Easily distracted?

Easily distracted?

Prevalence of distractions in today’s fast-paced world

We live in a world where we receive enormous amounts of information throughout the day. Our brains must work very hard to filter the incoming stimuli and decide what is relevant to us.1Alter, A. (2017) Irresistible. Why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free. London: Vintage.

We are used to scanning websites and receiving notifications on our phones. If we want to know something, all we need to do is open a tab on our laptops and search for information which we can obtain in seconds. However, it is uncertain how much we can trust the information. It is necessary to evaluate it to ascertain its source and its relevance to our work. So we explore further, moving away from our task.

We feel the need to keep checking to be up-to-date in our interconnected and competitive work environment that is continually changing. What we pay attention to determines what we learn, remember, how we manage our emotions and the decisions and actions we take. This can determine our sense of achievement and how fulfilled we feel.2Jha, A. P. (2021) Peak mind. 12 minutes a day to find your focus, meet the challenge and be fully present when it maters most. London: Piatkus

Impact on our work and life

We get distracted by our phones (checking if we have messages) or by our thoughts and feelings as we react to the information we have received. We notice that we have read a whole page only to realise that we have not understood and need to reread the page.3Hari, J. (2022) Stolen focus. Why you can’t pay attention. London: Bloomsbury publishing.

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 for long enough to absorb its meaning.

With the increasing ease of access to information, digital devices capture our attention before we even are aware of it. Furthermore, easy access through various mobile devices creates the expectation of needing to be available at all times. This makes it particularly challenging to maintain boundaries between work demands and personal life.

Our mobile devices make it possible to be interrupted frequently, making it more difficult to focus on our work. And it can affect our communication with others, having a negative impact on our relationships.4Goleman, D. (2014) Focus. The hidden driver of excellence. London: Bloomsbury publishing.

The science of attention

Our brain is designed to continually pay attention to our surroundings, alerting us to any potential danger, and identifying the resources we need for survival. Our ancestors survived because they paid attention to signs of danger and pursued what helped them stay safe.

Today, our brain still reacts to protect us by alerting us to potential risks, although we may not be in physical danger as our ancestors were in their environment.5Styles, E. (2006) The psychology of attention (2nd edition). London: Routledge.

What do we mean when we say “pay attention“? This phrase is used to draw our attention to a specific task. We assume that this means we remain static focused on a particularly thing. However, in order to keep paying attention, there has to be variety and novelty to keep us engaged.6Mark, G. (2023) Attention span. Finding focus for a fulfilling life. London: William Collins.

Our cognitive executive functions enable us to prioritise, switch tasks when necessary, make decisions, use our working memory, regulate our emotions and allocate our attention to specific stimuli related to the task.7Ibid.

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. We get distracted when we are not interested in the subject or when something different and novel catches our attention. It means that we are paying attention to something different from what we think is important.8Langer, E. J. (1997) The power of mindful learning.  Massachusetts: Perseus Books. 

We have limited attentional resources so when we are stressed, we have less energy available to manage interruptions. We need to take breaks to restore energy so we can resume our efforts when we return to the task.

When switching tasks, our brain needs to reconfigure the representation of the task. This is described as the “switch cost.” 9Mark, G. (2023) Attention span. Finding focus for a fulfilling life. London: William Collins. It refers to the time lost because we need to redirect our attention back to the task we were working on.

After spending time working on a task, we need a short break to allow our brain to wander and allow the free-association of ideas. Researchers think it is helpful to develop our creativity.10Baird, 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.

Mind-wandering is our brain’s default mode, when we have thoughts unrelated to the tasks. It is best to aim for a balance between the different types of attention to restore energy.

We can train our brains to pay attention. It is a skill that we can develop with practice and consistent effort. We can learn to shift from being alert during a task, to prioritising and selecting the stimuli we need to focus on, with purpose. We use our executive control to manage irrelevant stimuli so we can progress with our task.

Research shows that mindfulness – when we pay attention to the present moment without judgment – we develop our awareness and can then take control of what we pay attention to.11Jha, A. P. (2021) Peak mind. 12 minutes a day to find your focus, meet the challenge and be fully present when it maters most. London: Piatkus

By developing self-awareness we can enhance our emotional regulation and strengthen our cognitive capacities. It can also strengthen our commitment to what is of importance to us.

As we become more aware of how we are learning the better able we are to make plans to manage the tasks we need to complete.

What can we do to strengthen our concentration muscle?

Identify distractions: Before starting to work or study, observing what distracts us enables us to plan what we will do to manage the distraction when it appears. For example, if checking notifications on our phone is a frequent distractor, we can put the phone in aeroplane mode and out of view while working.

Working in defined periods (25 mins, as in the Pomodoro technique), and planning breaks to rest from screens, it can reenergise us. It can also be a time to check messages without interrupting our work.

We tend to get distracted by thinking ahead, anticipating negative outcomes. When this occurs, it is best to pause and acknowledge these thoughts and feelings.12Hallowell, E. (2015) Driven to distraction at work. How to focus an die more productive. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press. 

Mindfulness, a technique that encourages the practice of focusing on the present moment, can reduce tension, increase concentration and restore balance. Mindful breathing helps to ease tension and to manage distracting thoughts.13Langer, E. J. (1997) The power of mindful learning.  Massachusetts: Perseus Books.

Redirect attention to the task: We can lose focus whenever we feel stuck or confused. When we realise we are distracted, we can practice bringing our attention back to our work without self-criticism.

Expecting that we should do things quickly, on the first attempt, and without errors can cause frustration, tension and worry. Tension may manifest itself in stress symptoms. To manage our emotions it is helpful to adopt a kind and understanding view towards ourselves as how we regard our best friends.

The more we are aware of our thinking process the more we can control our attention. This in turn enables us to persevere with our efforts when working on a challenging task.14Eyal, N. & Li, J. ((2019) Indistractable. How to control your attention and choose your life. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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. This takes time and effort to control our impulse to do something different and refocus again. We can train our ability to focus by choosing one task and work on it for a set period, followed by a short break.

It is also important to take breaks from screens. Our eyes need to rest, and our bodies need to move. It is beneficial to do some work away from screens, using pen and paper which allows time to develop ideas.

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 what we can learn from it.

In addition, developing a flexible attitude and being willing to consider other possibilities, allows us to be open to new ideas. This enhances our creativity and problem-solving skills.

By reframing the situation and viewing setbacks as part of the learning process, our curiosity allows us to get back to our task. We can also see what we can learn as we move forward.

Look after yourself: When we are tired it is more challenging to manage our emotions and maintain our focus. Maintaining healthy habits protects our health and we can maintain our energy level to persevere with our work.

Worry thoughts can be distracting, preventing us from making progress with our work. When noticing these thoughts, we can acknowledge them, and then take a moment to breathe and regain balance. Next, ask: “What one thing can I do now to make progress?” It will allow us to get back into the task for another set period.

Learning requires time and effort. We can feel impatient when dealing with difficult tasks. As we practice tolerating frustration, viewing the task as a manageable challenge, and breaking the task down into smaller steps, we can reduce tension and increase our capacity to focus.

Our sleep routine should also include turning off all digital devices about an hour before bedtime. Getting enough sleep is essential as it restores our body and mind, improving our cognitive functions.

 

 

Footnotes
  • 1
    Alter, A. (2017) Irresistible. Why you are addicted to technology and how to set yourself free. London: Vintage.
  • 2
    Jha, A. P. (2021) Peak mind. 12 minutes a day to find your focus, meet the challenge and be fully present when it maters most. London: Piatkus
  • 3
    Hari, J. (2022) Stolen focus. Why you can’t pay attention. London: Bloomsbury publishing.
  • 4
    Goleman, D. (2014) Focus. The hidden driver of excellence. London: Bloomsbury publishing.
  • 5
    Styles, E. (2006) The psychology of attention (2nd edition). London: Routledge.
  • 6
    Mark, G. (2023) Attention span. Finding focus for a fulfilling life. London: William Collins.
  • 7
    Ibid.
  • 8
    Langer, E. J. (1997) The power of mindful learning.  Massachusetts: Perseus Books.
  • 9
    Mark, G. (2023) Attention span. Finding focus for a fulfilling life. London: William Collins.
  • 10
    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.
  • 11
    Jha, A. P. (2021) Peak mind. 12 minutes a day to find your focus, meet the challenge and be fully present when it maters most. London: Piatkus
  • 12
    Hallowell, E. (2015) Driven to distraction at work. How to focus an die more productive. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press. 
  • 13
    Langer, E. J. (1997) The power of mindful learning.  Massachusetts: Perseus Books.
  • 14
    Eyal, N. & Li, J. ((2019) Indistractable. How to control your attention and choose your life. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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