In a world full of self-confessed multitaskers, we are rarely focussing on one thing. If you’re listening to music on the train, you’re probably also scrolling through the news or Instagram. When you're cooking dinner you might have the TV on in the background. Maybe you’re even making a mental shopping list when having a coffee with a friend. We’re so well practiced in distraction, is it any wonder that we struggle to give one task our full attention?
Why do we get so distracted?
A 2002 report found that we can’t go longer that eight minutes on average without an interruption. By making ourselves available for these moments at anytime, anyplace, we have adopted a state of mind that is constantly scanning rather than zooming in. Our brains are so used to being over stimulated that when we try to focus, we are almost looking for a reason to stop.
Dopamine is a chemical released by our brains that is usually associated with pleasure. You might get a rush of this when you have yummy bite of food or find money in the pocket of an old jacket but also when you complete a task or learn something new. The problem is that it doesn’t matter how small that task is, or what exactly you are learning. Psychologist and mental health & wellness expert Dr Audrey Tang says that dopamine is actually more of a reward centre. ‘Yes, it gives us a sense of pleasure, but it's working out the behaviours that are "rewarding" and thus need to be repeated.’ In this way, we get little hits of dopamine through procrastination. Making a cup of tea or opening a notification is rewarding for that moment.
A simple solution may appear to be - remove all distractions. Hide your phone, turn off the internet or lock ourselves in a room with only the task. However, distractions aren’t always physical objects, they can also be your thoughts. To teach ourselves to focus, what we really need to tackle is our craving for these distractions.
Start your day right
What’s the first thing you do in the morning? A study by the IDC found that 4 in 5 phone users in the US checked their phone within 15 minutes of waking. With most of using our phone as an alarm, we are confronted with notifications from the get go but research has shown this can have negative effects on your concentration throughout the day. ‘Reaching for your phone and throwing your energy into your inbox or the news first thing can set you up for a stressful day as well as dimming your optimism and creativity,’ explains Physiologist and sleep exert Dr Nerina Shearman. ‘We should take time in every morning to check in with ourselves before moving out into the day.’ Our brain has four different wave categories and Cognitive Behavioural Therapist & personal performance coach Lorna Devine explains that checking your phone first thing means you will ‘skip the theta and alpha stages and move straight to the beta state.’ The beta waves show that a brain is fully engaged. Beta waves are used when you are stressed whereas theta waves are used when in a state of mental relaxation and can lead to a flow of ideas and creative thinking. Lorna recommends putting your phone on airplane mode, this will mean you can use it as an alarm, but you won’t be tempted to start scrolling first thing so you can let your creative juices flow instead.
There’s no one-size fits all hack for unwavering concentration. Everyone will have their own way of working productively. Keep notes of days you were ‘on a roll’ and try to recreate that environment. Be analytical when you’re struggling too. Business coach Glenda merchant advises, ‘be really honest, acknowledge what it is that is stopping you tackling that task, once you know what the problem is, it is far, far easier to deal with.’ Is it too large, is it too boring? Do you keep having thoughts pop into your head. Now you can choose how to tackle this.
Break it down
Our overstimulated brains love to try and take on everything at once. In a working day you might be tackling three different projects whilst answering calls and replying to every email that pops up. Think you're multi-tasking? Wrong. ‘True multitasking is doing a task that requires different parts of the brain such as running (physical) while listening to music (mental),’ says Audrey. ‘Doing three cognitive things at once (writing an email, listening to your children, and planning dinner) is attention splitting...meaning whilst all the tasks get done, no single one gets your full attention.’
According to research by the University of California, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to a task after being interrupted. So, quickly replying to that email or putting a wash on won’t just take you 30 seconds, it will cost you 25 minutes and 30 seconds of focus. Organise your tasks and give them your full attention. If you have a particular big one, ‘break it up into manageable pieces and allocate a time to each section,’ advises Glenda. Overwhelmed with too many tasks? Try this:
Divide an A4 sheet into 4 quarters. In the top boxes write ‘Important’ and ‘Urgent. In the bottom 2 quarters write ‘Not Urgent’ then ‘Not Important’. Put your tasks on post-it notes and put them into the appropriate boxes. Anything lying between important and urgent is where you should start. You can then move these notes around when your situation changes.
Take a mindful moment
Many studies have shown taking breaks can increase productivity. Take this to the next level and make your break a mindful one. Audrey suggests practicing this technique:
Identify five things you can see. Four things you can hear. Three things you can touch. Two things you can smell. One thing you can taste.
Doing this, even for a short moment, will ‘help slow down your breathing and give you headspace to consider your next move,’ she explains.
Just like anything, becoming better at concentration takes practice. Making time for moments like this on a regular basis will improve your focus. Single minded acts like skipping, knitting, or running can also act like an active meditation. Lorna Devine explains, ‘relaxation is known to boost creativity, so engage in activities that make you feel relaxed, for example deep breathing or having a bath with magnesium salts. Focus is not a lesson that they teach at school. Our world is full of notifications, pop ups and advertisements that can make it very easy to become distracted. It’s a lesson you can begin to learn now though, and if you made it to the end of this article, that’s a great start.