I recently had the privilege of sitting in on a college lecture at my alma mater. I sat beside my student daughter—proud to be a parent, an alumnus, a lifelong learner. The lecture hall, located on the top floor of the university’s most historic, ivy-covered building, was filled with about 100 students, and it happened to be the same classroom where I sat twice a week nearly 30 years ago for a class called Recent U.S. History.
I couldn’t help but hark back to my own days as a student, when I once peered out the same windows overlooking the campus' main quad. But today, in this same room, used for the same purpose, the distractions were of a completely different sort. It was no longer a neighbor’s gum wrapper, a piece of loose leaf paper being torn from a spiral notebook, or a chirping bird that took a student’s attention away from the professor’s monologue. Now it was a bombardment of dings and dongs that rang aloud from smartphones, fingers tapping incessantly on computer keyboards, and text messages flying across the screens in almost every row. How, I wondered, do these kids keep focus amidst the barrage of constant disruptions and social media connections?
The truth, I realized, is that it’s not just college students. It’s all of us. We are so often tethered to our devices that it is increasingly rare to give our brain a chance to slow down, to settle into an activity, to simply do one thing. Our brains are on frequent overload and rather than gain in productivity, our multitasking is resulting in the contrary.
In a study conducted at Stanford University, researchers looked at multitaskers to see what benefits would result from this sort of behavior. The study tested three different qualities—focusing attention, memory retention, and the ability to switch from one activity to the next. In all three cases, the heavy multitaskers performed the worst. The researchers went further, claiming that not only are multitaskers less productive, they are also paying a mental price—an inability to filter out information that is not relevant to their current task. In other words, they are too distracted. The conclusion was simply that by doing less, we accomplish more.
On our drive back to school on the morning of the lecture, I told my daughter about an article I recently read called, “Addicted to Distraction.” I’d instantly commiserated with the writer, Tony Schwartz, and his efforts to pull away from his email and Google dependencies and restore healthier habits. Like him, I, too, fall prey to the enticements of Internet shopping, campaign updates, social media, and vacation planning websites, only to forfeit time and attention that I’d intended for work, writing, and reading.
After describing his struggles and repeated failures, Schwartz finally found what he was looking for after disconnecting during an extended family vacation. Schwartz writes: “With each passing day offline, I felt more relaxed, less anxious, more able to focus and less hungry for the next shot of instant but short-lived stimulation. What happened to my brain is exactly what I hoped would happen: It began to quiet down.”
Schwartz concludes at the end of the piece that while he’s made some small changes to decrease his electronic device dependency and plans to keep true to one Internet-free vacation per year, he has reverted back to some level of distraction-laden behaviors. It was inevitable. Just like in that lecture hall with my daughter, the tentacles of the Internet monster grab hold of us, taking our focus away from one activity and sucking it into another and another. But don’t despair, there are ways to boost your concentration and become a highly productive unitasker.
The key to warding off distraction can be a found in the tools of mindfulness. Perhaps you’ll find the tips below helpful for restoring and retaining your focus.
1. Observe and acknowledge the distraction that is pulling you away from your intended task. Even saying it out loud may help: “Yes, I’m now on J. Crew’s website looking for a blazer when I should be gathering data for an article.”
2. Show self-compassion and gratitude. Give yourself permission to be human, and be thankful that you’ve recognized the distraction. Tell yourself something like: “We all get sidetracked at times, it’s okay, and I’m glad that I stopped myself when I did.”
3. Give yourself space from your screens and devices. Take several minutes to detach from your electronics. This is an opportunity to check back in with your device-free self, laying the foundation for a renewed sense of focus.
4. Practice mindfulness meditation. Find a comfortable place to sit in your home or office. Breathe slowly in and out of your nose, allowing yourself to focus on your breath. You can even say “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale if that helps you center your attention on the breath. If your mind begins to wander, bring your focus back to the breath, and continue for 5 to 10 minutes.
Once you’re done practicing these steps, you’ll feel calmer and less stressed, more focused and creative. Return to your intended activity and let it flow.