[2.5 Minute Read or Listen Below]
No doubt, you've heard the statistic that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish. Human attention wanes between 6 and 8.25 seconds depending on whose statistics you read, while the goldfish hangs in there for 9 seconds. The commonly held belief is that technology has eroded our ability to concentrate with continuous notifications and never-ending scrolling.
But despite turning off every possible notification and shutting down browser tabs, why can it still be so hard to focus? While technology is an undeniable problem, the reality is there are two types of distraction: external and internal.
External distractions are sensory. We hear others talking, hear phones ringing, notifications pinging, music playing. We see people physically moving around in our proximity. While we love to blame external distractions for our inability to focus, keeping the internal distractions at bay is far more challenging.
Internal distractions are the thoughts that pull our attention. We've all been there. We're in a less than exciting meeting, or we don't feel the information is relevant to us, so we start checking email or thinking about the next meeting. The scary truth is, we're just as likely to interrupt ourselves as get interrupted by something external. Ouch!
But what triggers our internal disruptions?
The vast majority of people don't feel they have much control over how they spend their time during the day and will often assert control through distraction. It sounds completely counter-productive, but it's a way the brain copes.
Distraction can often stand in as a replacement for social interaction. It would be hard to argue that social interaction has taken a severe hit in the last couple of years. As social creatures, we need to acknowledge the importance of balancing focus time and socialization.
Sometimes, nagging thoughts arise out of our persistent compulsion to multi-task. Hovering in a state of half-attention, we poorly execute or only partially complete tasks. Our brain does not let go of the feeling something is undone or poorly done, and thoughts of those tasks will continue to pop into our minds and distract us.
And, of course, we have our trusty sidekick procrastination, which can lead us to distraction as an avoidance technique.
But instead of banishing distractions altogether, we need to get comfortable recognizing them and processing them. It's easy to blame notifications, social media, and the people around us when we feel distracted. Unfortunately, it's not the whole story.
The only way to fight distraction is to recognize when you're distracted and have a plan of action. Focus is a muscle you must work to build its strength. Incorporate focused blocks of time into your calendar and eliminate as many external distractions as possible. When you become aware you're distracted during those blocks, don't ignore it! If you're thinking of a report you have to complete, a phone call you need to make, or that you forgot to buy cat food, write it down. Then return immediately to your focused work! By writing the thought down, your brain will know you've captured it for "doing" later and stop the nagging.
While in your focused time block, I don't recommend capturing nagging thoughts directly into an app or an online task management system. The chances of falling down the rabbit hole of distraction increase the longer you take your attention away from your focused work. Jot it down, and return to it when your focused time block is complete.
With practice, you'll increase your ability to concentrate for longer and longer periods and surpass that goldfish.