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Reclaiming focus: How swimming helped me conquer distraction

A lady peaceful and serene in water

We live in a world ruled by distraction. Over the last two decades, the human attention span has decreased from a woeful two-and-a-half minutes to an embarrassing total of 47 seconds. Globally, people check their phones an average of 58 times per day. Broken down, this is an average of four times every waking hour. And once you’re distracted, by either your phone or another attention-hungry black hole, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task that you were initially concentrated on.

In most cases, being distracted sucks. When I’m distracted, I tend to be more emotionally reactive. My heart rate rises, my breathing shortens, and I generally feel more stressed. If I check in with my body and mind to bring these sensations from the subconscious to conscious, I can feel it taking place. This isn’t just my personal experience. Research shows that it’s generally universal. People who multi-task (a form of distractedness) experience stress: the more you shift attention, the higher your stress levels. And chronic or prolonged stress has been shown to make you generally unhappier. If we simplify that calculation, distractedness leads to unhappiness.

I have become increasingly conscious of my own distractedness through, interestingly, a return to swimming. When I was training for my 100-kilometre swim from Great Barrier Island to Auckland last year, I could often swim for hours without stopping for a break. The longer I swam, the less distracted I was; the less distracted I was, the stronger my flow state; the stronger my flow state, the better I felt; the better I felt, the more I wanted to continue to swim.

It was a virtuous cycle, not only because it was improving my ability to hold attention to a singular task, but also because swimming is generally physiologically good for you (let’s park to one side for now that I found myself in hospital after completing the 100-kilometre swim that I was training for). I would exit these long training swims with intense clarity and a strong awareness of who I was in that time and space. Even if ultra-marathon swimming is not your kettle of fish, you might understand in reading how such a positive emotional and psychological experience such as this can be so alluring through its innate rewards.

A swimmer in clear and calm water

After a sustained break forced by injury, I’ve slowly and carefully returned to swim training in recent weeks to find my attention span has noticeably shortened. As a training session builds, I can feel an unpleasantness welling up inside of me. It is as though my monkey-mind, deprived for too long of the pleasure of distractedness, is starting to make this dissatisfaction known. I can viscerally feel the battle waging within me as my higher self tries to focus on the task at hand, while another lesser being wills me to succumb to a dopamine hit of entertainment.

I often feel the same sensation while writing; another task which requires intense levels of focus over a sustained period of time. To protect myself against my base desire to be entertained, I have to put my phone in another room. Swimming, fortunately, is an activity that forces physical separation from digital devices. While recent years have seen a rise in the advent of smart goggles that give you real-time feedback and water-proof Bluetooth headphones, swimming can be (and, in my view, should be) a completely immersive activity. You need no more than complete awareness of the sensation of water breaking around your body as you move through it to feel truly alive.

The beauty is that we can all experience this same level of satisfaction through deep focus in our day-to-day lives. But it takes an immense level of intentionality and consistency. It may mean physically separating yourself from your phone, or removing social media applications from your home screen, or blocking out focus time in your calendar. In my case, I’ve gone so far as to put my devices on grayscale, a strategy which has been shown to decrease your levels of screen-time. In a world where powerful corporations have invested billions of dollars to hack your brain, guardrails are not only advisable but necessary. If there’s one thing that a return to swimming has taught me, it’s how truly valuable it is to have agency over your attention.

The fight for your attention can feel like an uphill battle at times. It’s not easy. But I can assure you, it’s worth it. It might just be the difference between you achieving your dreams and not. And at the very least, finding things that you can put your full focus into will generally make you happier. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, after all?


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