Easily distracted? How to increase our concentration
We live in a world where we receive enormous amounts of information throughout the day. Our brain must work very hard to filter through the incoming stimuli and decide what is relevant to us. We are used to scanning websites and receiving information in brief messages on our phones.
If we want to know something, all we need to do is open a tab on our laptops and search for an answer. We get a response in seconds. Technology increasingly captures our attention and is creating the expectation of prompt responses.
However, it interrupts us frequently, making it harder to engage with our work. We may even disconnect from other people, having a negative impact on our relationships (Goleman, 2014).
We get distracted by our phones (checking if we have new messages) or by our thoughts and feelings as we react to the information. We notice that we have read a whole page only to realise that we have not taken in the information and need to reread the page.
We are now used to accessing information fast and reading content in bite-size format. So, when we focus on a project or read a book or journal article, we find it challenging to concentrate on the text long enough to absorb its meaning.
Our brain is designed to continually pay attention to our environment, alert to any potential danger, and identify resources we need for survival. Our ancestors survived because they paid attention to signs of danger and pursued what would help them keep safe.
Today, our brain still reacts to protect us by keeping alert to potential risks, although we may not be in harm’s way as our ancestors were back then (Styles, 2006).
You may have had the experience in childhood, when in the classroom and looking outside the window. Then hearing in the distance a voice asking to “pay attention.” We get distracted when we are not interested in the subject or when something different and novel catches our attention.
Mind-wandering is our brain’s default mode, where we have thoughts unrelated to the tasks. Some researchers think it is helpful to develop our creativity.
After spending time working on a task, we need a short break to allow our brain to wander so that it can free-associate ideas (Baird, et al, 2012).
We can pay attention to things that interest us, but it requires effort. We need the energy to concentrate on a task for a dedicated period. When we are tired, we have less energy available to manage interruptions and make an effort to return to the task.
We can view concentration like a muscle. It is a skill that we can develop with practice and consistent effort.
What can we do to strengthen our concentration muscle?
Identify distractions: Before starting to work or study, identify what distracts you. Then, plan what you will do to manage the distraction to continue your work. For example, if checking notifications on your phone is a frequent distractor, put the phone on aeroplane mode while you work, and check the messages during a break.
Be present: We tend to get distracted by thinking ahead, perhaps anticipating negative outcomes. When this occurs, pause and acknowledge these thoughts and feelings. You may want to practice mindful breathing. It helps to create time and space to reflect on our work.
Then, as soon as you notice you are distracted, pause and bring your attention to your work without self-criticism. Reviewing our progress helps reconnect with the task allowing us to continue with it.
Do one thing at a time: we like to think we can multitask, jumping from one task to another. However, every time we switch from one task to the other, we need to refocus, and this takes time and effort to control our impulse to do something different and refocus again. Choose a task and work on it for a set period, followed by a short break.
Take a break from digital devices: Our eyes need to rest from the screen, and our bodies need to move. It is beneficial to do some work away from screens, using pen and paper and allow time to develop your ideas.
In addition, turn off all digital devices about an hour before bedtime as part of your sleep routine. Getting enough sleep is essential as it restores our body and mind, improving our health, including our cognitive functions.
Be curious: we are naturally curious and want to learn and understand things. Curiosity can help us get back to the task if we focus on learning from it. In addition, developing a flexible attitude allows us to be open to new ideas and willing to consider other possibilities.
Be your best friend: Worry thoughts can be distracting, preventing us from making progress with our work. When noticing these thoughts, acknowledge them, and then take a moment to breathe and regain balance. Next, ask yourself: “What one thing can I do now to make progress? It will allow you to get back into the task for another set period.
Look after yourself: When we are tired, it is more challenging to manage our emotions and maintain our focus. Maintain healthy habits to keep well and have the energy to persevere with your work.
Be patient: learning requires time and effort. We can feel impatient when we are dealing with a difficult task. Practise tolerating frustration and view the task as a manageable challenge. Break the task down into smaller steps and choose one to continue with your work.
Persevere with your efforts: being consistent and maintaining a routine helps develop our skills and gradually strengthens our capacity to do more complex tasks. And when things do not work out as you hoped, reflect on what you can learn from mistakes and apply the knowledge to improve your work.
Alter, A. (2017) Irresistible. Why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free. London: Vintage.
Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W. Y., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychological Science, 23(10), 1117–1122. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23355504.
Goleman, D. (2014) Focus. The hidden driver of excellence. London: Bloomsbury publishing.
Hari, J. (2022) Stolen focus. Why you can’t pay attention. London: Bloomsbury publishing.
Styles, E. (2006) The psychology of attention (2nd edition). London: Routledge.