If attention were a coin, it would be slipping through our fingers countless times a day. Here are a few simple tips to help you keep a grip.

Do one thing at a time. Such advice is easy to ignore when you just want to check your phone while someone is talking to you. But it’s nearly impossible to pay attention to two things at once. “Even with pretty easy tasks” says Lisa Fournier, an associate professor of psychology at Washington State University whose research focuses on selective attention, it can still be hard to successfully divide your mental faculties. And before you brag about your multitasking prowess, consider that a 2009 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found heavy multitaskers are actually more easily distracted than light multitaskers. You can test your own focus and ability to juggle tasks here.

Actively engage your world: take control and make choices. To use TV watching as an example, you can lie on the couch and let the station you’re watching make all your viewing decisions for you. “Marketers, advertisers, people in promotion of various kinds, learn how to take advantage of that,” says WSU communications professor Erica Austin. “And they need to take advantage of that because everyone else is taking advantage of that.” But you can pick up the remote, look at the offerings and make judgments. You can turn down the sound during commercials, look at other people in the room and talk to them. If you don’t like what’s on, turn it off.

Love the one you’re with. We are social beings. So be social. “All of us see the value of turning off the electronics for periods of time and just focusing on the people around us,” says Laura Sample ’89 of the Yakima advertising firm Attention Marketing. “I hope so, anyway.”

It’s a cliché, but it’s a good cliché: Live in the moment. “What makes us different from other animals is we can project ourselves into the future or we can get caught up in morbid reflection of the past,” says Scott Creamer, a PhD student in psychology at WSU studying attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “It takes attention to live in the moment. That’s like some of the Eastern ideas of mindfulness or living in the moment. Awareness and attention, I think, are interlinked terms in a way.”

Plan your day and use reminders to keep you on track. The computer or smart phone may be a source of distractions, but web-based calendars, software, task lists, and periodic alarms can help keep you on course, or get you back on course. “That same technology that can create chaos in your life, if used with forethought, can also add structure and create more meaning in your life as well,” says Creamer.


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