Most people have a hard time maintaining focus on … Hey, look, I got a text!
Ours is a world inundated with distractions, making it difficult for us to pay close attention to the things we know we need to focus on. From mobile phones to social media (and everything in between), it is challenging to take it all in more than superficially — or, to say it another way, to dial-in on one subject or task with sustained, uninterrupted concentration.
Studies show that our technology-addicted, multitasking lifestyle might be taking a toll on our creativity, productivity and overall health. According to the late Clifford Nass, a former psychology professor at Stanford University, “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.”
This flitting from one moment to another, rarely allowing our thoughts to linger on one thing for too long, is like wearing headphones that carry different voices, each one telling a different story in each ear; the result is a disruptive, cacophony of sounds and thoughts. These fractured experiences are, at best, distracting; and, at worst, they’re changing the very functioning of our brains.
The fractured experiences brought about by multitasking are, at worst, changing the very functioning of our brains.
As creative thinkers, this is especially challenging, as much of this type of work is contingent on “staying in the zone.” And different jobs (not to mention different personalities) require different methods to stay on task. For example, a writer might benefit from putting on headphones to cut down on the background noise to simulate a feeling of isolation, while a visual artist might focus best with ambient noise in the background. However, regardless of the job, when intense, problem-solving is necessary, silence is best.
In other words, the more distractions we entertain, the worse we become at concentrating. By accepting the role of “multitasker,” you are actually changing the structure of your brain to perform at a lower level.
So what’s the solution?
It is imperative that we learn (or relearn, as the case may be) how to stay focused on one activity at one time. And this new/old way of working takes practice.
Intuitively, we know if we would simply turn off our various devices and apps for a bit of time, it would free us up to delve in to the task at hand with a renewed focus. When we set aside dedicated amounts of time for specific work that requires our full attention, we are actually using the higher-level portions of our mind — the part that allows us to execute more complex functions, like planning and scheduling. And yes, while dedicated focus can be challenging to maintain — because tasks that require focus are mentally taxing — they are also the jobs that make our brains feel and actually function better.
So why is it so challenging to keep ourselves focused on one task at a time? Why are we drawn to answer that text or check our social media accounts throughout the day? The answer: Because it feels good (but … also bad).
Allow me to clarify:
When we bounce from one activity to another, we aren’t actually getting more done. That’s a false perception. In fact, studies show we aren’t actually multitasking at all, but instead just switching from one task to another very quickly. And that mercurial mindset inefficiently burns up our finite stores of precious mental energy. Dan Levitin, professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, says that all of this “switching comes with a biological cost that ends up making us feel tired much more quickly than if we sustain attention on one thing.”
But multitasking brings more problems than just brain fatigue. Levitin says it also increases both the stress hormone cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. These hormones tend to overstimulate the brain, causing more “mental fog” and/or “scrambled thinking.” And here’s the kicker: multitasking also lights up the reward centers of our brain, delivering a powerful dopamine feedback loop. It’s creating a type of addiction — constantly bringing us back for more, despite the negative physical effects.
And, like other addictions, it can be a hard one to kick.
So how do we shift our habits to ones that are more beneficial to our overall health?
According to an increasing body of research, taking a break every few hours after focused work is critical to brain health. Levitin explains that our minds have a daydream mode that functions as our mental reset button. We can trigger this reset button by simply taking a walk in nature, listening to music, and even napping. Theses healthier mind breaks allow you to disconnect and give your brain the space to wander, keeping your mental energy stores high for more focused attention later on.
One huge barrier to such behavioral change, as you may be thinking, can be workplace culture. Not every employer will look favorably upon you taking extra breaks or nodding off at your desk. But, many progressive companies — Google, perhaps, most famous among them — are changing their cultures to embrace such thinking. Laszlo Bock, who heads Google’s People Operations Department (i.e., HR), says that the company applies “analytics and data and science to what we do on the people side.” That is to say, they’ll take an interesting idea — like mid-day naps — and test whether or not it provides a true, measurable benefit. And their research is beginning to show these types of “mental breaks” are, indeed, helping their employees to become more focused and productive. Perhaps, the times … they are a’ changin.’
Okay, fine, this is all interesting and nice to hear. But how can we actually apply any of it in a real-life scenario? Beyond the aforementioned cultural barriers, behavioral change is hard. Resisting that distracting dopamine rush may be healthy in the long run, but it feels punitive in the present. Luckily, there are some helpful digital tools that can assist along the way. Here are a few:
This is a Google Chrome extension that delivers a simple time-management method. It uses a timer to break down work sessions into 25 minute intervals, with 5 minute breaks (i.e., work for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5, etc.). In addition, the tool can be used to block certain distracting sites (e.g., Facebook) while you’re in work-mode.
This is a Firefox add on, which the company describes as a way to avoid “time-wasting sites that can suck the life out of your working day … All you need to do is specify which sites to block and when to block them.” Or, if you’d prefer to modify your site usage (rather than block it completely), the tool can be used to set a designated amount of time per-hour to visit certain sites.
This is a smartphone app, whose creators describe it as the “smart to-do app for busy people.” It is most appropriate for personal organization, allowing you set simple “to-do” tasks (i.e. pickup the “thank you” card; call Leslie at 2pm) in the program. The purpose is to liberate the mind from daily, mundane organizational tasks, theoretically freeing you to pursue other, more important endeavors.
Whether with the use of apps, improved company culture, a personal mission, or a combination of the three, it is important that we learn to improve our focus in this fast-paced and distracting, digital world. Work that truly matters requires real mental energy. If we are constantly distracted, our finite stores of neural energy get used up before that real work has even begun. This not only does a disservice to the task at hand, but also conditions our brains to work less efficiently over time.
As Voltaire said, “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.” And, with that in mind, I’m off to take a long walk. My brain needs a reboot.
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