Recently, you might have heard the sobering news that humans now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. Yep, thanks to our steady diet of TV, social media and click-bait stories, it seems our ability to concentrate is at an all-time low. And that's just at home. Think about how much email, phone calls and endless interruptions affect your flow at work. Sadly, we have technology to thank for most of this - and there's even evidence to back this up.
So is there anything that can be done? Before you go throwing out your mobile, laptop and television and decamping to a hippie commune, future trends analyst and author of Momentum: How to Build it, Keep it, or Get it Back Michael McQueen shows us how to get our focus back.
We've all heard that social media and the internet is changing our brains - what evidence backs this up?
Microsoft's study first conducted in 2000 was one of the most thorough examinations of attention span. At the time they found that the average adult human was 12 seconds. When this was repeated in 2015, this figure had dropped to 8 seconds. The culprit for this drop was clear in the related research - our constant absorption with technology may have increased our ability to multitask but this has come at the expense of our capacity to focus.
What steps can we take to reverse this?
The most important first step is to become aware of it. Most of us operate instinctively ie. if you have a moment spare you reach for your smartphone to scroll through Facebook or Instagram mindlessly. Once you're aware of the tendency, the key is to take some control over technology and make sure you are its master not it's slave. This can be as simple as putting boundaries around technology exposure (ie. don't sleep with your phone next to the bed) or be even more extreme (delete the Facebook/Instagram app from your phone).
How do you teach your brain to focus more?
It is a case of baby steps. At first, focusing will not come naturally to many of us because we are out of condition. This is why meditation can be such a challenge at first, but becomes easier with practice. Many psychologists will suggest that mindfulness is a powerful skill in increasing our capacity to focus and concentrate.
What kinds of activities are 'good' for the brain and which are the worst?
Variety is the spice of life. The things that keep our brain most healthy and active are activities that force us to use different modalities and learning new skills. This is why simply doing Sudoku or crosswords isn't enough to keep up mentally agile. It is the forging of new neural pathways that does the important work.
Being constantly distracted poses a lot of problems for productivity at work - what strategies can we implement to become more focused?
Research indicates that the modern office worker is interrupted or self interrupts every three minutes. Many of the strategies I outline in my book centre on taking control over your environment and stimulus. Regardless of the technique that we find will work in our context, it is important to remember that focus magnifies our effectiveness while distraction dilutes it.
Many of us need to be on emails, social media and 'plugged in' for a lot of hours of the day - especially for work purposes. How do we find a way to disconnect without cutting ourselves off completely? Can you give some tips?
- Turn off new message notifications for emails, social media posts or text messages
- Switch your phone to flight mode when you are working on complex or creative tasks
- Check your inbox only 4 times a day and for 20 minutess at a time
- Use email curation tools like Sanebox
- Close the office door or get away from colleagues to a cafe etc when working on important tasks
What are some key strategies have you noticed that ALL productive people have in place?
Be ruthlessly intentional. Choose how you spend your time and where you place your attention or others will make the choice for you. Further still, saying no to 'good things 'can be as important as saying yes to 'best things'.
How does being distracted affect our emotional wellbeing? Surely that's not a good mental space to be in all the time?
According to the University of London, trying to focus on more than one task at a time has the cognitive impact of reducing your effective IQ - by as much as 10 basis points for women and 15 points for men. It also increases the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies, which is why constantly swapping tasks can leave us feeling mentally exhausted.