Trouble Concentrating?

YEN (cover story)

CHANCES are you’re reading this magazine with your mobile nearby, switched on and ready for action. The second it beeps your attention will be yanked from this page, pulled by the invisible cord that connects us to friends and family, work and the web. It’s an electronic lifeline that nourishes with texts and tweets, news and gossip. It’s infiltrated every aspect of our lives and, according to some experts, it’s driving us to distraction.

So if your mobile beeps, just ignore it. Better yet, switch it off. Because for the next five minutes, we’re going to look at how technology saps your focus and what you can do to get it back.

Email

Anyone who’s ever been caged in a cubicle farm knows that email can be a tremendous timewaster. But exactly how much time might surprise you. One Microsoft study tracked more than 2000 hours of employees’ computer use. Not only did workers spend nearly 10 minutes on each email, they also wasted another 15 minutes in unproductive browsing before returning to the original task. Some people took over two hours to focus back on what they were doing.

These disruptions can be costly, so companies have collaborated with computer scientists to reduce email downtime. Suggestions include setting your email application to check for new messages every 45 minutes instead of every five, keeping the interrupted program window visible so you don’t forget about it and using a silent email alert. Obvious, really. So why couldn’t you think of these strategies yourself? Another study, undertaken in 2005 by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London, has the answer: frequently checking your email is worse for your IQ than being stoned on marijuana. The researchers gave IQ tests to three groups. The first group just performed the IQ test. The second group was distracted by email and ringing phones and the third lot were stoned. The emailers performed the test worse than the pot smokers.

Texts

We’re all aware of the dangers of texting while performing demanding motor tasks, such as driving. But what about messaging during more mundane activities? Students who use SMS frequently are more easily distracted during academic reading, according to one research paper, so try to keep your texting and textbooks separate.

Apparently the proplem isn’t confined to messaging mid-paragraph, either. Regular use of text messages can create “a cognitive style based on quick, superficial multitasking rather than in-depth focus”. Not surprisingly, the students who were quick to respond to messages were more likely to become distracted. Just because you’ve received an instant message, doesn’t mean you should give an instant reply. Finish what you’re doing first.

Twitter

Twitter could also diminish your attention span, though for a different reason. Dr Tracy Alloway told the British Science Festival that the microblogging site’s endless stream of quips and gossip weaken “working memory” – the brain’s ability to store and manipulate information.

Whether the claims are true or not, you should probably use Twitter in moderation. Perhaps the reason Ashton Kutcher’s 4700-plus tweets seem scatterbrained is because, well, he’s written 4700-plus tweets. Cultivating stupidity might be a smart move for the star of Dude, Where’s My Car?, but the rest of us rely on our brains, not our looks, for income.

The internet

Ever since writer Nicholas Carr asked “Is Google making us stupid?”, debate has raged about the internet’s impact on cognition. Ironically, one of the most insightful analyses has come from a blogger. On theamericanscene.com, Peter Sunderman writes that rather than making us dumb, the web is “changing the way we’re smart”.

“Books taught us to think like they do – as tools for storing extensive knowledge. Now the nweb teaches us to think like it does – as a tool for recall and connection,” he says.

So what does this mean for maintaining focus? If you’re tempted to Google the answer, you may have discovered the problem. The internet could be set up in a way that makes searching almost addictive.

In a famous experiment from the 1950s, psychologists attached electrodes to the brains of lab rats. When the rats pressed a bar they received an electrical pulse. This reward was so motivating one rat pressed the bar over 7000 times. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has since named the rodents’ aroused state of mind “seeking”. Recent literature suggests the web might stimulate our own “seeking” neurocircuitry.

Behind every hyperlink is the novelty of a new page, and each click-through gives us a shiver of excitement. So we rush from site to site seeking the perfect link, the perfect high. Click, click, click. We just can’t help ourselves. We’re the crackheads of cyberspace.

If you’re looking to kick the habit, you might try going cold turkey. PhD student Fred Stutzman has created “Freedom”, a program that disables internet access on a Mac for up to eight hours. You can download a free copy from www.macfreedom.com – just don’t get sidetracked on the way there.

So how do you fix it?

Of course, technology isn’t entirely at fault for our lack of focus. Damon Young, author of Distraction: A Philosopher’s Guide to Being Free, points out that digital devices are just tools, and it’s our responsibility to use them wisely rather than “lazily deferring to them to make decisions for us”.

Too often we let those many random electronic interruptions dictate the rhythm of our days. When a phone rings, for example, we usually pick up without conscious thought. In this case, the device is deciding for us. As Young says, “We’re allowing the technology to do what we should be doing, which is setting priorities and limits.”

Setting priorities means figuring out what we truly value in life. Young writes that we’re distracted when “something we value less is diverting our efforts from something we value more (or should)”. To avoid distraction, we have to work out what it is we value and seek it with steadfast purpose.

Setting limits means curtailing activities that aren’t helpful or fulfilling. Life is short, opportunities scarce. We can’t afford to, as Young puts it, become “waylaid by things that are worthless”. Young doesn’t have a TV because he could easily get “sucked into watching whatever crap is on”.

Sometime in the next few hours your phone will beep. Will you let it interrupt your thinking? Or do your priorities lie elsewhere? What you attend to shapes who you are, so choose wisely.