Let's focus our attention

So the holidays are now over, school is back, and most of us are well and truly back into the work routine. Oh wait a minute, there’s a ping on my phone, better check that one… NO! I need to focus.

Did that sound a bit familiar? When was the last time you felt absorbed in a task or in a state of flow? When was the last time you bulldozed over a huge task by fully focusing your attention to it, without giving in to any distractions and felt super satisfied at the end of the day? These days we all feel busier than ever, but at the same time are much less productive. We are also becoming more stressed and irritable. That is because most of us have lost the ability to focus on what we are doing.

According to neuropsychologist Mark Tigchelaar, the number of stimuli we are faced with daily has increased fivefold since the 1980’s, and is now equal to 174 newspapers per day! And it is not just our phones or co-workers that is to blame. He believes that there are four causes; one of them being constant external stimuli.

Our brain loves stimuli and is always on guard for danger; we think we are doing the one single thing, but part of our brain is continually processing all the signals around us. This can be problematic when we are trying to focus and concentrate. Also the temptation to do quick short things is always there. I mean, who doesn't like to tick off a lot of boxes on their to-do list? Doing small things that requires little brainpower can leave us feeling unsatisfied at the end of the day, despite being so busy. The constant switching between tasks can make us dumber. Hopping back and forth takes energy and has a direct effect on our stress levels says Tigchelaar. The good news is that once we learn how our brain works, we can adjust things to work better.

Avoid switching tasks

When we shift between tasks, we pay a cognitive price and performance on these tasks suffers. This disruption is characterised by a slower performance, and decrease in accuracy on a given task. Instead, disable notifications from Slack, email, Twitter, or any other app that seeks your attention. Consider trying the pomodoro technique. Go and sit on your own occasionally, as working in an open plan office can be disastrous for productivity. You can keep that overactive brain preoccupied by doing a second task that requires little brainpower. For example listening to repetitive background music, walking while you have a conversation, or thoughtlessly doodling on paper.

Switch off

Now that everything is digital and everything is always on 24/7, the distracting stimuli are becoming harder to avoid. We have become so addicted to the short term dopamine hits when we receive new information that we are now constantly seeking it. But it is unnatural to be always on. As a result, people are more stressed and irritable. So switch off notifications for the most part, or leave the phone in a different room whilst you are focusing on the task at hand.

Give yourself time

Due to the speed of the digital world, we forget that things take time. It takes a while before a conversation gets going, it takes time to feel at home in your new house, and it takes time to get into your work zone. Everything needs time, attention and connection. If you have become a mind on legs, and are constantly responding to every stimulus you encounter, you will end up numbing yourself. If you feel like everyone at work wants your attention right now, and there aren't enough hours in the work day, or you move from meeting to meeting without a break, then schedule "reflection time" in your work calendar. Give yourself time to digest, reflect, feel, and focus. Sometimes doing less is actually more. You will do better work when you have some time to think it over.

If you want to improve your quality of life and work, and take good care of yourself, attention is your new best friend. Those moments when we are fully present, with all of our senses, without being distracted by our worries, are often the happiest moments. Tigchelaar says that what it all boils down to, is that more focus leads to a better life. Real attention is scarce and it has become more valuable. Learning to manage our focus and attention may be the most important skill in the 21st century. So here's to giving ourself some time to focus on what is important!

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