The lost art of concentration: being confused in a digital world

We check our phones every 12 minutes, often just after waking up. Always-on behaviour is harmful to long-term mental health, and we need to learn to the reached the pause button

It is difficult to imagine life before our personal and professional worlds were so predominated and “switched on” via smartphones and the other devices that build us accessible and, crucially, so easily distractible and interruptible every second of the working day. This constant fragmentation of our time and concentration is increasingly becoming the new normal, to which we have adapted with ease, but there is a downside: more and more experts are telling us that these interruptions and distractions have eroded our ability to concentrate.

We have known for a long time that repeated interruptions affect concentration. In 2005, research carried out by Dr Glenn Wilson at London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that persistent interruptions and distractions at work had a profound effect. Those distracted by emails and phone calls find a 10 -point fall in their IQ, twice that found in analyses on potential impacts of smoking marijuana. More than half of the 1,100 participants said they always responded to an email immediately or as soon as possible, while 21% acknowledged they would interrupt a session to do so. Constant interruptions can have the same effect as the loss of a night’s sleep.

Nicholas Carr picked up on this again in an article in the Atlantic in 2008, before going on to publish his book The Shallows two years later.” Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy ,” he wrote.” My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the example any more. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep read that used to come naturally has become a struggle .”

Those Those distracted by emails and phone calls find a 10 -point fall in their IQ. Illustration: Andrea Ucini

The impact of interruptions on individual productivity can also be catastrophic. In 2002, it was reported that, on average, we experience an interruption every eight minutes or about seven or eight per hour. In an eight-hour day, that is about 60 interruptions. The average interruption takes about five minutes, so that is about five hours out of eight. And if it takes around 15 minutes to resume the interrupted activity at a good level of concentration, this means that we are never concentrating very well.

In August 2018, research from the UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom , received information that people check their smartphones on average every 12 minutes during their waking hours, with 71% saying they never turn their phone off and 40% saying they check them within five minutes of waking. Both Facebook and Instagram announced they were developing new tools designed to limit utilization in response to claims that excessive social media use can have a negative impact on mental health.

Continuous partial attention– or CPA- was a phrase coined by the ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant Linda Stone. By adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behaviour, we exist in a constant country of alertness that scans the world but never really gives our full attention to anything. In the short term, we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimulu, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in.

Myth of multitasking

woman Multitasking, or switching rapidly between strife activities? Photograph: Cultura Creative/ Alamy

With our heavy use of digital media, it could be said that we have taken multitasking to new heights, but we’re not actually multitasking; rather, we are switching rapidly between different activities. Adrenaline and cortisol are designed to support us through explosions of intense activity, but in the long term cortisol can knock out the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which help us feel soothe and happy, affecting our sleep and heart rate and building us feel jittery.

It would seem then that this physiological adaptation, fostered by our behaviour, is a predominant reason for the poor concentration so many people report. The fact that we are the cause of this is, paradoxically, good news since it hands back to us the potential to change our behaviour and reclaim the brain function and cognitive health that’s been disrupted by our digitally enhanced lives. And this may even be more important than simply improving our levels of concentration. Constant, high levels of circulating stress hormones have an inflammatory and detrimental affect on brain cells, suggests the psychiatrist Edward Bullmore, who has written about the link between inflammation and depression in his latest book, The Inflamed Mind. Depression, along with anxiety, is a known factor in knocking out concentration.

Put simply, better concentration attains life easier and less stressful and we will be more productive. To make this change means reflecting on what we are doing to sabotage personal concentration, and then implementing steps towards behavioural change that will improve our chances of concentrating better. This entails purposely reducing distractions and being more self-disciplined about our use of social media, which are increasingly urgent for the sake of our cognitive and mental health.

It takes about three weeks for a recur behaviour to form a habit, says Jeremy Dean, a psychologist and the author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits. Getting into a new habit will not happen overnight and adaptation can be incremental. Start by switching off smartphone alerts, or taking social media apps off your phone, then switching off the device for increasingly long periods.

Practise concentration by finding things to do that specifically engage you for a period of time to the exclusion of everything else. What is noticeable is that you cannot just go from a country of distraction to one of concentration, in the same way that most of us cannot fall asleep the minute our head makes the pillow. It takes a bit of day and, with practice, becomes easier to accomplish.

The’ five more’ rule

women Meditation can restore equilibrium. Photograph: Alamy

This is a simple way of learning to concentrate better. It runs like this: whenever you feel like quitting- only do five more- five more minutes, five more exerts, five more pages- which will widen your focus. The rule pushes you simply beyond the phase of frustration and assists build mental concentration. It’s a form of training as well as being a way of getting something accomplished.

Sitting still therefore seems an easy thing to achieve. But it is more difficult than it voices. It is akin to meditation, which can be a useful way to improve concentration. In this case, however, merely get in to a comfortable, supported stance and sit still and do nothing for five minutes. Use it as a intermission between activities. Of course, if you already practise meditation, combination this with breathing for a quick “time out”.

Meditation and focus

Switching off from both external and internal distractions does not come easily. Learning how to be more mindful, practising mindfulness or meditation, can all is facilitated by largest concentration , not least because feeling calmer restores equilibrium and focus.

Most of us breathe poorly: we tend to over-breathe, taking three or four breaths employing merely the upper part of our lung capacity, when one good breath using the lungs more completely would serve us better. This shallow breathing is very tiring , not only because we expend unnecessary muscular energy, but because we reduce our oxygen intake per breath.

In its extreme kind, over-breathing becomes hyperventilation, which can trigger panic attack. In all mindfulness or meditation practice, breathing is key. So it’s wise to learn good techniques first. A daily practice, starting with 10 minutes and building on it, means that the ability to take some restorative “time out” will also be available to you 😛 TAGEND

Lie comfortably on the floor, knees bent, chin tucked in- what Alexander Technique educators call the” constructive rest position”- or sit upright in a chair, legs uncrossed, feet flat on the floor.

Consciously relax your neck and drop-off your shoulders, remainder your arms by your sides with your palms turned upwards.

Breathe long and gently through your nose, into your belly until you see it gently rise, for a slow count of five.

Pause, and hold that breath for a counting of five, then gently exhale through your mouth for another count of five.

While doing this, try to clear your mind of all other believes, or if this is difficult close your eyes and visualise a pebble fell into a pond of water and gently sinking down.

Repeat this breathing cycle 10 times; then see how your regular breathing adjusts.

You can also use this breathing technique at any time you feel tense or emphasized, or as the basis of any meditation.

Lack of sleep affects concentration at work. Photograph: Sam Edwards/ Getty Images

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *