What are we going to do about our short attention spans?!

10 mins read.

How’s your attention span? These days, people are complaining of being more scatter-brained than ever – some studies even suggest that we may have the attention span of your average guppy!

Having a short attention span affects everything from being able to get much done through to feelings of restlessness, lack of inner peace, AND boredom. 

I’ll talk more about this in the context of boredom because, as mentioned in Searching relief from tedium, boredom arises from diminished meaning and attention span. However, lengthening our attention span will be of huge benefit in most other areas of our life as well. So do read on … !

Got spare time?!

All this spare time! Finally I can read all those novels, or write my own! Or study Italian! Or meditate! Or sort out all my drawers! Or learn all about Buddhism!

Ironically, however, in these endless days of the Pandemic, people are reporting to getting even less done than usual. (Might explain why I started writing these boredom articles back in May …) With so many crises erupting — such as the headline today that almost one person a minute is now dying from COVID in the United States — nothing seems like nearly so much fun anymore. And in this context, it seems harder to get anything to hold our attention for long.

#3 cause of boredom: short attention span

We can only get things done if we can keep our focus. With all the fears and uncertainties floating around, a lot of people are finding it hard to concentrate.

From the article quoted here:

Multiply that experience across billions of people, and you’ll get a sense of how much boredom the world is facing right now. The problem is exacerbated for people with difficult home lives, people who have lost their jobs and can’t afford rent, and even for the swaths of Americans still showing up in person for work: the more stress we experience, the more at risk we are for losing our ability to focus and find meaning.

Even if we find something meaningful to do, we have to be able to focus on it to not feel bored or restless.

Pick up the phone syndrome

To take writing this blog as an example — although in theory I find it meaningful, have hundreds of ideas for it, and some times am focused and in flow, at other times I am too distracted to focus on writing sufficiently for it to hold my interest and I don’t really want to do it. To deal with this restlessness I distract myself further with, for example, non-essential tasks or, more pointless still, seeing what everyone has been up in the last 15 minutes according to Facebook or the news – “I will just take a quick break to check!” Of course that just undermines my attention span even more, and I end up feeling more restless, not less.

(I read today in one of these breaks that Dolly Parton gets up at 3am, prays and meditates, and then writes for 4 hours before making breakfast for herself and her husband. Impressive, eh?! Clearly it can be done …)

In this age of distraction, we can find almost infinite distractions when bored – however, what we are doing when we give in to restlessness is just strengthening that habit, becoming more restless. If we want to not feel bored we have to pay MORE attention, not less, so that we feel immersed and find what we are doing enjoyable and valuable.

Sometimes boredom arises because we bite off more than we can chew. If we find things too hard, we cannot engage with them so we can get fed up with them — like throwing a Rubik cube to one side, “This is boring!” We can make this mistake with Buddhism as well, if we launch with expectations into teachings we’re not ready for. Although identifying with our potential is always important, we also need to be skillful and start where we are, building up a repertoire of understanding and experience. So rather than immediately trying, say, to master Ocean of Nectar (600 pages of Madhyamika philosophy), we’d be better off immersing ourselves in an easier book and base our meditation practice on genuine experience, building up our wisdom over time.

If the teachings ever seem boring, it is generally because we don’t really understand them or are not practicing them. If you find yourself getting bored with Dharma, my suggestion is always to return to those aspects of Dharma that work for you, that got you interested in the first place – whatever those are, everyone is different. Get that back, re-engage, and, on that foundation, you can then go back to that difficult subject without getting bent out of shape if it’s hard. Dharma progress is based on feeling happy and confident, not feeling worried or inadequate because we don’t understand everything.

Valuable, interesting, enjoyable

Buddhism specializes in finding meaning in life AND increasing our attention span or ability to concentrate, therefore providing the perfect antidote to these two causes of boredom. If we can find meaning in what we are doing — find it valuable, interesting, and enjoyable as I explain here – it is not too hard to overcome our distractions. Focusing on it, the boredom will go away. Eventually we’ll be in the zone. 

We must understand that our creativity comes alive when we spend time alone focusing on our projects without distractions.

From a Buddhist technical point of view, to maintain interest and attention span requires what is called the “object-ascertaining mental factors.” A mental factor is a type or state of mind.

First we need “aspiration”, defined as “a mental factor that focuses on a desired object and takes an interest in it.” We can become interested in developing more love, for example, by meditating on the benefits of doing it and disadvantages of not doing it. Buddha explained the benefits of every meditation he taught, probably because he knows how our monkey minds need incentive. We can do something similar for tasks as well — if I bother to take a bit more time to think about why I am writing this blog, for example, that gets me in the mood.

Aspiration leads to firm apprehension, where we can hold our object firmly and understand it more deeply. This gives rise to mindfulness, which in turn gives rise to concentration. These mental factors will directly oppose our lack of attention span.

Moreover, concentration gives rise to wisdom, with which we can solve our problems permanently. You can read more about these five object-ascertaining mental factors in How to Understand the Mind.

Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Let me just add a little plug here for training in concentration – not only will it overcome boredom, it will also lead to a lot of other benefits. Check out this rather sobering but useful recent article in the media, as well as this incredibly helpful guest article partly inspired by it: Digital addiction and a plan for recovery

I won’t go too much into it here, except to say that completely unchecked distractions are what really destroy us. And it is concentration, not distraction, that brings us peace and joy. Here is a wonderful explanation of why, from Introduction to Buddhism:

When the mind is stilled by concentration, the delusions subside and the mind becomes extremely lucid. At the moment, our minds are intractable, refusing to cooperate with our virtuous intentions; but concentration melts the tension in our body and mind and makes them supple, comfortable and easy to work with.

See, it is concentration that melts the tension in our body and mind, not endless scrolling through our Instagram feeds! (with the exception of Gen Samten’s kadampa.turtles – that HELPS our concentration 😁)

We (at least I) get pulled in by our gadgets because we are addicted, but also in the mistaken assumption that they will help us relax — but do they, do they really?! And, even if they do in smaller quantities, and can sometimes be useful in smaller quantities, the sheer amount of time we are spending following our distractions is what characterizes our modern age perhaps more than anything else. An age that is leading to unprecedented amounts of anxiety, depression, and other mental ills. A bit more from Introduction to Buddhism

It is difficult for a distracted mind to become sufficiently acquainted with its object to induce spontaneous realizations, because it feels as if the mind is here and the object there.

Spontaneous realizations can be understood as having to make no effort – we gain effortless insights or mixing with our object, which might be love, for example, or impermanence, or any of the stages of the path to enlightenment. When we cannot mix our mind with its object, that sense of separation is actually what induces tension, because it causes dualistic pushing and grasping in the mind.

We may already have learned a lot of good objects to concentrate on that will make us so un-bored and so happy – from just our breath to love to the clarity of our mind to bliss & emptiness – but our mind won’t stabilize on them, even if we understand them intellectually, because we are too much in the habit of following our other thoughts. We all need to train in concentration if we want peace.

A concentrated mind, however, enters into its object and mixes with it, and, as a result, realizations of the stages of the path are quickly attained.

Notice the word “quickly”. As opposed to following all our distractions, on the other hand, when any mental development we manage to get around to is slow and arduous. Why would we want to stretch out our spiritual path unnecessarily? We can get the same results far more quickly and with far less hassle if we just bother to concentrate a bit more. And it is not as difficult as you may think – fact be told, it is hugely less painful and less tiring than continually chasing after distractions.

Normally our mind is moving all over the place. When we allow it to become still and stable by focusing single-pointedly on a meaningful object, it becomes peaceful, it becomes deep. This starts from our first meditations on the breath right through to being absorbed into the most profound mind of all, the clear light of bliss:

Through stabilizing this meditation the movement of my inner winds of conceptions will cease. 
Thus, I will perceive a fully qualified clear light. 
~ The Hundreds of Deities of the Joyful Land

If you put a glass down, it won’t move until you move it. Wouldn’t you like a mind like that, staying on whatever wise or blissful thought you want for as long as you want?! Eventually our mind of concentration becomes like Mount Meru, completely unmoved by the winds of conception.

Retreat season 2021

By the way, if this has inspired you to up your concentration game, it’s excellent timing because we are just around the corner from our traditional retreat month (January), and there are umpteen online retreats to choose from in January 2021. Never has it been easier!! I say more about retreat and list some of your options in this article: Doing meditation retreat.

Getting going 

If you are new or kind of new, check out these hopefully practical articles for ways in which to get started in training in concentration using the breath, the clarity of the mind, or turning the mind to wood. And there is a free talk on learning to meditate live-streaming on New Year’s Day. 

Over to you. Any questions? Please share anything you have found helpful in improving your attention span.

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Searching relief from tedium?

9 mins read

Nine months into the pandemic, with at least 6 months to go before things return to whatever normal might mean by then, and life might be feeling a tad tedious – that is, marked by monotony and tiresomeness that is seemingly beyond our control. Luckily, although we can’t really hurry this thing along, there is something we can do about our boredom.  

Carrying on from this last article, Boredom in the time of COVID, I have divided the inner or actual causes of boredom into (1) ignorance (2) lack of meaning, (3) poor attention span. The root of boredom is ignorance, which takes awhile to get rid of altogether; but #2 and #3 are recognizable causes that we can do something about straightaway. I found this article gives a very helpful summary of them: 

Scientists measure boredom by looking across two axes: your ability to find meaning in a task, and your ability to pay attention to it. For a person to function normally—i.e. not be bored—both of these abilities must be intact. It’s easy enough to see how this pandemic would disrupt the meaning axis: With some of us now spending all of our time at home, whatever we leaned on in the Before Times for meaning—our friends, our work, the for-here mugs at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf—has teetered out of reach. But it’s just as likely that pandemic anxiety has been messing with the other axis, by shortening our attention spans.

Buddhism can help with both.

# 2 cause of boredom: lack of meaning

First, a question: Does feeling bored come from a sense of meaninglessness or a sense of meaninglessness come from feeling bored?

We have to find fun and meaning in new things, and it could be right now that many of those things are going to have to be less external than before.

With schedules and social lives disrupted, almost none of the sources of fulfillment we relied on two months ago are easily accessible. While some have reacted by recommending books, challenges, or stream-able Broadway shows to counter the new reality, these are only Band-Aids.

Without meaning, we don’t really feel that we have much agency over our lives. It feels that way to a lot of people right now because the normal things we reach out to for meaning are not available to us – whether that is our job, our friendships, travel, a new relationship. These external sources of meaning do not show signs of completely recovering for a while for many people.

There are a billion people around the world still largely in more isolated circumstances at the moment, especially in parts of the world where the days are shortening and there is less opportunity to be together outside. People are being thrown on their own resources for meaning. With far fewer entertainments or distractions, everyone is having to become a lot more self-contained.

And this is not necessarily all bad given that externals are fleeting and incapable of providing lasting meaning or satisfaction, as mentioned here. Wouldn’t it be good if we used this time to develop our power in other more enduring ways?

A lot of people are being more active than ever this year in addressing social causes, such as poverty and inequality. I have spoken during public comment on the City  Council twice myself, and written letters, urging the mayor and council members to practice compassion toward our unhoused neighbors, to stop sweeping them from block to block like garbage (only difference being that garbage has somewhere to go), especially during a pandemic. This has not only added my voice to something that I have always found concerning — people in the wealthiest country in the world without a roof over their heads — but also helped me feel more meaning and connection during these difficult times. 

Reframing our current situation

One immediate thing we can also do is reframe this current situation. We can give it meaning by remembering that there is still a good reason for us all to be doing this social distancing, it is still very beneficial to be protecting ourself and everyone else.

Talking to an ICU nurse here the other day, a Buddhist, I was very much reminded of the need to keep being as careful as possible for quite a long time yet, to hold out patiently till the vaccines arrive, and to keep praying for our frontline heroes:

“Unfortunately, the medical community is failing nurses and doctors right now. Every provider I interact with is having symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout. Some of this is due to the sheer number of people we have seen die recently (in many cases providers have seen more deaths in the past few months than they expected to see in their entire careers).  This is within the context of many providers being shunned in public as well as the resistance of many people to perform simple actions to prevent harming or infecting others, and the strong tendency of people to have wrong views regarding Covid. Hospital administrators are completely out of touch with the urgent needs of bedside clinicians.  In every hospital in the world there is a philosophy of “do more with less”.  To try and fix the budget crisis, nurses are asked to do our jobs with inadequate resources and reduced staff. The unfortunate side effect of this is that nurses experience greater burnout, compassion fatigue, and trauma; and we are witnessing worse outcomes and sentinal events resulting in patient deaths due to inadequate staffing. This leads to an ultimate feeling of hopelessness and helplessness within the frontline provider community.”

The American press doesn’t show many images of all the actual sickness and death, such as the thousands of unknown bodies buried in identical wooden boxes in Potter’s Graveyard in NYC; and when I saw some of these scary pictures this also reminded me of why we are being careful. As did the fact that someone tested positive in my house – luckily the rest of us tested negative despite being around each other, which could be testament to the power of masks. (She has recovered, I’m happy to say.)

To me, my mask reminds me of love. I am wearing it around other people to help keep all of us safer. There are so many people around the world who don’t have this luxury, and it reminds me to root for and pray for everyone who is in fear and danger, including all the frontline workers. We can reframe it to think that we are being careful because we care.

If we keep that concern for others in our heart, it will help us to find the meaning in this; and if we find the meaning we are immediately going to be less restless, bored, or unhappy.

This different life doesn’t have to be so terrible if we understand it in the context of being all in it together. This pandemic is showing that we are all utterly and totally interconnected. This virus does not discriminate who it attacks, whether an unhoused neighbor or the most powerful man in the world. If someone has it somewhere, there is always going to be some risk of the rest of the us getting it. We all need to help and look out for one another – never has self-absorption been so pointless. 

We can remember how we are all cells in the same body of life, as I explained in this article, Better together. I am not an isolated separated out bored person but one cell in the body of life in which everyone is important and equally meaningful. We rise and fall together ultimately. The people we were cheering for are the essential workers –– the ones who will get the vaccination first because they after all, rather than the rich and famous, are the ones essential to our staying alive and well. We can develop a big heart of compassion for everyone who is sick and scared and in pain all over the world. Instead of thinking about our own boredom, we can let this situation feed our compassion, “I want to help all these other people. I want to be part of the solution.”

Benefits of solitude

How do you feel about quiet times? According to most if not all religions, times of solitude can bring us closer to the divine. Solitude can be our greatest treasure. A friend in NYC said he has realized how much time he has spent running around for the past 15 years, and this period of enforced isolation has been truly regenerating and eye-opening for him in terms of realizing the meaning of his life. I am sometimes reminded this year of the long period I spent in the 2010’s pretty much all on my own in retreat, voluntarily – they were in some respects the best years of my life.

Like anything, we can get used to more time with our own company and come to enjoy it more and more, especially if we are in the business of improving ourselves. Through this we can become more comfortable with uncertainty and far more self-contained — life lessons that will help us long after COVID-19 has finally gone away and left us alone.

Crisis of agency

Boredom is not just about not having enough to do. We can have too much to do and still feel bored if what we are doing is meaningless to us.

Studies have found that people who are working all the time and stressed are just as likely to experience boredom as those who don’t have enough to do. Under stimulation is not the problem.

We have to reframe our lives so that we feel we are someone who is always full of joy and possibilities, even enlightenment, whatever we are doing or not doing by way of external activities.

Telling a bored person to go read a book or watch a movie is like telling a drowning person to swim to shore. If they could, they would,” said John Eastwood, who heads the Boredom Lab at York University. “Boredom is a crisis of agency.

Boredom can be judged as a lack of imagination, but the truth is we don’t lack imagination, we just need the understanding, agency, and permission to employ our creative minds to our best ends, motivated by wisdom and compassion. We all have imagination – we are using it all the time to impute our reality.

When we are bored, we are allowing ourselves to be swept along by our own solidly boring universe, not taking the effort to see that it is not even there. We may not yet realize the huge part we play in creating our world and what extraordinary potential and opportunity we currently have, but when we do, we can take charge of our own narrative far more than we are doing at the moment. We need to take charge of our own narrative. We need agency in our lives, in our days.

Through meditation we start to change our sense of who we think we are from a fixed limited person at the mercy of every passing circumstance to the inspired architect of our own life and future. Our whole world is created by imagination. We create everything with our minds, including liberation and enlightenment themselves.

More coming up in the next article about the next culprit for feeling bored, poor attention span. Meanwhile, if this article got you thinking about anything, I’d love your comments in the box below!

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