Struggling to focus? How to avoid the focus trap.

October 18

Does anyone else get easily distracted?

Do you find yourself starting a task on the to-do list, determined that you will have a productive day, yet quickly find yourself scrolling Instagram, reading your WhatsApp notifications, or thinking about the meeting you have later or dwelling on a mistake you made yesterday?

And all this happened automatically as if you had no control over it?

Anyone else with me on this?

Research conducted in the early 2000’s showed the attention span of human beings reduced from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. 

No wonder we see more headlines like ‘Humans now have an attention span shorter than a goldfish’.

According to some studies, an adult attention span is a maximum of 20 minutes. That sounds pretty optimistic although maybe it is just my brain!

And it still baffles me that we have virtual meetings that last an hour long without breaks.

So why is our attention span worthy of a comparison to a goldfish?

In a digitalised world and ever-increasing competition for our attention with notifications, pop-ups, adverts and smart AI technology, it is hardly surprising that our ability to maintain focus is rapidly decreasing.

However, whilst this is a challenge we must overcome, focus and concentration for humans have always been challenging, and for good reason.

Biologically, we have evolved with the ability to get distracted and be vigilant.

This was a crucial survival tool to anticipate and spot dangerous threats when we were out foraging for food with our tribe.

If we focused for too long, we might not see the danger coming. This would be catastrophic for our survival.

Whilst the brain has evolved to vigilantly protect us, lack of focus is not helpful when we are trying to be productive and get tasks done.

So how can you become more focused?

The skill is less about trying to focus, and more about refocus.

Focussing on ‘trying to focus’ ignores the science and biology outlined above. You spend unneeded energy struggling with the fact you cannot focus, leaving you more distracted and frustrated.

Refocus is a skill that accepts the imperfection of the brain and its inability to focus, practising the skill of being aware when the mind is distracted and uses a tool to refocus back into the present moment.

Whilst the average attention span is decreasing, you can practice the skill to be in the zone of high attention span more regularly.

One simple mindfulness task you can use is noticing when you get distracted.

Most of the time we lack awareness of when we get distracted. Sooner or later hours of passed by and you end up beating yourself up.

Practice noticing when you start scrolling social media and say to yourself:

I am noticing that my mind is distracted by social media.

Take a deep mindful breath and refocus your attention back onto the task you were doing.

The Pomodoro Technique.

As a geek of neuroscience, I love to explore simple ways to help us build habits that last. 

In a bid to hack the productivity puzzle, I invited Dr Gabija Toleikyte to deliver a masterclass to The PAC community members. She explained the neuroscience of habits and offered a simple technique we could use to overcome distraction.

It goes like this.

In this technique, rather than procrastination as a routine response to distraction/boredom, you replace the routine (procrastination) with the following system:

  • Set a timer to 25-minutes
  • Work until the timer rings
  • Take a 5-minute breaks

Repeat stages 2-4

  • After four work cycles, reward yourself with a 30-minute break.
This approach is not using willpower or motivation. It uses a simple system. Repeat the system consistently and persistently and you will reap the benefit of higher levels of productivity.

In essence, rather than aiming to maintain focus for hours, break it down into simple bite chunks. It may go against the grain of traditional workplace thinking, but it will increase your productivity, health, and results.

Happy, healthy and energetic people = more valuable people and better results.

If you are a manager or leader responsible for a team and creating conditions for learning, take a courageous step to encourage your team to embed this practice.

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