Improving Attention in Today’s Frenzied World
We would all likely agree that attention is a cognitive necessity for people. After all, it’s how we avoid stepping into danger when crossing the street. Yet attention is also a deliberate effort to focus on tasks. Attention is getting, well, a lot of attention recently. This is due to the unprecedented amount of information with which we are bombarded in modern life. In this article, we will explore the nature of attention and provide effective strategies to improve yours.
What is Attention?
At its core, attention is the ability to purposefully concentrate on one aspect of the environment, while ignoring other aspects. These aspects can be internal, such as thoughts and feelings, or external, such as sounds and sights.
Directly behind the forehead is the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for being able to selectively concentrate(1). Selective attention is needed for complex tasks that human beings do frequently, like reciting poetry, listening to a speaker, studying for an exam, writing, meditating, or playing a musical instrument.
If it were just a matter of paying attention to what we tell ourselves we need to focus on, the cognitive process would actually be fairly easy. However, many people may not realize just how key the second part is to the equation—the need to ignore other things which are distractions.
The ability to stay focused is most commonly referred to as ‘attention span’. Distractions can make it very difficult to sustain attention.
Microsoft made a big splash with a study they conducted and published in 2015 for marketers(2), showing on average our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 since the year 2000…and pointing out this is one full second less than the attention span of a goldfish!
The study included 2,000 adult participants and analyzed the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). The report concluded that, “Overall, digital lifestyles deplete the ability to remain focused on a single task, particularly in non-digital environments” (Gausby, 2015, p. 4).
However, university researchers, also using EEG, have found strong evidence for a kind of distraction suppression mechanism in the human brain(3). This appears to be dependent on what they refer to as the “attentional control settings” of the individual.
In other words, if we really want to concentrate on something specific and not let other things distract us, our brain has our back!
Factors that Impact Attention
While the human brain has an amazing capacity to focus, there are several factors that impact attention. We have touched on digital distractions, but there are others at work as well. Two that are substantial are aging and multi-tasking.
There is a natural cognitive decline that accompanies growing older. Older/elderly adults have more difficulty filtering out distractions. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have discovered that this appears to be because older individuals are encoding both the relevant and the irrelevant equally; a phenomenon the researchers termed having a “leaky” perceptual filter(4).
An example of how this impacts daily life is looking for a writing pen on a table cluttered with many other items. Compared to younger adults, older people notice each of the items to about the same degree, so that while they can find the pen, it simply takes longer.
Because we have so many sources of information coming from so many places (often devices) and because there is so much for the average person to accomplish every day, multi-tasking is something that many people practice. Unfortunately, it does the opposite of what is intended because multi-tasking is highly inefficient!
This is not only for the quality of the work you produce, but for your brain. It turns out we aren’t really “multi-tasking” as much as we are “task-switching”(5). This constant switching of attention uses up oxygenated glucose in the brain at a very fast rate, which is the energy source that’s needed to focus on a task(6). Due to this, excessive multi-tasking will leave you physically and mentally exhausted.
Strategies to Improve Attention
Be Well Rested. When we are tired and sleep deprived, the brain has more difficulty filtering out irrelevant information, and therefore you have more difficulty focusing on the relevant(7). One of the most effective strategies for improved attention is to get the recommended amount of sleep (about 8 hours per night). Related is to take breaks to relax or briefly nap. This gives the brain’s attentional system time to recover.
Meditate. Evidence is mounting that meditation improves the ability to pay attention, by generalizing the focus used while meditating into daily life activities. The concentration called upon in meditation serves as mental training that improves functioning of attention, even years later(8). The impact is especially powerful for older individuals who have been meditating for a long time. Since the trick is that meditation must be done regularly, starting conservatively and working with an instructor or self-guided resources to make sure you get going on a good path for you, will give you a much better chance of sticking with the practice.
Single-Task. There will always be times when you must do two challenging tasks at once, but many times you have a choice. For a few days, give your full attention to the task at hand to see the difference. Set how much time you want to devote to the task, from a few minutes to a few hours. Set yourself up for success by structuring your environment to prevent distractions. One of the biggest? Your phone! A survey by Deloitte released in 2017 found that people look at their phones 47 times every day, with 18 to 24-year-olds doing so 86 time a day(9). Can you think of almost anything else you do that many times daily?
As human beings, we have a large capacity to focus our attention on what is important to us at the moment, but we also have a large capacity to being drawn to the new and novel. By putting our attention on our attention in a mindful way, everyone has the potential to sharpen this special and essential cognitive skill.
Here are some resources to help you on your journey to improving your attention…
- Your Brain At Work by David Rock
- Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman
- Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
1. Petersen, S. E., & Posner, M. I. (2012). The attention system of the human brain: 20 years after. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 35, 73-89.
2. Gausby, A. (2015). Microsoft Attention Spans Research Report. Toronto, ON: Microsoft Canada.
3. Gaspar, J. M., & McDonald, J. J. (2014). Suppression of salient objects prevents distraction in visual search. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(16), 5658-5666.
4. Schmitz, T. W., Cheng, F. H., & De Rosa, E. (2010). Failing to ignore: Paradoxical neural effects of perceptual load on early attentional selection in normal aging. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(44), 14750-14758.
5. American Psychological Association. (2006). Multitasking: Switching costs. Washington, DC: Author.
6. Levitin, D. (2015). The organized mind: How to better structure our time in the age of social media and constant distraction. USApp–American Politics and Policy Blog.
7. Wiggins, E., Mottarella, M., Good, K., Eggleston, S., & Stevens, C. (2018). 24-h sleep deprivation impairs early attentional modulation of neural processing: An event-related brain potential study. Neuroscience Letters, 677, 32-36.
8. Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., MacLean, K. A., & Saron, C. D. (2018). Cognitive aging and long-term maintenance of attentional improvements following meditation training. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 1-17.
9. Deloitte. (2017). 2017 Global Mobile Consumer Survey: US edition—The dawn of the next era in mobile. New York, NY: Author.