The Commodity of Attention and the Challenge of Staying Focussed
Staying focussed has never been harder.
Our attention and our ability to focus it may be one of today’s most precious commodities. In this age of advanced technology, more and more people are prone to experiencing forgetfulness and other signs of stress. With frequent distractions and constant demands on our attention, remaining focused can be extraordinarily challenging. As a result, our productivity is dwindling and our mental health is deteriorating. Never before has the commodity of attention had more value.
Rise of ADHD, distraction, and information overload
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Attention Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADHD) is on the rise with rates of ADHD diagnosis increasing an average of 5.5% per year from 2003 to 2007. Distraction has become an every-day phenomenon, and never have we been so busy tending to all the pieces of information now available at our fingertips at the press of a button. Studies have shown that we now receive four to five times as much information every day as we did in 1980. Ironically, the very technology that was invented to simplify our lives and increase our leisure time has instead multiplied our responsibilities, eating up more and more of our time and attention.
Multitasking is a myth
In an effort to cope, we are trying to do more. Although we realize the potential danger involved in operating machinery while we are distracted (texting and driving in teens and adults, for example), we nevertheless try to accomplish more than one thing at the same time. We feel compelled to multitask in order to survive in our over-stimulated world, and we are struggling more than we realize.
It turns out that multitasking is a myth, and the human brain has a limited capacity to manage multiple functions simultaneously. In fact when it comes to tasks that involve any sort of thinking, human brains don’t actually perform two tasks at the same time. Instead our brains handle cognitive tasks sequentially, switching back and forth between tasks so quickly that we have the mistaken impression that we are multitasking. In reality, our brain is switching attention between tasks, and only ever performing one task at a time. As a result, when we embark on two attention demanding tasks, we underperform.
The Brain has a Capacity Limit
Add to the exhaustion and inefficiency of switching between tasks, the brain has limited capacity. A Carnegie Mellon study showed that no matter how different two tasks are, or how diverse the area of the brain utilized for a task, the brain can only do so much at one time. In other words, the more information we try to engage and manipulate simultaneously, the more data we lose because it is just not possible to focus on all of it at once. Chunks of information will necessarily be forgotten until we are reminded of them, and this can be stressful.
In our modern, fast-paced world, we often think about just how much there is for us to remember and we worry; we feel a lack of control, and it scares us. Allowing our attention to be overloaded yields mental fatigue and forgetfulness, that in turn generates anxiety, and likewise limits our ability to focus. This overload sets up a cascade of inattention and feelings of being overwhelmed that often defines our busy lives today. It can be a vicious cycle indeed.
10 Tips to Leverage your Attention
1. Focus your concentration on whatever is most vital. Don’t be afraid to dismiss irrelevant information!
2. Get more sleep. A tired brain is an inefficient brain.
3. Recognize fatigue and act on it. Know when your tired times are, and plan accordingly.
4. Improve your attention
- Make a to-do list.
- Take an active interest in what you’re doing.
- Find the joy in accomplishing your tasks. Changing negative perceptions into positive ones helps to create satisfaction.
- Recognize the myth of multi-tasking and avoid it. If you must multi-task, reserve it for only the easiest and most routine tasks that do not demand thinking. .
- Beware of procrastination. If something isn’t a priority right now, then right now it is a waste of time. Schedule it for a time that is more suitable instead.
5. Limit distractions and minimize the opportunity for interruptions.
6. Improve focus and patience: The more available technology and information become and the more quickly and easily we can connect with others, the less we are able to focus on one thing or one person at a time – and the less patience and self-restraint we have to wait for a response. Gently but firmly setting limits for ourselves and what we focus our attention on goes a long way in encouraging the practice of patience and consideration.
7. Limit alcohol. Alcohol takes more than 24 hours to leave our systems – and when it does, it leaves us feeling more anxious, further impairing our ability to focus.
8. Use caffeine in moderation. Excess caffeine creates overstimulation, which limits one’s ability to focus.
9. Exercise Studies show that as little as 20 minutes of aerobic exercise will increase your ability to concentrate and focus. No time? Take as much as you have to get your blood pumping. Try jumping jacks, climbing stairs, or running in place in 5-10 minute intervals between tasks.
10. Identify the causes and effects of anxiety. Anxiety can help harness focus, but too much anxiety can limit it. Anxiety is also a byproduct of being overtaxed and scattered. Understanding what your anxiety is telling you about yourself can help you use it productively.
Due to technological progress, we are inundated with more data than ever before – and it can feel impossible to manage it all. We collect too much information (from both external sources – such as events and information – and internal sources – our own thoughts and feelings), and we get stressed out. The more anxious we are, the less we focus and the more vital data is lost, causing us to feel frustrated and inefficient, which feeds and facilitates the cycle of anxiety. Active focusing and prioritizing helps our minds differentiate between important and unimportant pieces of information, avoids the fatigue and inefficiency of multitasking, and keeps us on track so we can feel a sense of accomplishment rather than stress. There is more time in a day and a week than most of us recognize. Engaging in focused activities yields quality results. So don’t be afraid to make attention your focus.
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Bohn, R. E., & Short, J. E. (2009, December). How Much Information? 2009 Report on American Consumers. Global Information Industry Center University of California, San Diego. Retrieved from http://hmi.ucsd.edu/howmuchinfo.php.
Madden, M. & Lenhart, A. (2009, November 16). Teens and distracted driving: Texting, talking and other uses of the cell phone behind the wheel. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved September 15, 2013 from http://www.distraction.gov.
National Safety Council, (April, 2012). Understanding the distracted brain: Why driving while using hands-free cell phones is risky behavior. distracteddriving.nsc.org. Retrieved October 9, 2013 from http://www.nsc.org.