It’s hardly surprising that our attention spans are zero in the modern world, which is dominated by digital screens and the incessant “ping” and/or vibration of notifications. It can feel nearly hard to focus on a single job for an extended amount of time, whether you find yourself daydreaming at work or aimlessly checking your phone while watching TV. But, according to a 2018 Neuron article, that isn’t your fault: Researchers from Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley found that attention pulses in and out four times per second1 after examining both humans and monkeys. This suggests that even a short period of focused concentration is difficult to maintain because of distractions.
Shorter attention spans are thought to have given early humans the evolutionary benefit of being able to keep an eye out for danger. Our daily lives are now far less dangerous than they were in the past because of the invasion of digital devices made especially to grab our attention. At different times during the day, automatic notifications encourage technology use, preparing you for a dopamine rush from bright lights or positive social reinforcement.
Our capacity to weed out unimportant information is weakened by this constant multitasking. These forces inevitably deplete our limited attention spans and willpower throughout the day, making it difficult for us to focus.
Do not be alarmed; this is not a call to abandon civilization and live off the grid. Instead, it’s a desire to be more aware of where your attention is being diverted so you can fight the evolutionary impulse to be distracted and deliberately concentrate on the work at hand.
What exactly is an attention span?
“Attention is the sort of overarching, colloquially used term, but it can mean many, many things,” says Elizabeth Ricker neuroscientist and author of Smarter Tomorrow: How 15 Minutes of Neurohacking A Day Can Help You Work Better, Think Faster, and Get More Done. “There are different flavours- like sustained, selective, or divided attention. Attention relies on other mental abilities doing their jobs, too – like working memory (kind of like your brain’s RAM), inhibition (inhibiting off-task stimuli or mental behaviours), and mental flexibility (shifting between and synthesizing concepts).”
Even if there are an endless number of things going on all the time, the brain can only handle so much processing. Psychologists frequently use the classic scenario of a cocktail party to demonstrate how our brains choose what to focus on.
You might concentrate on any number of stimuli in the room at this cocktail party, including the music playing, the sound of glasses clinking, a person passing by, or the conversation taking place behind you. The brain’s filtering mechanisms allow you to focus on the person in front of you while reducing external sights and sounds to mere background noise. However, suppose someone calls your name as they pass. The person in front of you fades into the background, and their talk, which you hadn’t been listening to, now comes into sharp focus.
Of course, this procedure can be more challenging for someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Executive functioning2, which includes attention and focus, is affected by both disorders. Overly sensitive sensory systems3 can exacerbate this by making it more difficult to block out some environmental sounds and stimuli while making it simpler to focus on others.
How is our focus disrupted by technology:
Push notifications are the most blatant example of how technology catches our attention. Pop-ups and pings draw our attention away from the task at hand and into our inboxes or feeds. After a while, we stop needing these prompts to pick up our smartphones since the habit has become so ingrained.
In a 2015 study from Computers in Human Behaviours, survey participants4 reported experiencing ‘phantom phone signals’ (i.e., when you thought you heard or felt your phone but didn’t) at least weekly and up to 63% monthly.
This, according to researchers, is because the brain uses schemas, or frameworks, to process complex information. The brain interprets new information using precedents from the past. As a result, the brain could mistakenly connect another type of input (such the sound of a neighbor’s television) to your phone if you frequently hear and see notifications from it. The study also discovered that when phone usage increased, phantom phone signals increased as well.
In a 2019 review from the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, researchers found that even the healthiest brain can miss major differences between two images when interrupted with a flash of light. They hypothesize that similar distractions (say, a pop-up alert or other digital notification) also have the ability to completely derail your attention.
How to lengthen your span of attention:
It’s obvious that our culture struggles mightily with attention. Lack of concentration can affect your relationships negatively if you’ve ever dozed off during a friend’s story or reached for your phone while having dinner with your partner. It can also reduce your productivity at work and make it more difficult to complete personal tasks.
Fortunately, new research suggests there are methods for being more focused and in the present.
- Do not frequently switch between tasks: According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, the typical worker changes jobs 1,200 times every day. Our ability to focus and perform well may be negatively impacted by this constant switching between tasks. As an illustration, 2005 observational research indicated that office workers typically only worked on one project for 11 minutes before moving on to another. Participants switched their attention to an average of 2.2 different things after being stopped, taking an average of 25 minutes and 26 seconds to resume their job. In what academics refer to as the “switch cost effect,” frequent switching between tasks has been proven to drastically lower the quality and efficiency of your work.
While popular techniques like time blocking have received minimal research, a study published in the journal Neuropsychology8 demonstrated that pausing between tasks cuts down on both the time needed to begin the subsequent activity and the number of errors committed. Therefore, if you must jump between activities, think about pausing to catch your breath between each one since it can ultimately save you time and increase your accuracy.
- Avoid multitasking: Although multitasking has long been known to be ineffective, research reveals that the negative effects are long-lasting for frequent multitaskers (and can impair performance even when they are not multitasking). Heavy multitaskers were found to be more easily distracted by irrelevant information on the screen, less able to filter out irrelevant memories of previous experiments and examples, slower to respond when distracting information was present, and slower to respond when asked to switch tasks, according to a 2009 Psychological and Cognitive Sciences study evaluating over 200 college students. Keep this in mind the next time you open TikTok or Twitter while watching TV.
- Meditate: Your brain chemistry can change during meditation, and there are several potential advantages, including an increase in attentiveness. While regularly practising meditation is preferable, a 2019 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience review indicated that even just one ten-minute guided meditation can enhance your capacity for sustained attention.
- Assess yourself: “When we’re trying to pay attention, we’re using a much more recently evolved part of our brain: the prefrontal cortex,” Ricker explains. The primary fuel for the brain is glucose, a simple sugar. It provides the brain with the building blocks it needs to make ATP, which powers several metabolic activities. “[When paying attention], we’re using particular networks that tend to be a lot more expensive in terms of glucose than other parts of our brain,” she claims.
While some actions (like fleeing from danger) are preprogrammed and simple to access, it takes a lot of skill to be able to focus for extended periods of time. Due to this intricacy and variety, your attention will alter during the day, depend on your mood, and be influenced by your general health. “These are some of the networks that ended up working a little less well when we’re tired or feeling emotionally distracted.”
Ricker suggests keeping a work record to better understand your personal attention span. Set a timer and allot a certain amount of time to complete the task at hand. After the allotted time has passed, evaluate your performance in terms of whether you finished the assignment, your level of concentration, and your flow state. You’ll eventually start to see trends in your triumphs, such as if you work better in a particular setting or at a specific time of day. A journal of your successful days might also serve as inspiration.
- Daily 30 minutes of exercise: Your attention span will benefit from routine exercise. If you want to improve your capacity to concentrate, make an effort to work out each day. Pick an enjoyable activity so you’ll stick to the program. If you enjoy swimming, for instance, join a neighborhood gym with a pool.
Over time, exercise can lengthen your attention span; yet, it can also sharply lengthen attention span. Try taking a quick 10-minute walk if you’re having difficulties concentrating at work. When you get back to your desk, you could find that you’re more attentive.
The main point.
- Focusing can seem like an uphill struggle all the time. On the plus side, we can maintain our attention by using strategies supported by experts.
- Limiting multitasking, intensifying your meditation routine, and identifying the situations and times that work best for you can all be beneficial.