Do people really have less concentration these days than a goldfish? According to a 2015 Microsoft Corp. study of 2,112 participants in Canada, our powers of concentration have slid from an average of 12 seconds to eight seconds since the year 2000, which is one second less than this small fish whose concentration span seems directly proportional to its life expectancy.
Some have queried the results of this study, arguing that the average human being would not be able to binge watch Netflix series if this were the case. Still, it certainly seems to be true that as our lives become increasingly dominated by surfing and scrolling, we are distracted at the drop of a hat – or the ping of our phones.
Reading long articles and books seems to be an increasingly rare past time. In 2018, 49% of people in the UK and 39% in Spain failed to get through a book, according to publishers’ studies. Meanwhile, 25% of Germans don’t buy books at all, though Latvians, on the other hand, are more partial to the written word, with 50% being classed as “heavy readers”.
A lot of research has been done on how to keep our minds centred in an era of multiple stimuli and temptations. But it doesn’t happen overnight!
First off, multitasking may be something you’re proud of, but according to a study published in the journal Science, our brains can’t handle any more than two tasks at once. This is because the medial prefrontal cortex helps divide the work, so that half focuses on one task while the other deals with a second, leaving scarce room for a third.
Like any other muscle in the body, our concentration can wither if not exercised. Like training for a marathon, it is a case of breaking through the pain barrier and gradually resetting our limit until we can comfortably focus for reasonable stretches at a time. If the mind does not push the boundaries just a little, it will, like any other muscle, get flabby and fail us.
If 45 minutes of concentration is the goal, it will seem like four hours if we don’t work up to it. Like physical workouts, the trick is to begin with five minute stretches followed by a two minute break. Each day another five minutes is added with two to the break until 45 minutes straight concentration is achieved with 15 minutes ‘off the hook’ at the end.
To help nail this, devices need to be silenced. Anything we need to look up or tend to should be written down on a to-do list to be consulted during the break, allowing us to stop being constantly distracted by it like an incessant itch. Research has shown that interrupting a task to look something up or tend to a mail will have us struggling to get back down to business for a full 25 minutes!
Besides helping us pass exams and get through homework, concentration allows for depth of experience. We are used to surfing the Internet and the channels on our TVs, but that doesn’t mean we have to surf our own lives. Cultivating curiosity in whatever is in front of us helps to hone our focus. The reason Charles Darwin was able to stare at a single flower or species for hours at a time was that he was trying to answer the questions being formulated in his head about its nature, thereby preventing his mind from hopping off topic.
This, of course, is mindfulness –absorbing what is in front of us and plumbing a little depth, which in turn involves meditation – and breathing.
Exam time can be stressful and stress generally results in both shallower breaths and shallower concentration. Taken to its conclusion, shallow breathing is hyperventilation, which ends in a panic attack.
So it’s simple biology to focus five minutes each morning on taking deep breaths, which are held for five and exhaled through the mouth.
One of the easiest ways to train our minds to focus is reading either a long article or a book. According to analytics company Chartbeat, while e-reading has soared by 40%, only 5% of online readers will finish an article!
Finally, physical exercise is key to better concentration. A study coming out of Holland published in the Science and Medicine in Sport journal in 2016 demonstrated that a 20-minute stretch of aerobic exercise between classes had a positive impact on the attention spans of school children. Meanwhile, a 2014 study produced by the American Academy of Paediatrics on the benefits of exercise in 7 to 9-year-olds, found that brain function, cognitive performance and executive control was greatly improved.
We can’t uninvent devices or platforms that are diminishing our powers of concentration, but we can still develop the willpower to mitigate their hold on us and beat what has been termed by Linda Stone, the ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant, as Continuous Partial Attention in which we are constantly skimming the world around us without ever giving any of what we see and hear our undivided attention.
In the long term, this produces the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, that lead to a physiological hyper-alert state ever on the lookout for the next piece of stimuli, an addiction of sorts – something anyone who is checking their phone every 12 minutes is probably aware of.
On a positive note, I have managed to concentrate long enough to finish this blog as, presumably, have you.
Tips for gaining focus at home
• Do a few simple exercises for 10 minutes before you settle down.
• Find a quiet, tidy space in the house where your siblings won’t disturb you, the dog won’t come in and the TV can’t be heard.
• Set a time to start and do everything you need to do, such as getting a drink or going to the loo before your start time.
• Don’t be tempted once you’ve sat down to start Googling unless it is absolutely vital. Focus first on the task in hand. Once you engage, it is easier to keep engaged.
• Put the volume down on your computer and phone so you block out traffic. You can check what’s going on in the outside world when you have a break.
• The targets you set yourself should concern the amount of work you aim to get through, rather than the amount of time you aim to concentrate. Remember, the harder you concentrate, the less time the task will take and the more free time you will have to dedicate to all those other things that are crying out for your attention!
• You are one of those people with a cast-iron concentration who can shut the world out to reach the desired goal. This will be true in one area or another. You simply need to apply that skill to the task in front of you.
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