menu search

Short Attention Span? Don’t Fight It–Observe It

A short attention can be a form of addictionDo you find that you have a short attention span these days? The ability to multi-task is highly prized in the workforce, but there’s a fine line between juggling multiple projects and being unable to concentrate on any one task. Robert Wright, author of WHY BUDDHISM IS TRUE, explains how attention deficit can be a kind of addiction and shares a method for regaining control.

Most of our self-control problems aren’t as dramatic and clear-cut as classic addictions like nicotine and cocaine. Some of them are so subtly interwoven into our lives that we don’t think of them as self-control problems at all.

For example, when I was a child, I had a short attention span. Actually, I still have it—it’s just that now they don’t call it a short attention span. They call it attention-deficit disorder. What these two terms have in common is a particular way of characterizing the problem. They make it sound like there’s a faculty people have—the faculty we call attention—and somehow my particular faculty of attention lacks something or other that would make it work better. Yet when I watch my attention-deficit disorder in action, when I pay really close attention to the dynamics of distraction, that characterization starts to seem wrong. The problem of losing focus starts to seem more like a problem of managing my feelings.

For example: right now I’m focused on writing this sentence, and writing this sentence feels fine; I like to succeed at things, and so long as this sentence keeps unfolding on my computer screen, I’m succeeding at something! But if I get to a point where I can’t decide what sentence should go next, I’ll start feeling a bit uncomfortable. And if it isn’t just a question of how to word the next sentence—if it’s a larger question about what the next sentence should say, and indeed where this whole stream of writing should head—I feel really uncomfortable. I like fiddling with sentences, but I hate pondering structural problems.

But wait—there’s an alternative to the discomfort of confronting an unwritten and not obviously writable sentence. My browser is open, and it has occurred to me that I should do some shopping: I need a new smartphone. I mean, I don’t have to have a new smartphone, but my old smartphone has developed this weird problem where it thinks the headphones are plugged in even when they’re not. So if somebody calls me, I can’t hear what they’re saying unless I either plug in the headphones or switch the speakerphone on. Can you imagine trying to go through life with such a burden? Don’t you think I should spend the next few minutes researching smartphones? Well, whether you do or not, I am a gadget freak, so the thought of doing that feels good—way, way better than the thought of figuring out what sentence should go next. Case closed. See you later.

I’m not sure which module injected this “Why don’t you research smartphones?” thought into my mind—apparently a module that likes acquiring possessions. In any event, the module timed the thought masterfully, for just the moment when writing was starting to feel uncomfortable. Modules are crafty that way.

Anyway, the main point is that you can think of the problem of distraction as analogous to the problem of quitting smoking. And if you think of it that way—think of your goal as being to weaken the module that favors leading you away from your work—this might affect how you address the problem.

Ordinarily, if you were determined to stay focused on your work notwithstanding a strong desire not to stay focused on your work, you might respond to the thought of researching smartphones with a reprimand: No, don’t think about smartphones—get back to writing! But if you take the mindful approach, you say: Go ahead, think about smartphones. Close your eyes and imagine how it would feel to search for the latest review of the latest smartphone. Examine the feeling of wanting a cool new smartphone and wanting to search online for one. Then examine it some more. Examine it until it loses its power. Now get back to writing!

Though we don’t generally think of nicotine addiction and a short attention span as having much in common, both really are problems of impulse control. And in both cases, we can, in principle, weaken the impulse by not fighting it, by letting it form and observing it carefully. This deprives the module that generated the impulse of the positive reinforcement that would give it more power next time around.


Does your mind wander at work? Discover the perks of “visual breaks.”


Excerpted from Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright. Copyright © 2017 by Robert Wright. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Powered by Zergnet