2020 Wrecked My Attention Span. Here’s How I Got it Back.

The last public class I taught in 2020 was on March 13, and I spent the remainder of the year producing a yoga video series in my home. The three videos I produced each week were released the following Friday. I knew something was off with my memory when I received questions and feedback from the videos and could not recall any of my content from the prior week.

For ages, some have said we are losing our attention spans. I felt immune to this loss until 2020. Novels were hard to read, since I couldn’t recall what I read 10 minutes ago. I couldn’t just practice yoga; I needed a podcast to distract me. I felt like my only options were multitasking.

I finally had the opportunity to address it when I concluded my video series. Here are a few things I did to regain my ability to concentrate and remain attentive for long periods of time.

Embrace Short Works of Art

Novels were out of the question for me in 2020, so I went in the exact opposite direction: haiku. Three lines, able to be read in about 5 seconds: perfect! Haiku also gave me the opportunity to close my eyes and ruminate on direct, evocative writing. I could return to the same haiku day after day, building on previous ruminations.

From haiku, I transitioned to short stories, occasionally reading the same one twice. Then, short novels gave way to longer novels. In this way I gradually built the strength to focus and remember.

Embrace Discomfort

It is easy for my mind to wander when I’m comfortable, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. So, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) became a resource to rebuild my meditation practice. It’s almost custom-made to help with a short attention span.

The benefits from such high-intensity exercises also come with discomfort. I choose to see the discomfort as a feature, not a bug. When my quads and lungs are burning in lunge jumps, I can focus on that burn. When I’ve committed to completing an exercise (which is easy, since it’s over in 60 seconds), I have also decided to focus on my deep breathing, racing heart, and exhausted muscles that come with it.

Also, I was so grateful to be done with my HIIT routine that my Yin Yoga practice afterward became a meditation. After embracing all that discomfort, I happily embraced quietude.

Below is a short heat-building practice from my video series that cultivates heat. While practicing, notice when the practice becomes intense for you, and see if you can keep your attention on the discomfort.

Embrace your ‘Executive Function’ Days

Last year I read someone’s description of their “executive function days where everything is too many steps.”

On a good day, they make coffee in one step:

  1. Make coffee

But making coffee on an executive function day feels more complicated:

  1. Take pot from coffee maker
  2. Turn on sink
  3. Fill up coffee pot
  4. Turn off sink
  5. Pour water into coffee maker
  6. Put coffee pot in coffee maker
  7. Open cupboard
  8. Get coffee filter from cupboard
  9. Get coffee beans from cupboard
  10. Put filter in coffee pot
  11. Measure coffee
  12. Pour coffee into filter
  13. Close coffee maker
  14. Turn coffee maker on

This observation resonates deeply with me. I live my life in a very process-oriented way. I must visualize how things are going to go before I start them. It’s also why I do as much of my morning prep as possible the night before (and may be why I love making coffee in a French press; it cuts the above steps considerably). When I wake up with things to accomplish, I want as few steps as possible between getting out of bed and getting to work.

I don’t think I ever need a plan to do yoga (or any physical activity) on a good day. I base my schedule around it. But on a high-executive function day, reducing the number of steps can get me practicing yoga more often. Here are some suggestions:

  • Always know where you will set up your mat. This eliminates any decision-making. It also means “clearing the space for your mat” can be one step.
  • Always have your yoga props where you practice. This eliminates steps like “get strap from living room” and “find block in closet.”
  • If you do your yoga in the morning, you could set your mat and props up the night before.

If you can eliminate the barriers between you and your mat or cushion, you may be better-focused when you get there. Once I’m on the mat, I can direct my attention to the practice.

Take Your Time

My attention span wasn’t wrecked overnight, and it took time to rebuild it as well. Be easy on yourself when you commit to a mindfulness process. Our nervous system responds well to baby steps and incremental progress, and modifying our physical and mental habits takes repetition and patience. Of all the things we should embrace when tackling any endeavor, embracing ourselves should be most important.