The ability to pay attention to important things—and ignore the rest—has been a crucial survival skill throughout human history. Attention can help us focus our awareness on a particular aspect of our environment, important decisions, or the thoughts in our head. Maintaining focus is a perennial challenge for individuals of all ages, and people have long sought out strategies, tricks, and medications to help them stay on track.
People can be distracted both by internal forces, like wandering thoughts, and external cues, like the inviting ping of a text message. When the mind seeks, or is hijacked by, distraction, it can feel almost impossible to force ourselves to refocus or attention on the task at hand, especially if it’s boring or challenging.
Some researchers who study attention view it as sort of muscle that can be strengthened with practice, and have hypothesized that certain strategies or techniques may be especially effective at building capacity over the long-term. One strategy that’s gained ground in recent years is mindfulness, which cultivates the brain’s ability to direct attention to specific cues.