Focusing Attention with Intention

Hundreds of cable channels and 24-hour news access. E-mails to send and those that need to be filtered; the relevant from the useless or merely curious and frivolous. Multi-tasking pressures. Measuring time in milliseconds and megabyte transmission speeds. 

And yet, the heart still beats at a pace largely unchanged by the passage of time. The sun rises and sets according to its ageless rhythm. The moon continues to display its monthly metamorphosis, from nothing to fullness and back again. So, we ask you: Which speed, which rhythm, what pace will you choose to follow, and what are the consequences of your choices when it comes to aging well? 

The competition for our moment-to-moment attention in modern daily life is considerable. The impact of this constant fracturing of focused attention shows in increased levels of anxiety, reduced work productivity, sleep disturbance, mental/emotional exhaustion, and negative consequences for our core relationships through impatience, reactivity, irritability and even anger. As we age, shifts in our ability to focus attention develop naturally. How we respond to those changes can spell the difference between maintaining brain fitness throughout the second half of life or falling victim to increasing fears about memory loss, and even creating memory problems that arise in the presence of chronically unfocused attention. 

William James, the father of American psychology, was aware of the central importance of focused attention in a world that can fragment. James said, “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will…An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” There are many practices and activities that teach how to voluntarily focus attention in ways that actually impact a person’s very nature. 

Mindfulness meditation practices, for example, improve focusing abilities by expanding awareness of where our attention is focused in any given moment. These practices also help us to redirect that focus to what matters most and cultivates calmness and a more measured pace to living. That pace is often necessary in order for attention to be effectively sustained over time.

Other examples of activities that enrich attention and focusing skills while synchronizing the brain and the mind to healthier long-term rhythms include: 

  • Reading novels, books or longer magazine articles for 30 or more minutes daily
  • Going for a quiet walk in nature
  • Engaging in hobbies or expressive pursuits like painting, journaling, or dancing
  • Completing brain-teaser puzzles
  • Cooking new recipes
  • Taking classes or joining book groups or study groups
  • Regularly engaging in conversation with friends that “goes deep” by touching on topics that dive beneath the surface of daily living

Regardless of the particular activities you choose to exercise your brain, the essential elements for success in improving focus are repetition and consistency. Like any skill, the more often you practice (repetition) with consistency (similar times or length of practice using similar methods), the more likely you are to find that your attention and your underlying level of calm expand and deepen.