The Lost Art of Concentration

Feeling rushed and under pressure seems to be an inevitable effect of our sped-up modern lives. But we can take back control. HARRIET GRIFFEY assesses the long-term damage our switched-on lifestyle has on memory and concentration – and suggests how to fix it …


It’s difficult to imagine life before our personal and professional lives were so constantly dominated and “switched on” via smartphones and other devices that make us accessible and, crucially, so easily distractible and interruptible every second of the day. This constant fragmentation of our time and concentration has become the new normal, to which we have adapted with ease, but there is a downside: more and more experts are telling us that these constant interruptions and distractions have eroded our ability to concentrate effectively.

In 2005, research carried out by Dr Glenn Wilson at London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that persistent interruptions and distractions at work had a profound effect. Those distracted by email and phone calls saw a ten-point decrease in their IQ, twice that found in studies on the impact of smoking marijuana. More than half of the 1,100 participants said they always responded to an email immediately or as soon as possible, while 21 per cent admitted that they would interrupt a meeting to do so. Constant interruptions can have the same effect as the loss of a night’s sleep.

Nicholas Carr picked up on this again in his article in The Atlantic in 2008, before going on to publish his book The Shallows two years later. “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” he wrote. “My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that came naturally has become a struggle.”

The impact of interruptions on individual productivity can also be catastrophic. In 2002 it was reported that, on average, we experience one digital interruption every eight minutes or approximately six to seven per hour. In an eight-hour day, that totals around 50-60 interruptions in the day. The average interruption takes approximately five minutes and if that happens 50 times a day, and each takes five minutes, that totals 250 minutes, or just over four hours out of eight; about 50 per cent of the normal workday. And if it takes around 15 minutes to resume the interrupted activity at a good level of concentration, this means that we are probably never concentrating very well.

In August 2018, a new research study by UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, reported that people check their smartphones on average every twelve minutes during their waking hours, with 71 per cent saying they never turn their phone off and 40 per cent saying they check them within five minutes of waking. Both Facebook and Instagram announced they were developing new tools for their apps, to be rolled out incrementally, designed to limit usage in response to claims that excessive social media use can have a negative impact on mental health.

Continuous partial attention – CPA – was a phrase coined by ex-Apple and Microsoft consultant Linda Stone, who identified how we have pushed ourselves to the extremes. By adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behaviour, we exist in a constant state of alertness but never really give our full attention to anything. In the short term we adapt well to these demands, but in the long term, constantly activated stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, create a physiological hyper-alert state that continually scans for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction temporarily assuaged by checking in.

With a constant use of digital media, we have taken multitasking to new heights, but we’re not actually multitasking we are switching rapidly between different activities, which is physiologically stressful because it requires increased amounts of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline to do so. None of this matters much in the short term, these hormones are designed to support us through bursts of sudden intense activity, but in the long term this can have a negative affect.

It would seem then that this physiological adaptation, fostered directly by our own behaviour, is a predominant reason for the poor concentration so many people report. Paradoxically, that we are the direct cause of this is good news: it hands back to us the potential to change our behaviour and reclaim the brain function and cognitive health that’s been disrupted and fragmented by our digitally-enhanced lives and this may even be more important than just improving our levels of concentration. Constant, high-levels of circulating stress hormones have an inflammatory and detrimental affect on brain cells, suggests psychiatrist Edward Bullmore, who has written about the link between inflammation and depression in his new book The Inflamed Mind. Depression, along with anxiety, is a known factor in knocking out concentration.

Constant interruptions and fragmented attention spans also have an impact on memory. We use working memory for things we only need to remember for a short time, for example, looking up and then following instructions, like dialling a phone number in the correct sequence. It’s the way we hold something in mind and manipulate it, a sort of mental work space, for long enough to use it or follow instructions.

More importantly is the impact of poor concentration and distraction at the time of information exposure on the transfer of knowledge from working (or short-term) memory in the prefrontal cortex to long-term memory (in the hippocampus). The relationship between the two types of memory, which allow for the ability to recall and manipulate knowledge, can also be disrupted.

Put simply, better concentration makes life easier and less stressful and we will be more productive. To make this change we must reflect on what we are doing to sabotage personal concentration, and then implement steps toward behavioural change that will improve our chances of concentrating better. This means deliberately reducing distractions, being more self-disciplined about our use of communication technologies and social media, better time management, for example, and it’s becoming increasingly urgent for the sake of our cognitive and mental health that we do this.

Stopping habitual behaviour – compulsively checking social media and communication alerts and responding immediately, for example – can feel odd at first, like losing the “comfort blanket” of distraction that this behaviour provides. It takes about three weeks for a repeating behaviour to form a habit, says Jeremy Dean, psychologist and author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits. Getting into a new habit won’t happen overnight and adaptation can be incremental. Start by switching off smart phone alerts, or take social media apps off your smartphone, then switching off whole devices for increasingly long periods of time.

I Want to Concentrate by Harriet Griffey, published by Hardie Grant, £8.99, is out now.

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