5 Steps to Protect Your Attention and Become a Better Thinker
“I didn’t have enough time.”
More and more, when I hear this common explanation for why something didn’t get done, my BS detectors start going off.
This is the case, in part, because I know that it’s sometimes BS when I say it myself.
But let’s be real here: Usually when we don’t get something done in a reasonable amount of time, the amount of time had nothing to do with it.
Instead, the issue was more likely the direction of our attention during that window of time — too much attention given to distractions and diversions, and not enough focused intently on the task at hand.
Look, I get it.
The world is conspiring to steal our attention in pretty much any direction we turn, and with ever-increasing sophistication.
But you and me, we’re just humans … with our hackable brain software running on top of hardware that evolved in a much different time and place. We’re easy marks.
Still, even such reasonable explanations for why we are so easily distracted won’t actually help us avoid the next distraction. Only being proactive and intentional will do that.
So, here are five steps you can take today — as soon as you’re done reading this blog post, if you’re so inclined — that will help you protect your attention and, in turn, give you a chance to become a more productive thinker.
Let’s start with the easiest one.
Seriously, it just takes a few taps of your thumb …
Step #1: Turn your phone’s screen display to grayscale
The most pervasive and powerful distractions come from our phones.
Heck, as Sean Jackson explained in episode three of the THINKERS Manifesto podcast our phones are distracting us even when we’re not looking at them.
They exert a gravitational pull on our attention just by … existing.
And while quaint notions about going back to the halcyon days of flip phones that only call and text might offer comfort in a regretful moment, we all know the cat is out of the bag on this one.
If you want to be reasonably engaged in modern society, you need a smartphone — with all of its conveniences and distractions.
Fortunately, there is one easy way to lessen the hold your smartphone has over you: Remove the colors.
Tristan Harris spent three years as a Design Ethicist at Google.
His website states that he has “spent a decade understanding the invisible influences that hijack human thinking and action.”
In short, he’s one of the leading authorities in the world on how to combat phone addiction — which is real, and might sap more total attention and thinking capacity than any force on earth.
And as he said at the 2018 Milken Institute Global Conference:
“Looking at even just the colors of your screen activates a banana-like rewards [system] for chimpanzees. If you just turn that off, it makes a big difference.”
It might not seem like it would have much of an effect, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that it does.
Opening my phone is now a less visually titillating and arresting experience. And that’s good.
It means I yearn less for the next “hit” because the reward centers in my brain aren’t firing in all directions.
It means less zombie-like phone use, and more of something important. Something that we think we have, but oftentimes don’t:
Thomas Z. Ramsøy is the chief executive officer of Neurons, a company that uses brain scans and eye-tracking technology to study technology.
According to Ramsøy, going grayscale reintroduces choice. It allows us to be more contemplative and rational than reactive.
And fortunately, it’s not terribly difficult to do.
On Android devices, you will typically find the grayscale settings under Accessibility.
An easy step that goes a long way. But it’s a step meant to reduce overall usage of your device.
What can you do to actually help you avoid distractions while consuming content online?
I’ve got just the suggestion …
Step #2: Read online articles (including this one) with the distractions removed
You have more control over the way you experience the internet than you think.
It’s so easy to lament the banner ads and auto-play videos and jam-packed sidebars that scream loudly for our attention, even as we try to settle in and focus on, you know, reading the article that brought us to the screaming website in the first place!
And hey — it’s hard to focus on reading when the page is actively trying to divert your attention someplace else.
But it’s time to stop complaining about it. And it’s time to stop wasting time thinking you’re reading when you’re really just staring at words on a screen that you won’t end up remembering anyway because of all the distractions.
Remove the distractions altogether.
One way to do this is with an ad blocker. I use one myself. But I also understand that some people don’t feel good about ad blockers because they diminish the revenue of independent site owners who rely on display ads as a major piece of their business model.
If that’s you, and you use Google Chrome, then consider this alternative instead: Mercury Reader.
This tool has a special web parser that strips everything away from a web page that isn’t the essential text and images. Just click a button and everything else goes away.
The upside of a tool like Mercury Reader is that you can browse the web normally, with ads and pop-ups and all that jazz.
But then once you find an article that you want to settle in and spend some time with, you just hit the Mercury button and you’re able to focus on nothing but the content.
The publisher got the ad impression from your visit, and you got the content you came for … plus maybe even a little bonus comprehension too!
Step #3: Have a non-tech sanctuary to explore and record your ideas
It’s not just important to remove distractions while reading; you also want to be intentional about giving yourself distraction-free space to think and engage with your ideas.
And, admittedly, this can be a challenge.
For example, I sometimes like to brainstorm with a blank Google Doc open. And that’s fine, but it also means that I’m in front of a computer, staring at a screen.
While I get a lot of work done that way, I don’t get a lot of thinking done that way.
I’ve also tried storing ideas in Evernote. And again, it’s fine. The program itself works great. But to access and engage with my ideas, I have to be on a device — and that means distractions are but a click away.
And sure, it’s easy to say, “Well, just don’t click away!”
Fair enough. But it requires mental energy to exert such willpower, and I’d rather exert that mental energy in the direction of my ideas.
That is why I like having — err, need — a distraction-free place to record my ideas. It could be anything: a spiral-bound notebook, a simple blank piece of paper, or even the margins of my planner.
It’s even better when it’s something specifically designed for capturing ideas, like the THINKERS Notebook.
Full disclosure: I’m working with Sean on his launch of the THINKERS Notebook. So, factor that bias in as you consider my recommendations.
But one of the reasons I’m working with Sean is because I love his notebook, and I’m excited to share it with other people.
I’ve long struggled with giving myself permission to step away from the screen and just engage my thoughts and ideas. It didn’t feel like “work” so I didn’t respect it enough as a worthwhile investment of my time.
Of course, that is short-sighted and self-defeating thinking.
Having a notebook that I write in by hand gets me away from distractions and helps me focus on thinking deeper and longer. I capture more ideas and do more with them.
Whatever tool you use to do this is worth its weight in gold.
Step #4: Match your physical space to your desired mental state
Everything we’ve discussed so far — lessening the pull of your phone, making online articles less distracting, and having a physical, offline repository for your ideas — will help you relax your mind, protect your attention, and engage in more productive thinking.
But you’ll never maximize your ability to think productively if you don’t respect the impact that your physical environment has on your mind and your emotions.
In episode three of the THINKERS Manifesto podcast, Sean describes the impact of where you think on how you think.
For example, places with a consistent level of ambient noise but few harsh distractions — like coffee shops — tend to be conducive to creative, big-idea thinking. But these tend to not be places well-suited for detail-oriented thinking.
On the other hand, quiet and organized spaces lend themselves well to detail-oriented thinking, like doing your taxes. Such spaces may actually stifle the subconscious flow that you need for your best creative juices to get going.
Major caveat: different strokes for different folks. These are generalizations, not rules. The important lesson here is to know yourself.
Where do you do your best creative thinking? (Maybe it’s on a walk, or while you work out.)
Where do you do your best structured thinking? (Maybe it’s somewhere without clutter while playing the same song on repeat, or in the most silent location you can find.)
Whatever the answers are for you, it’s important to find them, respect them, and act on them.
Because mismatching the kind of thinking you need to do with the space you’re doing it in is a recipe for suboptimal attention and productivity.
And finally …
Simply, but perhaps most importantly …
Step #5: Get a good night’s sleep
Not just one night, but every night. Or at least, as many nights as you can.
I can’t image you need me to cite too many studies or expert opinions on the importance of sleep for wellness and overall mental, physical, and even spiritual health.
We’re all pretty much on the same page about it now, right?
But just in case you need a quick refresher, especially as it relates to attention and thinking:
“Both total and partial SD [sleep deprivation] induce adverse changes in cognitive performance. First and foremost, total SD impairs attention and working memory, but it also affects other functions, such as long-term memory and decision-making. Partial SD is found to influence attention, especially vigilance.”
That passage is from the abstract of a study by Paula Alhola and Päivi Polo-Kantola titled “Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance.”
It was published in October 2007, and our understanding of the importance of sleep has grown exponentially since then.
And I think most of us, if we’re being honest and aware, could cite first-hand supporting evidence.
I know that when I don’t get a full night’s sleep, I’m not as sharp the next day. Sometimes I can feel the effects for a day or two more.
But when I do string together full nights of sleep (for me, that’s six to seven hours per night … a range I’m trying to increase), I feel more alert and consistently able to focus.
How about you?
Which of these five steps are you going to take right now (or, at the latest, by tonight)?
My goal for this post was to provide easy-to-implement suggestions.
So I leave you with five questions, summing up each of my main points, and I hope you’ll use one of them in the minutes or hours after you finish reading:
- Are you ready to turn your phone display to grayscale to prevent or curb the effects of phone addiction?
- Is there anything stopping you from installing a free plugin to remove distractions from online articles you read?
- Do you have a non-tech, offline, physical sanctuary where you can handwrite notes and ideas?
- Are you prepared to match your physical space with your mental state for optimal thinking?
- What can you do to ensure that you get a good, full night of sleep tonight?
If you do all five of these in the next 24 hours, you are clearly someone who is vigilant about your attention and committed to being a more productive thinker.
But even if you only do one, you’ll be so much further ahead than you otherwise would be.
Please let me know what you choose. I want the honor of giving you a virtual high five here in the comments.
As for me, I’m off to use my THINKERS Notebook to map out an email sequence I need to write. And I’m going to do it in a quiet, organized space, because I know that’s where I do that kind of thinking the best.
And if I get done before too long, I might just take a short nap.
But either way, I’ll be in bed early tonight … preparing for an alert and productive day tomorrow. 😉