You now receive five times as much information daily as a person did in 1986. According to the article, Welcome to the information age:
“Every day the average person produces six newspapers worth of information compared with just two and a half pages 24 years ago – nearly a 200-fold increase.”
Your Brain Is Overloaded with Information
Your brain’s neurons need oxygen and glucose to survive, and all the information coming at you uses up your brain’s energy. Every status update you read on social media, every tweet or text message you get or send is competing for the resources in your brain with other important things like getting that report done for work, remembering to call the credit card company about that strange charge, or showing up for your kid’s piano recital.
Your brain has to filter through all of the incoming information, decide if it’s important, and determine whether to file it away or let it go. While most of this information processing is going on below your conscious awareness, it still impacts how you feel and think and whether or not you can pay attention. Your brain has to work to filter out all the “background noise” to focus on what is important.
If you feel like you just can’t seem to focus anymore, you’re not alone. With the growth of the infinite internet, 500-channel 24-hour television, and mobile phones that are really little computers, you’ve got a lot competing for your attention.
Gloria Mark, Ph.D., chancellor’s professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and has been studying our shrinking attention spans. According to her:
“So back in 2004, we found the average attention span on any screen to be two and a half minutes on average. Throughout the years it became shorter. So around 2012 we found it to be 75 seconds…This is an average. And then in the last five, six years, we found it to average about 47 seconds…”
That’s why there may be times when you really need and want to pay attention, but your brain just doesn’t cooperate. Paying attention is becoming a lost art. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can train your brain to focus and build your ability to pay attention just like you build muscle, with practice and repetition.
Your Attention Is Limited
Attention is the most important mental resource for any organism. It determines which aspects of the environment they deal with. Most of the time, automatic, subconscious processes run in the background determining what makes it through to your conscious awareness. This means that at any given time, millions of neurons are constantly monitoring your environment — even though you’re not aware of it.
The human brain can process 11 million bits of information every second. However, your conscious mind can handle only 40 to 50 bits of information a second. So, even when you think you aren’t doing anything, your brain is still busy. Therefore, conscious attention is a limited resource in your brain. It requires working memory and filtering out all the extraneous information and distractions as much as it involves selectively sustaining focus on something. Research shows that focusing is more about being able to filter than directing a spotlight of attention.
How to Increase Focus
Being able to target and sustain your attention to a specific desired place is a skill that can be developed. When focusing is problematic, the prefrontal cortex is underactive, and your attention is stimulus-driven with everything around you catching your eye and turning your head. Improving attention is a matter of increasing the activity of and strengthening the connections between the prefrontal and parietal cortices. Just as you can work out to build up muscle, you can exercise areas of your brain to build your attention skills with different practices. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at focusing your attention.
You can improve your brain and mental health by learning to consciously direct your focus. The more you practice focusing your attention, the better you will get. It is possible to build stronger, more selective, and more stable attention. Here’s how:
- Control what you can control in your environment and limit distractions
Taking control of what you can in your physical environment will help calm your busy brain and help it pay attention. This may include:
Effectively manage technology
- Silence all notifications for a window of time.
- Close all other applications besides the one you’re working in to limit distractions.
- Put your cell phone out of sight. (Just the sight of your phone reduces your brainpower.)
- Put a “do not disturb sign” on your door.
- Set up an auto-reply for your email saying you are not available right now and when you will respond.
- Post a public calendar of when you are and are not available for communication.
- Use headphones to reduce distractions and interruptions.
Make your environment productive
- Adjust the temperature so that you are comfortable.
- Have adequate lighting conducive to being awake and alert.
- Clean up your workspace. A messy workspace is distracting and may consume your mental energy.
- Keep a notepad or phone list to jot things down you think of to revisit later.
Take care of your body
Bodily needs can compete for your attention. For example, if you’re hungry or thirsty, those conditions can pull attention away from the task at hand. To access optimal brain power, you need to set yourself up for success by addressing bodily needs before you sit down to work. Not only will staying hydrated help you maintain focus, but research shows it will boost your cognitive performance.
- Practice Mindfulness
The opposite of a stressed and wandering mind is a mindful one. Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It’s training your brain to pay attention and focus. It’s learning to direct your attention to what is happening in your present experience, including your mind, body, and environment. Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a quality that you develop through practice.
Mindfulness is not just a concept. It’s an active practice. In your brain, mindfulness asks that you deliberately shift control of your thoughts and actions from your limbic system, the instinctual, emotional brain, to the conscious awareness of your frontal lobe. The frontal lobe of your brain is where your more complex cognitive processes take place. This is also where mindfulness happens.
And don’t worry about your mind straying when you are trying to focus on one thing. It will at first. Just know that every time you bring it back to the task at hand, it’s like a bicep curl for your brain. It is the act of redirecting your mind over and over that builds your ability to focus over time through neuroplasticity.
Over time, mindful thinking becomes a habitual way of being. Repetitively and consistently thinking and behaving mindfully alters your brain’s form and function. Many studies show that with repetition, mindfulness practice can lead to a long-term, lasting reduction of anxiety and worry.
Meditation is a mindfulness practice where you learn to observe the workings of your mind and not get distracted by them. It’s actually training your brain to pay attention. When meditating, you allow thoughts to arise at random, become aware of them, and observe them without attaching to or following them. You consciously let them go and return your mind to a state of mental awareness and your meditation practice. Over time, your mind will become more settled and calm even when not meditating.
Meditation (and mindfulness) strengthen your frontal lobe’s control over the rest of your brain to help calm it and settle it down. One study showed that just three months of meditation practice significantly affected attention and brain function. One type of meditation, in particular, focused attention meditation, showed higher levels of activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices translating to better focus.
- Stop Trying to Multitask
Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain simply cannot do it.
Oh sure. You can walk and talk at the same time, but when it comes to paying attention, your brain operates sequentially and can only focus on one thing. Research shows that our brains are biologically incapable of processing more than one attention-requiring input at a time. What’s really happening when people think they’re multitasking is that they’re shifting their attention back and forth and utilizing short-term memory.
Studies have shown that, while the brain can keep track of more than one thing at a time, it cannot actually execute two distinct tasks at once. Studies show that a person takes longer to complete a task when interrupted and makes about four times more errors. The neuroscience is clear: We are wired to be mono-taskers and multitasking actually impairs thinking and trains your brain how not to focus.
- Build in Regular Brain Breaks
The human brain wasn’t designed to pay attention and be alert for hours at a time. Over millions of years of evolution, human life moved at a much slower pace, in rhythm with the sun and nature. In the societies of our ancestors, hunting and gathering food and tending to the other necessities of life would have only consumed a few hours a day, leaving a lot of time for a person’s brain and body to relax, socialize, or be in a state of rest.
The brain is much more active — and much more likely to tire — than any other muscle or organ in your body. Evidence shows that your brain cycles from highest attention to lowest attention every 90 minutes in what’s called an ultradian rhythm. You can only maintain focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs to rest. Honoring the natural rhythm of our brains and seeing brain breaks as part of work, can make you more productive, creative, and innovative.
Blocking time and scheduling brain breaks into your day is key. One method, the Pomodoro Technique, involves focusing on one task without distractions for 25-to-30-minute increments and then taking a five-minute break. You want to use the brain break to hydrate, move, and breathe. Other methods recommend 90 to 120 distraction-free minutes, which some research indicates maximizes flow.
A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind
Studies have shown that American adults spend nearly half their waking hours in a state of mind-wandering, with their attention focused on something other than the task directly in front of them. In addition, research has also revealed that when people were paying attention to a task at hand — even a simple, repetitive task — they reported higher levels of happiness.
Hui Qi Tong, PhD, a Stanford Medicine clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who directs the Mindfulness Program at the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine said:
“This is why paying attention to daily routines can make such a big impact, especially for busy, highly accomplished people. We all want to achieve big things, but ironically, it’s paying attention to the smallest things that can help us get there.”
While it’s true that there are more things competing for your attention these days making it harder to focus on one thing for any length of time, your attention is task-specific. How long you can pay attention depends on your particular brain, your interest, and the demand. In any event, attention is like a muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it gets. Just as you can work out to build up muscle, you can exercise areas of your brain to build your attention skills.
Published in the Neuroscience and Peak Performance Section of the Industry Expert Magazine
Omozua Isiramen is the #1 Neuroscience Coach and Peak Performance Specialist in Luxembourg