When we talk about productivity techniques, the one that comes up most often regarding building focus and overcoming distraction is the Pomodoro Method. Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the eighties, the Pomodoro has become pretty much the only focus technique discussed about people with attention deficit disorder (ADD) or people generally trying to build their concentration and improve their productivity. With the Pomodoro method, a person sets a timer for 25 minutes, during which they focus exclusively on one task. At the end of the 25-minute work session, there is a 5-minute break. After 4 of these 25/5 minute cycles, there is a 15-minute break. The Pomodoro works for many because it only requires short blocks of concentration.
But that can’t be the only solution, can it?
I don’t think it is. In fact, while Cirillo’s Pomodoro Method is a helpful method for increasing focus and productivity, it doesn’t cover all the components that psychologists consider to be part of attention. (This is no significant criticism of Cirillo’s method; he was looking for something that worked for him.) In fact, I think that, to fully discuss how to improve our attention spans and our productivity rates, we need to
- discuss the components of attention, and then
- consider the various techniques that could improve those components of attention while still getting work done.
I think we can take some of the lessons learned in improving athletes’ endurance and strength and apply them to our attention, creativity, perception, and recall (for this piece, though, I am only going to be focusing on attention).
The Sohlberg and Mateer Model of Attention
There are multiple models of attention/concentration that we could use to guide our thinking about attention-building exercises. Cognitive scientists utilize Attention Engagement Theory, developed by John Duncan and Glyn Humphreys. For neurobiology, the prevailing model is based on the work of Alexander Luria, which is published in his 1973 book, The Working Brain: An Introduction to Neuropsychology.
These models are great for a doctoral dissertation or for academic research. Still, when we talk about attention, it might be helpful to focus on the components that practicing psychiatrists and neurologists use to measure attention and the effects of various conditions on it, whether due to aging, drug use, schizophrenia, strokes, traumatic brain injury(TBI), or other conditions.
Clinicians are looking for behavior reflective of real-world attention as we utilize it to see whether there is a neurological issue.
Clinicians rely on the Sohlberg and Mateer Hierarchical Model of Attention. See McKay Sohlberg and Catherine Mateer, Introduction to Cognitive Rehabilitation: Theory and Practice, at 110 (Guilford Press 1989). Sohlberg and Mateer’s theory of attention breaks it down into the following components that clinicians can use to assess patients:
- Arousal (the ability to respond to any stimuli);
- Focalized attention (the ability to respond only to one particular stimulus, such as a book);
- Sustained attention (the ability to maintain focus and arousal for a specific length of time);
- Selective attention (the ability to maintain focus despite other distractions);
- Alternating attention (the ability to shift focus from one stimulus to another); and,
- Divided attention (the ability to respond to two or more stimuli simultaneously; in other words, multitasking).
Now, for those (like me) reading this who have attention deficit disorder (ADD), TBI, or other cognitive disabilities, these components of attention should seem familiar. Neurotypical individuals have an easier time controlling arousal and the different types of attention listed above than those with ADD or TBI. As a result, our inability to regulate the components of attention can become a liability. That being said, whether someone wants to improve their attention due to a condition such as ADD, TBI, a stroke, or whether someone wants to improve their attention just because it’s practically beneficial, developing a practice that enhances one of the six components of attention above could cause significant improvements in their life.
First off, improving one’s attention doesn’t merely address (over time) attention deficits. The practice of working on attention also has an immediate productive impact: it gets tasks done. Second, focusing on improving the different components of attention can often replicate real-world challenges people face. Students face attention alternation when they take exams that include both multiple-choice and essay questions. Professionals who work in the dreaded “open office” need to utilize selective attention to get their work done (as do nurses, doctors, law enforcement officers, and others). There are plenty of circumstances that benefit from training attention and productivity. Lastly, there is the benefit in that working in novel ways, not just with Pomodoros, can help break the monotony of work.
Time to Work Up an Intellectual Sweat
Back when I was a soldier in the early 2000s, I learned that, while I was good with the intellectual part of my job, the tactical aspect of my job, and the strength-based part of my job, I was awful at running. In this era, the Army physical fitness test (known as the APFT) had three events: the 2-mile run, 2 minutes of push-ups, and 2 minutes of sit-ups. As a short, stocky man, it was a challenge to run fast enough to make it across the finish line in the designated time for my age bracket.
What helped me improve as a runner was a ridiculously-named technique known as the fartlek (a Swedish term for “speed play”). In its most basic form, a fartlek constituted a run where the runner would warm-up, then alternate between leisurely running (or walking) and sprinting for a designated portion of time. For example, a runner may start out by warming up, then sprinting for 60 seconds, recovery running for 120 seconds, then sprinting for 60 seconds, and so on, until a goal time, distance, or exhaustion level is reached. Then, the next time that runner exercised, they would warm up, then sprint for 90 seconds, recovery run for 120 seconds, then sprint for another 90 seconds, and so forth.
The Sustained Attention Fartlek
To me, the fartlek can be an inspiration for one way to improve attention and productivity (just as the Pomodoro is for others). For many with ADD, suddenly working with intense focus for 25 minutes straight may not be tenable. For others they may already find 25 minutes of intense focus to be easy. Regularly increasing the duration of focused intervals until a goal time is reached may be more productive than just repeating 25/5 intervals. Someone could start their day with a warm-up of reasonably easy work (email review seems perfect for this), then go into a session of 15 minutes of focus, 10 minutes of rest, then 20 minutes of focus, 10 minutes of rest, and so forth.
The Alternating Attention Superset
As I said above, I wasn’t that bad when it came to the military’s strength-training requirements. Even though I joined the Army later in life than most (I joined the Army after 9/11, at 31), I discovered that I enjoyed Olympic-style weightlifting. One weightlifting concept is the notion of the superset: a weightlifter will work on one part of their body, perhaps by doing a set of bench presses, then immediately switch to another area, perhaps by doing a set of shoulder presses (in this case, the two exercises are affecting related muscles in the chest, shoulders, arms, and back, but alternating supersets with opposing exercises, such as leg presses and shoulder presses, is also a possibility). By doing supersets, the weightlifter improves their performance while fatigued (a helpful skill in high-stress, high-endurance jobs like the military or law enforcement).
The same principle works with the brain, I think. A superset of two related (or opposing) tasks (such as 30 minutes of work drafting a blog post and then 30 minutes of financial research, such as with reading quarterly corporate reports) not only improves one’s ability to maintain focus after the fatigue of the first task but also improves one’s ability to alternate attention between tasks. This has the real-world benefit of returning focus to a task at hand after an interruption.
The Selective Attention Cross-Country Run
Because I sucked at running (seriously, I had the grace of a bison), I tried many different things to fend off boredom as I tried to improve. One thing I learned to love was trail running. Just like the cross country runners of my high school, I would go out and stomp my puny little legs up and down the trails of the hilly, coastal parks of Tacoma. Trail running taught me to adapt to uneven terrain, focus on things that could trip me, and gave me the added benefit of a change of scenery from the roads and tracks I usually ran on. Because of the risk of tripping or slipping, I couldn’t let my attention wander on the trails. I had to selectively keep awareness of the trail in front of me.
A change of scenery experience may work for many people seeking improvements in their attention. Case in point: the number of people who enjoy working in coffee shops or libraries. Having a new set of distractions to manage while working sometimes makes a person more capable of selectively focusing on whatever task they are trying to complete (and it also gives nerdbros the ability to show the world the screenplay they are working on… you know the dude: he’s got thick glasses, is convinced he’s the next Tarantino because he has a litany of profanity and references to the seventies throughout his clusterfuck of a screenplay, and he likely violates the unofficial “don’t start a conversation with strangers” rule that most respect at coffee shops). Trying to accomplish focus work for the length of time it takes to down one or two coffees in a loud coffee shop can improve our selective attention despite omnipresent distractions. This makes working in an open environment a little bit easier to manage.
Building the Attention-Developing or Productivity-Improving Workout
It’s not enough to go to the gym and do biceps exercises exclusively. We seem to get that concept fairly readily. The same concept applies to an intellectual workout. We can’t just focus on improving how long we can sustain attention in absolute quiet. In our day-to-day jobs, we have to deal with switching between projects (alternating attention) and working on projects despite office chatter (selective attention). Therefore, we should start developing intellectual “workouts” that we can use to enhance all aspects of our attention, or (someday) attention, memory, and creativity. It’s important to work on this when we have the freedom to choose to work on these components of attention, not when we desperately need long-term attention for a crisis.
I don’t mean to suggest this as a lead-in to why people should use applications like Lumosity. As detailed by the Federal Trade Commission, Lumosity relied on fears and deceptive advertising to market its product. The science behind whether these brain training apps work is not favorable to Lumosity. It is better to train our brains with tasks that we would have to do already, as we are working to improve our ability to respond to those tasks better.
Imagine that, instead of wasting time (in my opinion) on Lumosity, we set up intellectual workouts to be performed on our daily tasks. Something like this:
- Warm-up (30 minutes on a mundane task, such as email);
- Alternating Attention Supersets (3 repetitions of one set containing 30-minute sets on task A before immediately switching to task B, with 10 minutes rest between supersets)
- Lunch Break
- Sustained attention Fartleks (continued work on one project broken up into a 10-minute rest break and the following periods of intense focus: 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 25 minutes, 20 minutes, and 15 minutes).
- Cooldown (30 minutes on a mundane task, again, such as email, returning phone calls, etc.)
This creates a recipe for one business day, as detailed in the table below.
Obviously, this can be adjusted to fit the schedule of someone with a longer lunch break or a long workday (such as those who work four 10-hour days per week). An undeniable flaw is that this idea may not work for those who have no control over their work schedule. It could also be shrunk down for those who want to spend only part of their workday doing these attention-building exercises.
The Brain WOD
I’m not a huge fan of Crossfit. While it utilizes high-intensity interval workouts, which have been proven to be beneficial, it does so in a way that sacrifices safety and good form. In turn, this leads to more injuries, the need for a longer recovery between workouts, and (in some cases) life-threatening conditions (such as rhabdomyolysis and heat stroke). However, I always respected how Crossfit used workouts of the day, or “WODs,” as motivating benchmarks for participants. For example, a well known Crossfit WOD known as “the Murph” (named for deceased Navy SEAL and Medal of Honor awardee LT Michael Murphy) would measure how long it took participants to do the following:
- 1-mile run;
- 100 pull-ups;
- 200 push-ups;
- 300 air squats; and,
- Another 1-mile run.
Again, this might be an example of a Crossfit workout going too far and risking injury. This is not due to the concept of performing a novel WOD each workout day. It is due to an impractical WOD design. It is also an excellent example of what those interested in productivity and attention improvement could use as a model to develop “Brain WODs,” intellectual workouts of the day that could help people develop their attention, memory, creativity, and overall productivity. I don’t think I could develop a swath of brain WODs for people to try out. Still, I do believe that a motivated productivity-focused community could do so, such as r/ADHD and r/Productivity on Reddit or Better Humans on Medium. It’s even possible that community members could develop their own measures to assess one’s “attention score” or other such metric to validate whether these exercises do work to improve attention and productivity.
This article was meant to introduce the idea of attention and productivity-developing exercises and workouts to those interested in becoming more productive and, more importantly, for those dealing with neurological conditions like TBI and ADD. I am no neuroscientist, and therefore my opinions are just those of a layperson, not a clinician. I hope that others join in to discuss (or debunk) this idea, however, and that people begin to develop other productivity exercises and brain WODs. Doing so builds on the productivity system started by Francesco Cirillo with his Pomodoro Technique.