Table of contents:

All about the ability to concentrate: what is stopping us and how to stop distractions
All about the ability to concentrate: what is stopping us and how to stop distractions

If you find it difficult to concentrate, social media has nothing to do with it. Evolution with psychology is to blame.

All about the ability to concentrate: what is stopping us and how to stop distractions
All about the ability to concentrate: what is stopping us and how to stop distractions

What's Wrong With Our Attitude Toward Concentration

We constantly hear that modern people have forgotten how to concentrate. And that it is precisely the ability to focus and work that deeply separates the successful from the mediocre. I think this approach is very crushing and shameful.

By admitting that you have distracted attention, it’s like declaring that you are a failure. After all, who wants to think of themselves as one of those distracted by nonsense and unable to focus on their goals. As a result, many simply deny that it is difficult for them to concentrate.

But what if we evaluate concentration from a purely practical point of view, forgetting about the culturally celebrated “moral superiority” of those who know how not to be distracted for a long time? This was the starting point for improving my own concentration. I was inspired by an excerpt from Chris Bailey's book Hyperfocus.

“Having researched this question for years, I found that the word 'productivity' was overgrown with additional meanings,” he writes. - Usually it is associated with something cold, corporate and overly focused on efficiency. I prefer a different, friendlier definition: being productive means achieving what we set out to achieve. If we planned to write three thousand words in a day, give a presentation to management, and parse e-mails and did it all successfully, we were productive. Likewise, if we were going to have a relaxed day and really didn't do anything, we were productive again."

In the same book, I learned that it is intention - what I am concentrating for - that fuels attention.

To increase the duration of concentration, you need to know why it is important for me. To train her is just so pointless.

We'll get to practical tips, but first let's talk about this:

  • What is happening now with our ability to concentrate (debunk the popular comparison with a goldfish).
  • What are the real reasons that prevent us from focusing (spoiler: technology has nothing to do with it).
  • How our attention is arranged (and how to use it to your advantage).

This article is long, but let this be a preliminary test of concentration for you. Maybe by the end you will find that things are not so bad.

Why is it useless to measure concentration time

You've probably read at least one article complaining that people are losing the ability to concentrate in the digital age. Most often they write that the average duration of concentration decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013. That is, now, as bloggers and journalists tell us, goldfish stay focused longer than we do - for 9 seconds.

These figures were quoted by many influential publications, usually pointing to a study by Canadian Microsoft and not noticing that it refers to the Institute for Brain Statistical Research, and that to other sources. Fortunately, there were people who dug deeper. It turned out that these figures are taken from the air and are not supported by any scientific data.

The reliability of this statement is also doubtful because from the point of view of psychology, the concept of the average duration of concentration does not make sense.

How long we can concentrate too much depends on the context, so generalized numbers are of no practical use.

As the psychologist Gemma Briggs notes, everything is connected with a specific task and a person's condition. And this is logical. My ability to concentrate changes throughout the day. If in the morning I can write without stopping for 2 hours, it is almost impossible to accomplish such a feat in the afternoon. In addition, attention behaves differently depending on how much effort the task requires. For example, reading a scientific paper is not at all the same as reading a thrilling thriller.

So all is not lost, your concentration has not disappeared irrevocably. Yes, it may be difficult for you to devote all your attention to one case for a long time, but this does not mean that your brain is broken. Most likely, the ability to concentrate in the 21st century has not changed that much, just new living and working conditions exacerbate the brain's natural tendency to be distracted.

Why technology alone doesn't interfere with concentration

We used to blame them for attention problems. The notifications that keep piling up on smartphones and the fear of missing out on something that they trigger is what we usually attribute to difficulty concentrating. But this is only the outer side of the issue, and the root of the problem is deeper.

I realized this when I tried to overcome my addiction to the phone. To begin with, I began to notice when I reach out to him for no reason. It turned out that there is always a reason. Usually this is some kind of emotional discomfort from which you want to escape: boredom, awkwardness, anxiety.

In other words, the use of the phone, and with it the excessive consumption of media and social media content, was a reaction to unpleasant experiences, not a cause of distractions.

What really prevents us from concentrating

People have always had problems with concentration. As Nir Eyal writes in her book The Non-Distracted: “Previous generations were helped by social pressure - before the invention of the personal computer, desktop procrastination was visible to everyone around them. Reading a magazine or talking about your weekend on the phone made it clear to coworkers that you were shirking work.”

Today, everything is far from so obvious, and if you work from home, the social factor disappears altogether. In general, the circumstances have changed:

  • More than ever, many people are engaged in intellectual work, for them long concentration is very important.
  • Intellectual work usually implies that a person has to process a huge amount of information.
  • Distraction - our electronic devices are always at hand. Moreover, we have a false sense of productivity, for example when we read articles on the Internet and call it “collecting materials”.
  • Invisibility of distractions to others reduces social responsibility.

All of these circumstances make concentration problems more noticeable, but do not cause them. After reading many books about attention and observing myself, I can conclude that the reasons lie in our psychology.

1. Lack of purpose

Productivity is often a fetish from a means to an end. We try to be productive and focused for productivity itself. But with this approach, the brain does not understand why it should concentrate and make efforts at all. Naturally, good results cannot be achieved this way.

2. Striving for novelty

The ability to concentrate on one thing for a long time was disadvantageous for evolution. Much more important was the ability to quickly redirect attention in response to unexpected danger. As a result, our brains are still constantly looking for novelty. This behavior is reinforced by the release of dopamine when we switch to a new task, browser tab, or TV program.

Moreover, in search of new incentives, a person is ready to go very far. In one study, participants were asked to sit in a room for 15 minutes and just think. In the room there was only a device with which one could lightly but painfully shock oneself with an electric current. Prior to the experiment, all participants said they were willing to pay to avoid it. But when they were alone in the room with boredom, 67% of men and 25% of women used the device, some even more than once.

3. Congestion

The ability to concentrate is not limitless. When we overstep boundaries and overload our attention, we lose our ability to focus. This happens when we try to do too much at the same time or focus on something difficult for a very long time.

As Chris Bailey writes, the more often we fill our attention to the brim, the more time it takes us to switch between tasks, the less we are able to filter out unnecessary information on the go, and the more difficult it is for us to suppress the urge to jump from one task to another.

4. Emotional discomfort

This is the biggest problem for me. While I was weaning myself off the phone, I noticed that during the day there are countless emotions and sensations. They encourage me to shift my attention away from what I'm doing to something else.

Like the desire for novelty, it is related to our evolutionary development. As scientists write, if satisfaction and pleasure were constant, we would lose the incentive to continue looking for new benefits and advantages. In other words, these feelings were not helpful to our species, and today we are constantly experiencing anxiety.

For the past three years I have been trying to solve these problems. I gritted my teeth and tried not to be distracted. It worked, but only to a certain extent: I was unable to bypass the structure of the brain. Things started to change when I accepted the reasons for my difficulty concentrating. I stopped fighting them and began to learn how to wrap them up to my advantage. To do this, we need to understand how our attention is arranged.

How to properly manage attention

Think of attention as a physical space that only holds a certain number of tasks at a time. It depends on how much of our "computing power" is needed for each of them. For example, you can iron your clothes, listen to the radio and sing along at the same time. Such cases take up quite a bit of space, we do them almost automatically.

Difficult tasks are different. They require conscious involvement and more space. This is, for example, a serious conversation, writing a report, reading a book on philosophy. The more complex the case, the less space is left for the synchronous execution of others. For example, when you listen closely to a friend's story about their problems, you may find it difficult to brew tea, although under normal circumstances you do it without hesitation.

The ability to concentrate is highly dependent on how you manage your space of attention. For best results, follow these guidelines.

Leave "free" space

During a complex task, this allows you to do two things. First, think about the best strategy. You may come up with ideas that would not have occurred if attention was packed to capacity. For example, remove a lengthy introduction from the presentation and go straight to the main topic. Secondly, notice where you are directing your attention, and when inevitably distracted, return to the task.

Curiously, the same approach is practiced in mindfulness meditation. The meditator is told to focus on the breath, but not to direct all attention to it. The rest of it is needed to observe what is happening in consciousness.

Try to avoid "tails"

They arise when we switch from one thing to another, especially if the first one has not been completed. Let's say you are writing an important message and suddenly the phone rings. While you are talking, your brain continues to think about the message and you find it difficult to concentrate. Such thoughts are the “tail” of the previous case. To avoid it arising, try not to jump from one task to another if possible.

How to learn to concentrate better

Consider four psychological factors that can undermine concentration.

If the problem is lack of purpose

It is important to know why you personally need to improve concentration. Otherwise, it will turn out that you are doing it just out of vanity.

Try to find a practical purpose. Think about which actions will make the greatest difference in your life if you can better concentrate on them. For example, communicating with children, writing texts or studying. Then remember that you usually get distracted from it.

For me, writing texts was a matter that required increased concentration. I’ve found that it’s only with good concentration that I can put my best ideas into words and build the career I want. And from the distractions she singled out checking social networks, having snacks and sending messages to friends in the midst of work.

If the problem is the pursuit of novelty

So that it does not distract, but, on the contrary, helps, try to turn the task into pleasure. To do this, rethink it or change the approach to it. Make complex elements part of the game.

For example, when I was writing this article, it was difficult for me to concentrate. At some point, it began to seem to me that I would not be able to do anything at all, that it was too difficult. Then I turned the process into a game: I imagined that I was a romantic writer, who is so immersed in her work that she no longer cares about anything.

I delved deeper into the collection of information and began to write out curious thoughts, even if they would not be included in the article. She spread the books and drafts on the table and floor. I created the conditions in which I felt like a character from a movie. Having thus turned the problem into a game, I began to pay attention to how I type, take notes and form sentences. And I saw possible new approaches in work. This introduced enough novelty to the process that I was not distracted by other things.

Another way is to allow yourself mini distractions. They're even good for concentration, and here's why:

  • They free up the space of attention for a few moments. This allows you to take a little break from mental effort.
  • They provoke the release of dopamine from the change of activity, but at the same time they do not lead too far from your business.

Mini-distractions do not burst into the space of attention as new tasks, but are born inside it. Here are some examples:

  • look a little out the window;
  • change your pose;
  • take a deliberate sip of tea or coffee.

Whenever I find myself wanting to be distracted, I allow myself to spend a few moments on something like that. These distractions do not bring in new thoughts (unlike social media) and they are short, so I don't have time to forget what I was doing.

If the problem is attention congestion

Before tackling a difficult task, make sure that it "fits" into your attention space. If it's too big, don't try to shove it all the way up. Break it down into small steps and take them one at a time.

Introduce opening and closing rituals so that "tails" do not appear. That is, so that thoughts about the previous action do not follow you into the next. These should be some kind of symbolic actions that mark the beginning and end of the work. They will prepare the brain for what is to come next and facilitate the transition from one task to the next.

For example, before writing, I light a candle, burn incense, or just put a cup of coffee next to the computer. And to complete the work, I like to write down what I have achieved today, or meditate for a minute.

Track distractions to avoid them in time. To do this, regularly ask yourself: "What is my attention now directed to?" Then you will be able to consciously respond to your sensations, and not automatically respond to them.

For example, while I'm writing this, I feel hungry. But I know I've almost finished the point on attention overload. This helps me not to be distracted by running to the kitchen for food, but to make a conscious choice: to finish writing, and then take a long break for lunch and rest.

Recognize helpful distractions. An urge to visit Facebook can signal that your attention is depleted and it's time to take a break. And fidgeting in a chair is what you need to take a walk or do a stretch.

To distinguish a useful distraction from a harmful one, I ask myself these questions:

  • Have I worked well enough not to worry if I'm distracted now?
  • Is the urge to distract due to the fact that I've already done a lot and I'm tired, or am I just not completely immersed in the task?
  • If I don't succumb to this distraction now, what is the chance that I will be able to return to full focus in the next 5 minutes?

If emotional discomfort is the problem

Try to hold out for the first 5-10 minutes. Getting started on a big task is usually the most difficult, so the key is to get over that initial discomfort.

For example, when I can't get started writing, I tell myself that it's okay if I just stare at a blank page for the first 10 minutes. I do not force myself to achieve anything during this time. My only goal is to overcome resistance. Usually, after a few minutes of looking at the screen, I realize that I can start typing something. So I smoothly flow into the task, and then it is already easier for me to maintain concentration.

Don't try to relieve emotional discomfort immediately. Instead, focus entirely on the unpleasant sensation.

I do this: when I notice that some feeling pushes me to be distracted, I take 10 conscious breaths and exhalations. Don't tell yourself that you won't be distracted after that. Promise yourself to do whatever you want, provided that you do this exercise first.

Pay attention to how the breath and uncomfortable emotions feel. Studies have shown that simply observing them without negative assessment results in them scattering. It happens to me. In at least 70–80% of cases, after 10 conscious inhalation and exhalation, the desire for distraction disappears by itself.

How to apply concentration tips

So, you are armed with practical advice. Now you need to figure out how to put them together and apply them to improve concentration in the most important areas. To do this, I propose a three-step plan.

1. Create the conditions to experience the benefits of concentration

Set aside a few hours for something that requires concentration. Remove all potential distractions and allow yourself to enjoy the task. When the time is up, reflect and write down any changes in your work or your feelings you notice. Try to find as many benefits as possible.

If it doesn't work the first time, don't give up. Despite your best efforts, there can always be something unexpected that distracts you. Just repeat this step one more time until you feel the practical benefits of improved concentration.

2. Practice on what is not too important to you

When you have appreciated the benefits of good concentration, you can practice using the methods described above. Start with a task that is not too important to you so that you don't feel too pressured.

Ideally, you should choose something that you like and that will be even better with the extra concentration. For example, cooking, walking, or reading. We can perform all these actions on autopilot, but they bring more pleasure if you pay enough attention to them.

I started training by jogging. I can run without thinking, but I noticed that when I concentrate on breathing, speed, my body and the surrounding landscape, the sensations become fuller. This gave me the motivation to develop focus. At the same time, I could experiment without feeling that much depends on my success or failure.

3. Apply skills to solve the most important problems

When you practice for some time, you will begin to understand how your attention works. You will begin to notice what supports it, what violates it, and which of the proposed tools are best for you.

Now you can apply the acquired skills to the most important tasks. Remember to be clear about your goal and the distractions from it. Over time, techniques that maintain concentration will become a habit. You will start using them as if they were the most natural thing in the world.