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Listening and attention spans, how to improve them?

Life is full of distractions, how can we increase attention spans?

If you think of listening as a physical as well as mental or psychological

activity, you can think of a lot of things to help.

It could be something as simple as taking timely breaks to recharge, chewing gum, optimizing light and sound in the room and breathing more effectively.

Personally, I try to make sure the room is well lit but not too bright. This may differ from day to day - the goal is to have enough light to feel more energized (and your body rhythm responds well) without it being bright enough to create stress (like some cubicle or retail spaces tend to do).

Another aspect is sound - naturally, noise is distracting. Cars going by, machines such as lawnmowers, printers or copy machines in an office, or just background chatter like conversation from a neighboring office. We can do a lot to dampen sound in our space, using curtains or installing sound dampening panels, or go the extra mile with well-chosen headphones. These may or may not be noise canceling, but any headphones can be better than listening to a Zoom call via speakers. The richness and depth of sound will make it more pleasing and easier to keep paying attention.

Anecdotally, improving the aesthetics of your workspace can be of great help too. The presence of plants, pleasant colors (pastels and earth tones seem to work well for most people). Certainly, like many, you may want some family photos around and perhaps some personalized items such as a coffee mug or pen with a beloved pop culture character. These choices help you escape that feeling of void while trying to work or study, pleasing colors and personal items remind you that your work or schoolwork is a conscious and important choice you're making.

You might not think about it, but physical movement helps listening and attentiveness too. Sitting in a chair for long hours is not the best situation, certainly we can try hard to get the most comfortable chair - which may NOT be the most expensive chair, oddly enough! Some of my favorite chairs ever came from garage sales. Try to move around in your chair every so often, just re-seating yourself and changing posture every now and then (lean forward some part of the time, lean back other times). This prevents getting stiff easily and keeps blood circulation as well as oxygen flow more optimal in your back, neck and eventually your brain too.

Have you considered your intentions while listening? Many of us by default end up listening to think of a response, or get distracted by some tangential thought. If your intention from the beginning is to best understand the speaker's point, that helps you adjust to listening to their full argument rather than cursorily picking out items from what they say. Try taking notes - by hand or typed - while they're speaking so that reduces the odds of you getting distracted. Ask them questions (when and how appropriate) to further challenge your brain's analytical ability, which is also a great signal to the speaker and affirms their effort in speaking. After all, even if someone's idea isn't good (as many times is the case) they still deserve a fair chance at being heard.

Lastly, from a psychological point of view, it's important to think about the value of 'why'. I often try to think about the meaning of my work, why I care about it and why it's worth my while. Those of us that work hard and with dedication can be quite exhausted, especially in the people-facing roles which need lots of patience and understanding, not to mention the carefulness of interpreting people's various intentions so as not to judge them unfairly.

If your 'why' for your work is strong, and you feel the rewards and incentives are in place, be sure to close the loop with some concrete, time-bound goals, such as "I want to increase my salary to six figures within x years" or "I want to be the top salesperson within x years". This gives you something to shoot for, and hopefully you'd research the necessary action steps to best set you up for success.

In the end, some of the best listeners are people who say more with less - if we ourselves can learn to make more impact with the minimum words spoken, we feel less competitiveness in getting 'air time' during a group discussion, and are more likely to feel accomplished with a short but insightful comment after the others have had their say.


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