Mastering Mindfulness – How A Simple Daily Practice Could Help Increase Your Attention Span

21 March 2023 |
Episode 9 |
22:33

Episode summary

Could deliberately practising being in the moment for a few minutes a day help to increase your attention span? Science certainly seems to suggest so! In this episode, I explain the concept of mindfulness, a mental state of being present in the moment, without judgement or distraction, where you observe and acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, but don’t react to them. I explore the science behind why practising mindfulness can lead to improvements in your executive attention, and share 9 simple ways that you can incorporate a mindfulness practice into your daily routine.
 

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • What mindfulness is and what it isn’t (clue: it’s not the same as meditation!)
  • How mindfulness can build up your executive attention by promoting changes in the overall structure and function of your brain
  • Scientific studies into the benefits of mindfulness for everyone from adults to children
  • How the effects of mindfulness are linked to the duration and frequency of your mindfulness practice
  • Setting realistic expectations and goals when starting a mindfulness practice
  • 7 practical ways to practise mindfulness, plus two bonus methods
  • The 7 day mindfulness challenge
  • The Digital Diet Lounge – a new virtual community for digital wellness and the best place to discuss podcast episodes and take part in weekly challenges

Resources and tools mentioned:

 

Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:34] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you’re having a really great day today. I’m really excited because I’ve been secretly working away on something for you all, and I’ve got a special announcement at the end of today’s episode. You may have noticed me rather awkwardly saying at the end of each podcast that you can send me an email or post up on social media any of the digital wellbeing tips that you try out, and that you can tag me.

[00:01:03] And it’s awkward because I genuinely want to connect with you, encourage you to take action, and find out how you’re getting on with creating a better tech-life balance for yourself, but I don’t really want to be responsible for encouraging you to spend even more time on social media. And, of course, the more time you spend there tagging me, the more time I have to spend there, and I don’t want that either.

[00:01:24] So after a lot of research and testing, I finally found a place for us to connect, and for you to connect with each other. Because practicing digital wellness is definitely much easier and more enjoyable when you’re surrounded by like-minded people. So make sure that you stay tuned all the way to the end of the episode to find out all of the details.

[00:01:44] Now, we’re still talking about all things attention here on the podcast and ways that you can build your executive attention back up, so that you can focus and concentrate on important or complex tasks whenever you need to. We’ve already explored how exposure to nature and engaging in deep reading can restore your ability to maintain focus. And I’ll link those episodes in the show notes in case you haven’t had a chance to check them out yet.

[00:02:10] But today, we’re talking about another method, which, for me at least, has felt a little less tangible in the past. The way it’s been described and explained has sometimes felt a bit wishy washy. However, there is scientific evidence to back up its effectiveness. And by now, I’m sure you know, I like the advice and the tips on this podcast to be as practical as possible. So I’m going to be sharing some specific ways that you can use this method in your daily life to help restore your attention.

[00:02:38] So, what is this mystery method I hear you asking? It’s practicing mindfulness. And because I don’t think it’s always clear exactly what we mean when we talk about mindfulness, I want to start out with a little definition to explain what mindfulness is, and more importantly, what it isn’t.

[00:02:56] Mindfulness refers to a mental state of being present in the moment, without judgement or distraction, and with an attitude of openness and acceptance. It involves paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in the present moment without being overwhelmed or reacting to them. You can think of it as being a state of hyper-awareness and quiet self-observation.

[00:03:20] And I think the confusion about what mindfulness is, often comes from people using the words mindfulness and meditation interchangeably. Or talking about mindful meditation, which is even more confusing. I don’t mind admitting that I thought they were basically one and the same thing for quite a long time. And I think that references to both of them in popular culture don’t do anything to help with that confusion. And while mindfulness and meditation are related concepts, they’re not exactly the same thing.

[00:03:48] Mindfulness is very much a mental state. It’s an attitude or a way of being that you can cultivate through various different practices, one of which is meditation. Whereas meditation is a formal practice that requires a dedicated time and space, and involves specific techniques and methods to help you develop a state of mindfulness.

[00:04:07] You can practice mindfulness at any time, anywhere, and during any activity. You could be walking, eating, or even just washing the dishes. On the other hand, meditation is a very specific practice that involves focusing on a particular object, such as your breath or a mantra, in order to cultivate that mindful mental state and promote a sense of relaxation and calmness.

[00:04:30] So when you practice meditation with the specific aim of cultivating awareness and cultivating focus on the present moment, which is to say mindfulness, then you’d be practicing mindfulness during meditation, making it mindful meditation. So I hope that’s a little bit clearer.

[00:04:46] I think this is a really important distinction, because a lot of people are put off the idea of practicing mindfulness, because of this belief that they’ll have to sit still in a silent room, cross-legged, chanting om for hours at a time. And that can feel very uncomfortable, it can feel daunting, and sometimes even undesirable if you’ve never tried it before.

[00:05:06] So it’s important to remember that there are loads of different ways to practice mindfulness, and you don’t have to be constrained to a particular time, a place, or a position. Which means that you can find a way to practice mindfulness that works best for you.

[00:05:20] Much like nature and deep reading, mindfulness has been shown to have many benefits beyond a boost to your executive attention. It’s been shown to reduce stress, improve your mental health, enhance your cognitive performance, and just promote your general overall wellbeing. And again, very similarly to nature and deep reading, this is probably thanks to the way in which mindfulness promotes changes in the overall structure and function of your brain.

[00:05:46] Studies have found that mindfulness practices can increase the thickness of your prefrontal cortex, which you may remember from previous episodes, is the newer part of your brain that’s responsible for executive function. So all of your cognitive skills like learning, memory, decision-making, problem-solving, and of course, executive attention.

[00:06:07] Mindfulness can also enhance neural connectivity between different brain regions, such as your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala, which is involved in emotional regulation. And this may improve your ability to regulate your emotions and therefore your ability to maintain focus, despite any distractions.

[00:06:25] But essentially, as with deep reading, mindfulness is really about brain training. You’re training your mind to be aware of the present moment and everything in it, without being judgemental or being distracted by it. So this can help you to become more aware of your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and learn to redirect your attention back to the task at hand whenever there is a distraction.

[00:06:48] And it’s this improved self-awareness and attentional control that ultimately contributes to improvements in your executive attention. The extent to which mindfulness can improve your executive attention, considering how simple it is, is actually quite impressive. There’s a growing body of research on the relationship between the two.

[00:07:07] There’s a meta-analysis of 45 studies that found that mindfulness interventions have a moderate to large effect on improving executive attention. And these effects have been studied in lots of different populations, from older adults to undergraduate students, and from clinically healthy adults to children living with clinical conditions like ADHD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Every time, the data show that there is an improvement in attentional control and working memory, and a reduction in mind wandering.

[00:07:37] Many of the studies investigated the effects of longer-term training through eight week programmes, but one study found that even a single session of mindfulness meditation was enough to improve executive attention. So while you can expect improvement from a single session, the effects can depend on how often you practice mindfulness and how long you practice it for. Which means that to get the greatest benefit, you should consider adhering to a regular mindfulness practice, which should be made easier by the fact that you can practice anytime, anywhere.

[00:08:08] So, you’re probably wondering, how do you go about actually practicing mindfulness? And I’m going to share seven common ways to practice, so that you can find what works best for you. For all of them, remember that the key is to bring a non-judgemental and curious attitude to your experience, and to stay present in the moment without getting caught up in thoughts about the past or the future.

[00:08:30] Now, this is much harder than it sounds. So don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling at first. With regular practice, you will get better. I know that when I first tried to do this, I found myself thinking about people and experiences from the past that I had residual feelings about. I would think about all the things that I had to do that day and start making a mental to do list. I would have this internal dialogue running that was psyching myself up if it was a day where I wasn’t feeling too great about myself. But none of that is the point of mindfulness.

[00:09:01] It’s not a time to organise your thoughts or your day, and it really takes a lot of practice to truly empty your mind and just be. And even once you’ve done that, it takes even more practice to learn to bat away the thoughts and emotions about the sensations that you’re experiencing. And this is where I’m currently at on my mindfulness journey.

[00:09:20] I’ve managed to stop the mind wandering to external things, and the past and the future, but I’m not quite at the observational stage where I don’t judge and react to my bodily sensations. I react to feeling cold, or to the tinge of a sore throat, or a tightness in my neck and shoulders. So mindfulness really is a practice that you have to work at and keep up, in order to reap all the benefits. And here are some of the ways that you can start doing it.

[00:09:45] The first way, which you already know, is through mindful meditation. This involves sitting comfortably in a quiet place, with your eyes closed, focusing on the present moment and paying attention to your breath. You observe each inhalation and exhalation without trying to change or control your breath.

[00:10:02] And as you focus on your breath, you may notice thoughts, emotions or physical sensations come up. Rather than getting caught up in these distractions, you acknowledge them, and then gently return your attention to your breath. And with regular practice, this can become a great habit that helps you to stay grounded and centred in your daily life.

[00:10:23] The second way is related, and is through practicing mindful breathing. Very much like mindful meditation, this involves focusing your attention on your breath. Taking deep breaths in and out, and simply observing the sensation of air moving in and out of your body, bringing your attention back to your breath whenever you feel yourself getting distracted.

[00:10:43] The main difference here is that you don’t need to be sitting still in a quiet place. You can be anywhere and your eyes can be wide open. You might find this a little trickier because of all the visual stimuli though. So if you’re in a place where it’s safe to do so, then I do recommend closing your eyes, but it’s not necessary.

[00:11:00] The third way is what’s known as a body scan. To perform the body scan, you lay down, whether that’s on the bed, the floor or the sofa, and you systematically focus on each part of your body from your feet all the way up to the top of your head. Notice any sensations, tensions, feelings or discomfort that come up for you, without judgement. And this is one of my favorite ways to practice mindfulness.

[00:11:24] I try and do it either first thing in the morning after waking up, or immediately after my morning yoga practice when I’m still lying on the yoga mat. And I’ve found that it’s also a great way to refocus myself in the middle of a stressful day. I just lie on the floor for a few minutes, but I only do it when I’m working from home. I don’t suggest that you lay in the middle of the floor in your office because you’ll probably get some pretty funny looks.

[00:11:45] The fourth way is to practice mindful walking. This involves paying close attention to the physical sensations of walking, such as the movement of your feet and legs, the rhythm of your breath, and the feeling of the ground beneath you. Try to observe these feelings without reacting to them, and to notice your surroundings without judgement.

[00:12:04] The less busy the place you’re walking in, the easier this will be, so opt for an open space like the park or a quiet street at first, if you can. You can always work your way up to practicing mindful walking in busier spaces, and it will probably help those of you who commute to avoid being stressed out by, and caught up in, the frenetic pace of the city when you’re walking to the office. Plus, there’ll be a bonus boost for your executive attention if you’re in the park or by a canal, thanks to the exposure to nature. So it’s a win-win situation.

[00:12:33] The fifth way is to practice mindful eating. To do this, you need to pay close attention to the sensory experience of eating. So the sight, the smell, the taste, the texture, and the sound of the food that you’re eating. Chew your food slowly and notice the sensations or thoughts that come up without judgement.

[00:12:51] When you practice mindful eating, you’ll probably also see a difference in the amount that you eat. All too often we wolf down our food at our desks, or on the go, or we’re distracted by watching TV or talking to friends and family while we eat. So we don’t fully appreciate the experience of eating.

[00:13:08] But when you engage in mindful eating and truly concentrate on being in the moment with your food, you’ll likely find that you pay much more attention to your body’s signals of hunger and fullness, and then you can respond by eating more or less, as necessary.

[00:13:22] The sixth way is to practice mindful listening, and this is one that you can get lots of practice with. When someone is speaking and you’re having a conversation, focus on the speaker and their words without interrupting, without judging what they’re saying, or without planning what you’re going to say or how you’re going to respond.

[00:13:40] Now, this is surprisingly difficult because we’re all so used to listening with the intention of responding. So much so that we don’t even realise that we’re doing it most of the time. But cultivating the ability to listen is an incredibly valuable skill.

[00:13:55] You can also practice by listening to audiobooks or podcasts, and again, try not to let your mind wander. Try not to judge what’s being said, or trying to connect what’s being said to yourself and your own experiences. Also, don’t do it if you’re multitasking or trying to wash the dishes. You really have to just listen to this audiobook or the podcast, and it’s a lot harder than it seems, but it’s well worth persisting with.

[00:14:18] And if you want to start small, then try simply focusing on the sounds around you. You can try to notice different types of sounds, their volume, their pitch, and the way that they change over time. I’ve sometimes done this with birdsong and realised that they all sound quite different, even though I’ve got absolutely no idea which type of bird makes which type of noise. Except for the seagulls that come near my house. I definitely know that those are seagulls, the sound is very, very distinctive.

[00:14:46] The seventh and final way is to practice mindful observation, to ground yourself in the present moment, observe the details of your immediate surroundings, such as the colors, the shapes, and the textures of the objects around you. You can also observe your thoughts and emotions as they arise, but remember that the key is to not get caught up in them and to react or judge yourself. When you start to practice mindful observation, you’ll probably find that you notice things that you’ve never noticed before in surroundings that you’re very commonly in, and this can be really eye-opening as to just how distracted you may have become.

[00:15:20] For each of these ways, the key to getting started is starting small, because, as I said, it’s much harder than it sounds. Start with just a few minutes of practice each day, and gradually increase the duration and the frequency over time as you become better at reaching and maintaining a mindful state.

[00:15:38] I also recommend trying to incorporate your mindfulness practice into your routine because it will be easier for you to maintain if you do it in the same way, at the same time, and in the same place each day. The best bit is that you’re already doing all of these things. Breathing, walking, eating, listening, you don’t need any special equipment. So a few minutes of practicing mindfulness, while performing one of these activities each day, is all that you need to start seeing an improvement in your focus and concentration.

[00:16:06] Now, with that said, there’s two more bonus ways, if you like, that might require a little expenditure, but which it would be remiss of me not to mention before we wrap up today. The first is practicing mindfulness journalling. You may have stumbled across mindfulness journals while browsing Amazon or your local stationery store. And if you’re a stationery addict like me, you may even have convinced yourself that you needed one of these beautiful notebooks to mindfully journal in.

[00:16:31] Some of them are so pretty, and they have prompts to help you focus on the present moment, and the experience feels somewhat luxurious and a little bit like self-care. So if you’ve found mindfulness journals motivate you to commit to a mindfulness practice, then far be it for me to stop you. But just remember that you can also achieve the exact same effects with a regular old notebook and a pen.

[00:16:51] The key to mindfulness journalling is to record your thoughts, feelings, and experiences during your mindfulness practice. It helps to increase your self-awareness and reflection, and writing down what’s running through your head and your body helps to take it out of your head and your body and empty your mind of distracting thoughts, which can be a big source of interruption when you’re trying to focus.

[00:17:11] In my view, it works a little differently to the other methods, as you’re almost drawing attention to all your distracting thoughts on purpose, in order to rid yourself of them. But it seems to work for some people, and I want you to have the full picture because different things work for different people. As I’ve said many times before on the podcast, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to digital wellness.

[00:17:32] The second bonus method is to use a mindful colouring book. Now, these were all the rage a few years ago and there’s quite a selection available on Amazon and in stores. Colouring in can be a really relaxing and meditative experience, because you really have to focus on what you’re doing in order to coordinate your hands and stay within the lines of the very intricate designs.

[00:17:53] It’s very difficult to drift off or engage in meaningful conversations or other activities, if you’re truly concentrating on colouring in. Which, of course, means that you’re training your brain to focus on the present moment. And, since you’re colouring in existing graphics in whatever colours you want, there’s inherently no judgement involved regarding your artistic skills. So it can be a really great mind-emptying experience.

[00:18:15] You can pick up mindful colouring books and colouring pencils pretty cheaply these days, and there are some great themed books for adults with fun images to colour. So, if you’re looking for an easy-ish way to begin a mindfulness practice, then you could do worse than taking a trip back to your childhood with a little colouring in.

[00:18:31] That’s it for today’s episode. I hope that you’ve enjoyed it and that it’s helped to demystify the practice of mindfulness, and to help you understand how mindfulness can restore your executive attention, and how you can practice it in your real life. You can find the show notes for today’s episode over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/009.

[00:18:53] And to wrap up today, I want to set you guys a little challenge because we’re all about taking action here on The Digital Diet Podcast. And the challenge goes a little something like this… Pick one of the mindfulness methods, so meditation, breathing, body scan, walking, eating, listening, observation, journalling, or colouring, and commit to practicing it for three minutes a day for the next seven days.

[00:19:18] It doesn’t matter which one. It doesn’t matter where you do it, or what time of day. It doesn’t even matter if you struggle through it. In fact, you probably will. All you have to do is stick with it for the next seven days, and see how you feel, and how it impacts your ability to focus. I’m throwing down the gauntlet, because I know that you’re going to experience some improvement, even if it’s only little.

[00:19:40] Progress is progress, as they say. So I want to do everything I can to help you start to restore your executive attention. If you do decide to take up the challenge, then I’d love to hear how you got on. And this goes hand in hand with the little announcement that I mentioned at the start of the show.

[00:19:56] I’ve created a brand new virtual community space called The Digital Diet Lounge. It’s a place for me and you to come together and connect over all things digital wellness. It’s on a platform called Geneva, which is totally free, and I have to confess that I’m a little bit in love with it. I’ll link it in the show notes and I really hope that you’ll come and join me there, so that we can continue to talk about all things digital wellness in between episodes.

[00:20:21] The Digital Diet Lounge is made up of lots of different spaces, which are called “rooms” on Geneva. So there is a specific room for the podcast and that’s where we can chat about the challenge, and go deeper on the topics that are covered on the podcast each week. There are loads of other cool features, but what I really love is that it’s about community and it’s separate from the shackles of all the other social media platforms.

[00:20:42] There’s no adverts, sponsored posts, you don’t have to friend anyone, you don’t even have to create a detailed profile if you don’t want to. This is really just a simple, positive space designed for connection and support. So, I hope that you’ll join me in there. The link is in the show notes. And if you’re taking up the challenge, then this is the place to let me know which method you’re practicing, how easy or difficult you found it, and what effect it’s had on your ability to concentrate.

[00:21:10] With that said, I don’t want to force anybody onto another platform. So you can still leave a comment on your social media platform of choice if you want to, all my handles can be found on the show notes page, so you can still tag me. And if you prefer to make your moves in private, I can respect that too. So you can still email me directly at podcast@thedigitaldietcoach.com, and I still promise to reply to every single message.

[00:21:33] But I really hope you will come and join us in The Digital Diet Lounge. It’s going to be really fun. There’s loads of exciting things planned, all centred on digital wellness and helping you to create a better tech-life balance for yourself.

[00:21:46] I know you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable. So, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little of your day with me, and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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