The Fragility of Focus in a World of Distractions

You are what you pay attention to, so take a moment to notice what you are paying attention to right now!

Observe your physical posture, notice how sounds might naturally arise around you and instead deliberately choose to focus on the rhythm and sound of your own breath for the next several moments. Try not to let thoughts or sensations distract yourself from your breath.

This brief practice of mindfulness is designed to make you notice how the mind is naturally busy and easy to distract while acknowledging how you can redirect your mind to deliberate focus.

We can learn how to quiet our busy mind so we can sustain our focus often and for longer periods of time.

To cultivate selective attention, two distinct processes are required:
– focusing on one thing
– ignoring all the rest
This is exactly what we just did: focusing on the breath while disregarding all other distractions.

Research shows that ignoring irrelevant information is even more important for remembering than our focus on the thing itself. And the part of our brain responsible for deciding whether to process or ignore a stimulus is particularly being pushed more and more to its limits.

The brain is designed to keep us safe and to identify potential threats in the environment around us. In the past, this thread was real and in the form of a jaguar in the bush, hundred years ago the danger came from a car honk when crossing the street. Nowadays, modern technology is bombarding us with potentially important “warning” triggers constantly. The speed of our daily life and the pace of evolution in modern technology have outpaced our ability to adapt. We end up distributing our focus across multiple stimuli, with the result of gaining fewer benefits from selective attention.

We all might have noticed how hard is to be focused and how fragile is our attention! The good news is we can train our attention like a muscle and we can enhance our cognitive control to maintain focus.
Cognitive control depends on many factors, including stress, sleep and age. Stress impairs our cognitive functioning: did not you notice how difficult is to be focused when stressed? As for sleep, a lack of sleep is related to diminished concentration: staying up for 19 hours straight is as bad for our cognitive abilities as being legally drunk!

If you think to be the only one to get easily distracted you are not alone: “70% of workers admit they feel distracted when they’re on the job”, according to Udemy.

The fragility of our focus is strictly connected to the exponential rise in distractions in our daily life, such as modern technology, an overload of information and the need for social approval.
We fell into the trap of scattered attention and modern technology plays a role in that. Tech companies make sure that their product is more attention grabbing than their competitor, getting us to engage more and longer with their platform, or making us return more frequently to their website. Our attention is their revenue! By weakening our cognitive control, they get us hooked! And they are succeeding: how many times did you check your email, your messages or Instagram in the last hour?

The main drive behind technology addictive power is “intermittent positive reinforcement”. Research shows that rewards provided on a variable and unpredictable schedule release much more dopamine than when the pattern is known. This force also explains our craving for checking our phones constantly: there might be something exciting waiting for us!

Another element explaining our ability to get distracted is novelty which triggers a sense of reward in our brain. This plays a major role when it comes to information consumption. For most of our history, information resources were scarce and limited. Now, we live in a world where available information are more than ever, yet our ability to digest it seems to be lower than ever. Our constant thrive for information has outpaced our ability to consume it as our attention is becoming more and more spread thin and so our ability to absorb.

A final force behind our distractibility is our drive for social approval. We are hardwired to long for it as our survival depended by our belonging to the community. This deep and ancestral drive perfectly explains our urge to respond immediately to email and message we receive as well as the reward received from the like button on social media.

We are now aware how the mind can be triggered to fall into the trap of scattered attention but it is never too late to cultivate focus and awareness. It is time to reclaim our attention!

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