To learn something new, and especially to change your behavior, you have to pay attention. That sounds simple, but it isn’t. You only have so much attention to use at any given moment, and for most of us a lot of things are competing for it.
Torkel Klingberg, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, has written about the problem in a book titled The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. Klingberg documents the incredible demands that are made on our minds by modern life and points out that our brains evolved to handle fewer tasks that were probably less complex.
I think the solution to the problem having too much to pay attention to while not having enough attention to pay has two parts. Klingberg provides a nice introduction into the first strategy: increasing working memory through brain training. Klingberg as well as others have shown that working memory can be trained, and limited evidence suggests that the difference training makes can generalize to real-life tasks.
The second part of the strategy is developing better attention through practice in focused attention and in resisting distractions. We all have the experience of forgetting something important because our attention was drawn to something else. The ability to pay attention to an object that is important is a prerequisite to almost any achievement.
Computer training has been used to help people learn to function better under distracting conditions; it may be a helpful strategy in coping with multiple distractions.
Meditation is a widely used technique that can help you reduce stress, help you focus on what’s important, and resist being distracted by things that aren’t important. Simply spending a little time each day in a situation with minimal distractions can help you appreciate how much of the noise and distractions in your life arise from inside yourself. If you allow each to rise to your consciousness, you can decide which issues deserve attention and follow-up action, and which can be ignored.
The bottom line: Training working memory with computer-based tasks can help. Meditation can help you focus on what’s most important and use your limited resources effectively.