some ideas for training your attention:
Try an attentional training meditation which aims to develop your attentional capacity by challenging you to focus on one sound at a time (in amongst many different sounds). Recent studies have shown that meditation can lead to a profound shift in how the brain allocates attention. Note: This can be a very frustrating exercise (I know from personal experience) and it is not indented anyone will be able to do this perfectly. Rather, challenge yourself to run through an attention training mediation daily to help build your ‘attentional muscle’.
Be aware of and adjust your stimulation levels to get into your optimal performance zone. Being under stimulated can lead to boredom and a wandering mind, whilst too much stimulation can lead to anxiety and stress creating an overload of negative self-talk. Everyone will find different ways to get into their optimal zone. I find the best ways to increase stimulation is to play some upbeat music or watch a hilarious clip. To lower stimulation I find deep breathing or taking a short walk useful.
If you want more on this topic, Psychology Today published a great article called A Three-day Plan to Increase your Focus.