Your attention is precious. Me, I could always use more. I need it to write, finish reading a book, plan a project, and any work that requires sustained concentration. It is so damn easy to lose focus with interruptions, as I wrote last week.
We’re in the age of distractions, and it’s only going to get worse, so let’s buckle up and design a strategy for preserving some needed brain power.
We can blame our electronics, but the real problem is us! Sure, taking a prolonged technology break might help, but not as much as you think.
Taking one day a week as a Sabbath without devices might be restorative, as my friend Marilyn Paul advocates in her book, An Oasis in Time.
But those month-long or year-long breaks? Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen, authors of The Distracted Mind; Ancient Brains in a High Tech World write:
“While taking a break is certainly a good thing and can act to improve our metacognition about the influence of high-tech on our minds, to put it simply, there is no evidence that extended IT tech detoxes actually work.”
I kind of get it. A prolonged tech break is like going on a food fast to lose weight but finding, at the end of the fast, that your old food habits are waiting for you. AND you have to eat all the food that you ignored.
Who wants to come back from a break and deal with 50,000 messages?
What you can do
The authors describe two types of options to strengthen your focus and avoid being sucked into distraction: 1) build your brain power/cognitive control and 2) change your behavior.
No magic pill
I wish I could find a magic pill, but despite the hype about “smart drugs,” I ain’t racing to any off-line pharmacopeia. Although there’s a rage in Silicon Valley and college campuses to pop a smart-pill in order to enhance brain power (the authors say that 25% of college students may be using smart drugs), the verdict’s not in on whether a pill will help your brain in any significant way. Obviously, messing with drugs can have unwanted side effects.
The tried and true, well-researched favorite for increasing brain power is EXERCISE. Dang! Everywhere I look it turns out exercise is good for something. Time to load up on Zumba classes and dog walks this Spring.
Runner-up techniques for building cognitive functioning are meditation, being in nature, brain games, and carefully constructed, non-violent video games.
Manage your behavior
Noticing how you become distracted and experimenting with fixes can help you to keep your attention focused.
Keep interruptions from setting back your progress, productivity and concentration.
- You can add apps to your phone that track your smartphone use, and monitor how you let yourself become distracted during peak-concentration times.
- You can close all computer programs you don’t need so that you’re only dealing with one program when you’re working on a project.
- If you’re a bit addicted to social media, computer apps like “Freedom,” “SelfControl,” and “KeepMeOut,” will let you block websites that could lure you from your work.
Plot out your day or week and identify times when you need to concentrate.
- Partition your day and week into project units with blocks for concentrated work, maintenance work, and fun, or whatever categories you choose. I sometimes color code the blocks in my schedule.
- Use the times of day when you’re tired or not running at peak brain-power to check social media or respond to email. Not all life or work has to be brain-rich. Some people like to establish set times for checking e-mail, I do it when I need a break.
- Put a firm boundary around the periods that require your concentration. If you’re interacting with others, letting them know what you are doing will help decrease your anxiety or “fear of missing out.”
Take restorative breaks.
- Use your breaks wisely. I find it SO frustrating when, after a good writing streak, I take a break and forget where I was going with my work. I’m going to try writing out what I need to do next, before I take a break.
- If you’re focused on a critical piece of work, you might keep breaks short to sustain momentum.
- Use breaks to nourish the non-brainy sides of you. Move your body, walk in nature, or read something that allows your mind to wander and stimulates your emotions. Laugh. Sing. Make music. Not only will these activities give you a break, but they’ll help you find balance.
When I try to do too much concentrated, brain-rich work, I begin to wither away.
Use your intention as a life-preserver.
- Set an intention every morning that you can return to throughout the day.
- Use a tool like Personal Kanban to avoid the curse of “Multi-tasking” (or, more accurately, rapid attention switching). Personal Kanban can help you select three critical priorities for your focused attention during any given period.
My personal suggestion: Find your passion.
Passion can help you concentrate without efforting and find flow without force. Being delighted by what you’re doing is a natural and powerful way to avoid distractions.
Explore, experiment, discover.
It’s a brave new world out there, and we’ll all be learning how to build brain power and sustain our attention in a time of increasing distractions. Think of yourself as a pioneer.
If you crack the code, let me know immediately!
Till then, remember the ad:*
A mind is a terrible thing to waste…
I want to preserve mine, and my attention, as long as I possibly can.
*Factoid: that famous ad was designed by Young and Rubicon in the 1940s to promote the United Negro College Fund.
You know how it starts…
You’re trying to concentrate on the computer, perhaps reading an article, writing a document, thinking through a problem, or searching for a recipe. After five minutes of concentration, a text pops up. You think, Might be a family member or something else urgent. Better check it. You discover it’s nothing important and return to work. A few more minutes of work and you see a notification flash on the screen: an email from a good friend you’ve been missing. You think, I can just take a moment to check it, right?
These little interruptions seem innocuous enough but beware, with each interruption that asks you to switch tasks and take your attention away from what you’ve been doing, your focus, information retention, and productivity go down. Now it will take you longer to complete that project.
Welcome to the world of distractions
When it comes to concentrating, the odds aren’t stacked in our favor. Even focusing on a relatively simple task requires your brain to do three things:
Maintain a goal–and filter out what’s not relevant.
Hold information by using your working memory.
Avoid distractions. (LIke that text and email.)
Staying focused for fifteen minutes shouldn’t be hard, except that it turns out it is. The amount of time we, in our culture, can concentrate has decreased.
This week, I confirmed the extent of our problem by reading The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen present extensive research results to document how the brain works, what it takes to maintain attention, and why we’re so easily distracted.
They cite an experiment in which students from middle school, high school, and university levels were tasked to study something important for fifteen minutes.
The finding? Students in all three groups could stay focused for an average of only three to five minutes before switching to another task–often social media or texting. (How does anyone still teach?)
Every time a student darts away to check social media and then comes back to a task, she or he has lost some cognitive power and usually, the tasks will take longer to complete.
Attention is an endangered quantity.
Those of us who are a little, er, older are even more at risk because, according to the research, we have a harder time filtering out distractions. Once a little distraction slips through the gates of a mind, it is harder for us to regain focus.
Threats to our attention are everywhere. Most of us live attached to distraction machines called smartphones
The statistics on how much time younger people spend texting or talking on their phones is boggling. Smartphone addiction, though, isn’t limited to the young. Check out the stats on what happens to our anxiety levels when we can’t be with our phones.
Just at a time when the United States should be developing minds capable of “deep work” and sustained thinking, that can lead the way toward innovation, we’re driving ourselves to distraction.
The perils of task switching
You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t multi-task.
The word “multi-task” is a computer term that is used to mean doing two or more activities requiring thinking at the same time. It doesn’t accurately describe what humans do. Computers can run multiple programs at the same time. Unfortunately, you, stuck in an analog mind, cannot. What we call “multi-tasking” is just switching our attention very rapidly between tasks.
This skill of task-switching comes with a price. Gazzaley and Rosen document how much it costs us in terms of information retention, increased time required to complete a project, and reduced results. Not to mention the increased anxiety we feel when we’re trying to think about several things at the same time.
Or the fact that focusing elsewhere while driving or crossing an intersection, is not safe.
The risks of boredom and Shiney Object Syndrome (SOS)
The authors write, “There is evidence that the rate of both our boredom and our anxiety accumulation while engaged in information foraging is actually increasing in recent times, seemingly in direct response to modern technology.”
Boredom then makes you more susceptible to the next shiny digital object tempting you.
Let’s face it, checking texts and email can be fun, especially when occasionally we’re rewarded by a piece of information that engages us–Intermittant reinforcement being the most persuasive.
It’s certainly more fun for most of us than:
- Doing our taxes,
- Trying to finish reading that long article that is critical to our work.
- Writing that document we committed to do that is moving like sludge.
Compared to our not-so-thrilling project, a text message can seem seductively urgent. The more boring or mundane our “real work,” the more susceptible we are to interruption.
As a high school senior in English class, (way back then!) I was often bored and tried to read novels while my teacher lectured. (It turns out, that he didn’t appreciate this!) Imagine if I’d had a mobile device. With access to instant amusement, I’d have transcended his ramblings altogether, and let my grades take the hit.
I repeat: I wonder how anyone teaches these days.
Every time students dart away to check social media and then return to their tasks, they lose some cognitive power, and their projects will take longer to complete. Their information retention goes down. Often, so do their grades.
Artfully crafted seduction
Social media, that wasteland of shiny objects, is engineered to distract your attention. Sometimes, after a stint of work, I’ll offer myself a brief reward (well earned), and will scan media headlines or skim Facebook.
My break begins innocently enough. But then in the Washington Post headlines, there are at least two juicy tidbits, and I have to find out what (fill in the blank) the President has done this time. On Facebook, click-bait headlines are waiting to seduce me. Before I know it (this is true, alas) I’m checking out what ten top models look like without their makeup, reading a list of ten celebrities who I didn’t know recently died, and yes, learning whether Brad Pitt would go back to Jennifer Aniston (I’m embarrassed.)
What to do?
This week, I suggest that you read The Distracted Mind to learn about the magnitude of the problem, and then send me your solutions. Next week, I’ll share your ideas along with the authors’ and some of my own.
Just in case you have any doubt there’s a problem, I’ll close with some statistics about smartphone use from the book:
55% of adults access their smartphone while driving.
35% use them in a movie theatre.
33% use them on a dinner date.
32% of parents use them while attending their children’s school functions.
19% use them in church.
12% use them in the shower.
9% use them during sex. (You got me there…)
Believe me friends, we have met the enemy and he is us.
Just notice the role your smartphone and other attention diverting devices have in your life, and we’ll talk more next week (assuming, of course, that you’re not too distracted.)