Distracted minds

To focus, to concentrate, to pay attention… seems so simple. Yet, it obviously isn’t for most of us. Every day, there is new research reminding us that we are losing this ability as we get increasingly immersed in this post-modern technologized world.

The situation is dire indeed:

  • Only 5% or less of readers finish a page or an article they start reading online!;
  • 17% of all page views online last 4 seconds or less!
  • 44% of people say that they struggle to concentrate on tasks they are supposed to be performing (I think this number should be a lot higher, as if it weren’t high enough already…);
  • 37% say they have to work late and on weekends because they do not use their time properly during the week;
  • The average attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds! In 2013, it had gone down to 8 seconds!! A goldfish is believed to have an attention span of 9 seconds!!! http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/05/14/attention-span-human-worst-than-goldfish/27293073/

If this is the case, then who can argue with those who have said that the ability to stay focused for a long period of time is going to be the superpower of the 21st century? If you want to rule in a world where no one can concentrate for any prolonged duration because of tweeting and instagramming, all you need to do will simply be to focus on tasks, master them, and get things done. So pay attention!

This is a very important topic, and which I have had to address many times. Sometimes it’s the usual classic: “what can I do to have better focus during my prayers?” and at other times, it is a slightly more indirect: “how do you find the time to do so-and-so?” When we both know that they have much less going on than I do. A very big part of the answer lies in their inability to focus and see their tasks through to the end. Hopefully this entry will help with both…

(There are other reasons that are preventing people from “getting it done” so to speak, that I may address in other posts, for example:

  • lack of motivation;
  • lack of discipline or will power;
  • lack of vision or knowledge;
  • lack of confidence;
  • lack of resources;
  • lack of efficiency – not putting their energy where it really matters and makes the biggest difference in the shortest time)

Before going any further, let me explain that your attention span is not some stand-alone faculty detached from the rest of you. Like everything else about you, it’s all connected. Your belief system, your outlook on life, your level of knowledge, your life experience, your level of confidence, your physical health, your emotional health, etc. all directly affect your powers of concentration.

What we are talking about here is your ability to be in control of your own mind, or “taking possession of the mind” in the world of William James, who also further explained that

“It implies a withdrawal from things in order to deal effectively with others.”

In other words, your ability to resist the temptation of getting distracted. And God knows that we now live in a world in which our access to distractions is unprecedented.

The most problematic distractions for most people are either sensory, or emotional. Sensory distractions are things that can stimulate any of our senses at any given time, such as feeling hungry or thirsty, hearing the phone ring or receiving an IMessage, feeling cold or warm, or even needing to go to the washroom. They are the easier ones to deal with (believe it or not!). Emotional distractions, as their name implies, are sources of stress that affect our emotions. These can include family or relationship problems, and they can easily monopolize our entire mental energy.

Physical comfort

In Islam, we have a number of narrations discouraging us from performing acts of worship if we are in a state of physical discomfort (hungry, thirsty, sleepy, resisting the need to relieve ourselves…). That is because you are supposed to be focusing your mental and spiritual attention to the task at hand to reap its benefits, and Islam recognizes that your physical discomfort will minimize or prevent those benefits. The same can be generalized to every other task where more attention would result in greater returns and benefits (what task wouldn’t!?)

So before starting the activity, take a few moments to eat, drink, or go to washroom as needed, so that you do not have to interrupt your activity. And while you’re at it, maybe what you eat can be healthy and even good for your mental faculties. Islam for instances teaches that walnuts and dried raisins increase memory and intelligence, while cheese for instance should not be consumed without nuts because it can have adverse effects on memory (as is the case with talking while in the washroom…).

And while we’re on the topic of health, exercise and sleep are also crucial for improving your attention span. Studies have shown that exercising releases chemicals and affects areas of the brain related to learning and memory, and those effects are both immediate as well as long-term.

As for sleep, although I concede of its importance, it is something of a touchy topic for me for a number of reasons – that I will not be going into here. What I will say is that according to numerous scientific studies, if you’re not getting at least 7 hours of sleep (and many going to 9 hours) at night you will suffer from all sorts of side effects: feeling tired, grumpy and moody; performing well below your physical and mental abilities; prone to making more mistakes and having more accidents; having weaker immunity; taking much longer to recover and develop; and even shortening your life span. All of that said, I am also firm believer that there are benefits to sleeping less, with the condition that it is for the right reasons. If you are reducing your sleeping hours because you want to worship in the magical spirituality that can only be attained in the middle of the night, or because you understand the value of the sacrifice your are making in letting go of the comfort of your bed to attain that kind of self-discipline and spiritual struggle, then please continue and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As the Holy Qur’an says “you shall not attain virtue until you give from that which you like“. And if you are staying up late because you are researching, or writing, or helping your brothers and sisters in whatever way you can, than I can only encourage you to keep doing so. Simply keep in mind that you want to stay healthy and keep doing all of this in a wise way, and this may mean that you sometimes have to take a little break, or add a daily nap to stay healthy and not affect your physical well-being. HOWEVER, if you are staying up because this has become your disorganized daily routine, wasting hours in front of the T.V. or just chilling and hanging out, then do everyone yourself included a favour and go sleep. The Holy Qur’an says that night was created as a resting time for humans… To witness the impact of sleep on your attention span, sleep 9 hours every night for two consecutive weeks. I dare you to not experience tangible improvement in your powers of concentration!

The BIG picture

 

Whatever task you happen to be performing will fall into a much bigger picture of your belief system and priorities in general. If you want your life to be better organized, and your energy to be spent in the areas that make you happy, then you have to take time to really think about who you are, who you want to be and what your priorities are in the time you are alive. How far are you from the person you want to be? What do you need to do get there? How long do you give yourself? What are you waiting for to be that person? What are you missing to be there? Money? Friends? Knowledge? Are you living your life fully? Are you ready to die tomorrow? Once you really know your answers to these questions, you will be able to see how the tasks you have to perform fit in in that bigger picture of your life, and how they can help you get there. If you want to be a good Muslim and you understand that Islam teaches cleanliness (Holy Prophet: “clean yourselves for Islam is clean!”) and organization (final sermon of Ali, where he says “and stay organized in your affairs”) then a menial, mechanical task like cleaning your room or office will suddenly become a significant activity leading to a grand purpose, and it also becomes much easier to concentrate and get it done as opposed to getting distracted…

This big picture idea is very important in Islam. It is part of the self-assessment we are supposed to be doing on a daily basis. Our Imams repeatedly remind us “Those who do not self-assess are not counted amongst us”. In other words, you cannot consider yourself a real Muslim if you do not take a few moments every day to think about who you are, about your actions, about who you want to be, and be honest and constructive with yourself. This is your life and you only get 1 of it. Make it matter and worth living!

Managing yourself and your distractions

Be aware of your actions and behaviours, and of your strengths and weaknesses. On average, studies indicate that office workers check their emails 31 times every hour. There is no doubt that this behaviour is detrimental to concentration. But if you are not even aware that you’re doing this, you will simply repeat “where did the time fly?” at the end of every day, without ever changing the pattern. Once you know where the issues are, avoid them! And if you find yourself too weak and lacking the discipline, find ways.

You can remove yourself or the distraction physically or virtually (there are some mobile apps that prevent you from doing anything else, or from accessing a specific app for example); or working in an environment that prevents you from doing anything else, or working with someone who will keep you on track…

Your environment will always be a factor in your ability to focus. The people around you, the sounds, the lights, the temperature, the smell, the seating, the memories… all play a role. That is why it is better to pray in places that are simple and with the least distractions and details possible.

Yes, with time you may become much better at blocking out what you need to block out while doing something (but if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t be reading this specific post J ). The wife of great thinker Sayid M. Baqir Sadr says that he would do all of his writing (for those of you who have read his works, you know that this was all pioneering and original research in technical fields such philosophy, economy and jurisprudence…) in the family room, with his children playing around him. And when she would try to calm the children down so he doesn’t lose his concentration, he would tell her to let them be, that they do not affect his work at all, that they are simply playing…

Be strategic in what you decide to do at what time of the day (or week or year or career or life…) You know your levels of energy and how they fluctuate during the day, and you also know what tasks have to be performed. More complex tasks that require higher energy and concentration should obviously be done at the times when you have (or can get yourself to have) that much energy. If you know that you need some peace and quiet to really get something done, don’t be afraid to sleep a little earlier, wake up at 4 AM, and work for two or three hours on it every morning. Rearranging your life and your schedule based on your priorities, focus and energy should be a regular part of your life. This way, you can always give every task the best and most suitable time.

Take time to identify your sources of stress and distraction, and mentally remove them before you start your task. You can visualize putting them in drawers or simply setting a time to deal with them after the task at hand. This is especially important for emotional distractions, because they are relentless in their nagging inside the mind. Do not let them hijack your concentration when you are trying to do another task. There is a time and a place to deal with everything.

Single-tasking

The benefits of multitasking are simply myths. And if you have learned to multitask, perhaps you should unlearn it. Instead, learn to do 1 thing at a time in everything you do in life. And whatever it is that you are doing, really do it. We all know that there are times when we do not have the luxury of single-tasking. Those are the only times when we should be talking of the benefits of this necessity that is multitasking. Otherwise, for every situation where you are in control, make sure that you are giving yourself entirely to the activity at hand. This will enable you to do it right the first time at the best of your abilities, and move on to other things. It will also teach you to enjoy the activity. When you eat, try to enjoy the food. When you play, have fun in your game. When you talk with someone, give yourself entirely to that conversation. And when you work, put all your energy and intensity in that work. Be present, with all your senses and faculties in whatever you are doing. This will make for an enjoyable life, free of regrets, and full of accomplishments. The Holy Prophet used to say “God has mercy on the one who, in whatever he does, does it with to perfection.”

A major part of our inability to focus is our easy access to technology. If your phone, or IPad are not required for the completion of your task, how about you put them aside and not look at them until you are done? If you disconnect from technology for a few hours every day, nothing bad will happen to you. It’s not like all of humanity will get a Facebook message telling them to meet in 10 minutes at a certain location to be moved quickly to another planet and you’ll be the only one left clueless on earth. Just put your phone aside, relax, and get it done.

Managing the task

Sometimes the reason we can’t concentrate on the task is because, unconsciously or consciously, we consider it big, even overwhelming, so we want to avoid it and every excuse is good. At other times, it is not so much that we want to avoid, as we simply do not know where to begin and what to do. The moment you have a task, make sure you break it down into the smaller chunks or steps possible, so that you can attack them one at a time in a measurable manner. As you move from chunk / step to the next, you get a surge of positive energy, a sense of accomplishment that you are actually moving along in the project.

Working with measurable goals is important. You can decide that your goal is 10 minutes with a 2-minute break for a total of 1 hour; or writing 3 pages or cleaning 1 room of the house before a little snack. Use rules of reward (and if it doesn’t demotivate you) punishment for having met your measurable objectives.

Be aware of your mind

Be conscious of your thoughts, and redirect your mind and attention to where it needs to be. Your mind is like a muscle; it needs practice and training to be good at what it does, including concentrating. Set realistic goals at first, like concentrating on 1 task for 5 minutes at a time with a little 1-2 minute break. If you are distracted by things that are very compelling, write them down on a piece of paper, and deal with them after your goal is met. And work hard on your mind, as hard as you would for any other muscle. Try to memorize something new every day, and expose yourself to different experiences. Wash your teeth, eat or write with the other hand… and stop scrolling sites and articles instead of reading. In fact, close the internet from time to time, grab a long editorial, or article, or encyclopaedia entry or a good intellectual book about astrophysics or the philosophy of history that pushes your thinking forward or teaches you something about the world you live in, and read, slowly and steadily.

If you feel that your mind stays hooked on a previous or unrelated task when you’re trying to get it to focus on a new one, it’s time to ground it so you can change gears. My personal favourite way of grounding my mind and my heart is to recite a few verses of the Holy Qur’an. This doesn’t need to be for more than a few minutes. The melody you choose to recite the Holy Qur’an (or the reciter you choose to listen to) can be a reflection of your psychological state of mind. If you decide to recite or simply to listen to a beautiful and soothing recitation, it can act as a therapy as well as refresher for your mind before switching gears and jumping in the new task – in addition to ensuring that whatever new task you take on is going to be blessed and your Qur’anic values stay fresh in your mind. If you have any special connection with any specific verses, here is a wonderful time to use them… If you cannot do this between every activity throughout the day, perhaps once early in the morning and once right before bed can do the trick.

Meditation

Finally, I want to make a very quick comment about meditation, because I have received a few questions about it and have clearly observed the interest of my brothers and sisters in it, and because it is the most clichéd ubiquitous piece of advice regarding concentration power that you will find – many, many books have been written about this, and many will continue to be written about it, because the market is huge for such things in societies where people are grasping at whatever they can if they feel it can fill their spiritual needs without calling it the big taboo word “religion”.

As a practicing Muslim, you should more than plenty of opportunity to reap all the benefits of meditation (and much more) at least during your daily prayers – if you’re not doing anything else. Part of the philosophy of having to perform prayers every single day, five times throughout the day, regardless of what is going on in your day is that you are forced to take a moment to step back from the routine and materialism and grind of life, so that you can reconnect with your divine origin, with THE source of being, with the creator and controller of all existence. In case you forget to do it voluntarily on your own, or get too lazy to do it on your own, Islam has made it obligatory, for your own good, to perform these daily prayers so that you get renewed energy (yes even in the literal physiological sense as study have shown…) the confidence, the wisdom, the power and the peace of mind to take on whatever life can throw at you, including the task you are trying to concentrate on. Why would you, as a Muslim with this unbelievably powerful tool at your disposal, want to simply get the “empty” of meditation (in its secular pseudo-scientific forms, its new age forms, or its eastern religions forms) when you can get so much more from your own prayer? You can either be a slave to this world and all that is in it, including its people, its money, and your own desires, or you can be a slave to your creator, the Lord of the universe, who has made this world and all that is in it for you. Every prayer you perform is your opportunity to make that choice. Think about this last sentence when you are about to start your prayer, to see if you need any other “tricks” to stay focused during your prayer…

Recap

I was not planning on writing this much for this entry… Let me simply end by saying that, rest assured, we all lose our concentration, and we all get distracted. The difference, is that some of us, the good ones, they are quicker at catching themselves losing focus, and they are quicker at bringing their attention back where it needs to be.

We can all agree that there has never been a time in history when humans had such an easy access to so many distractions. And yes, there are a lot of very distracted people out there… but there are also people, perhaps more than ever, who are still getting it done in all walks of life: They are writing dozens of books, starting multibillion dollar enterprises, pushing the frontiers of science, breaking sports records, and memorizing the entire Qur’an at a very young age. If you made it this far and read my entire post, you are already showing some serious potential to be of the latter.

Then again, you and I should probably both get off the Internet now and get back to whatever else we both know we’re supposed to be doing…

May we all keep our eyes on ball!


Some relevant reading:

Leo Widrich. “The Origin of the 8 Hour Work Day and Why We Should Rethink it

Nicholas Carr. “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Daniel Coyle. The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.

Olivia Fox Cabane. The Charisma Myth

Daniel Goleman. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

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