Your Distracted Mind at Work, Part 1

Why can't I focus on anything?

Posted Feb 11, 2018

Are you noticing a change in how you think at work? Trouble concentrating on projects? Memory lapses? Difficulty maintaining focus? I’ve noticed it myself. I don’t seem to be able to concentrate the way I used to. I don’t have the patience to read a long research article or sit through a two-hour program the way I would have in the past. I can be distracted by social media— whether it’s my work-related Twitter feed, Pinterest boards, or non-work items such as whatever’s happening on CNN.

At first I thought this might be age-related, but after reading an intriguing book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr, I know it’s more than that—and I also know I’m not alone. A once avid deep reader and thinker, Carr writes,“now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.” (p.5)

He blames this change in the way his mind works on the increasing amount of time he is spending on the internet. Carr describes the change in our thinking as a switch from a traditional linear mind to a more disjointed mind, and notes the ability of the computer to “shape and reshape the circuitry in our head.” (p.49)

Carr finds that he now skims when he reads (describing his reading style as riding a jet-ski rather than scuba diving). He quickly looks for key words and links, seldom reading the paragraph in full. And he notes that this type of information-gathering is even more common in younger people. He notes that we don’t really “read” on the web—we glance quickly and move on. We pick up the “gist” of what’s been discussed. We skim. One researcher quoted in the book describes what we do as “power skimming.” (p.137)

(Side note: Maybe your mind has already started to wander, particularly if you stopped to click on the various links. Carr cites studies which show that hyperlinks within text are distracting and break concentration. They reduce your comprehension because part of your brain is hijacked-- deciding whether to click on the links or to keep reading. Even though you might continue reading while your mind is making this decision, you have less cognitive focus and power to comprehend and remember what you’re reading. I thought about putting all my links at the bottom of this post, but I realized that might be even more distracting. The truth is that horse has left the barn. Links will be embedded in anything you read on the internet, and you will be mildly distracted in deciding whether to click on them or not.)

Some of the findings of various studies Carr cites include:

  • Any use of the internet while simultaneously listening to a lecture (whether looking up research-related information or reading social media) greatly reduced the listeners' comprehension and retention.(pp.130-131)
  • The scrolling text, info-graphics, etc., on CNN “exceeded viewers’ attentional capacity.” When those distractions were removed, viewers retained more information.(p.131)
  • Studies of office workers revealed we constantly stop what we’re doing to read email. The results, according to the research quoted by Carr, include scattered thoughts, weaker memory, and feelings of tension and anxiety. (p.132)
  • Other studies found that empathy and compassion decreased with more computer time.One theory was that these traits require a calm mind and the internet moves too fast for that. (p.220)
  • What we call “multitasking” is really just switching thoughts from one item to another. And that constant switching process just adds to our cognitive load. (p.125)

Another challenge with internet thinking is the lack of discovering unique, chance information which can lead to wisdom and creative connections. When reading a printed magazine, newspaper or journal, you might focus on one specific article, but you would also likely glance at the other articles, related or not. After reading the news on the front page of a newspaper, you might continue on to other pages of news or even to the sports page, where you would discover unexpected new information which might link to what you first read. In the world of algorithms you are less likely to encounter this. The algorithm for the computer-based news article you read on the front page is more likely to offer suggestions to read “related” articles about the same or closely related topics—but will not take you to a divergent piece (like a sports page).

In some ways, web-surfing exercises the brain by engaging it in problem-solving and decision-making tasks. But it doesn’t produce the calm state of mind that reading does. It produces a more wired, frenzied state, according to Carr's research.

Despite these findings, the bottom line is we want and encourage these diversions and distractions. We all seem to have FOMO (fear of missing out) so we ask our devices to interrupt us. We set our computers and phones to ping us when we have a new message, when it’s time for an appointment, or when someone is trying to contact us. We clearly want to be disturbed. We are social creatures, after all.

And I don’t think anyone would want to return to pre-internet days given the unprecedented wealth of knowledge and information easily available. Research tasks that would have taken days, even weeks, twenty years ago can be accomplished in less than an hour on the internet. No one would want to take that away.

So let’s face it. The frenzy is here to stay. There is nothing to indicate that our lives are going to slow down or that computers will become less ubiquitous and important.  What’s the good news in all of this?

By being aware of this and taking some time to analyze your own behavior with respect to focus and concentration, it’s possible to identify some changes you can make to better adapt to, lessen the negative impact of internet thinking on your brain. There are ways you can ensure you continue to develop your critical thinking and problem-solving skills. And the more you can turn the mountain of information into wisdom, the more valuable you will be in the workplace.

First of all, no matter what your age, your brain can adapt. Your brain is always capable of changing. (In fact, that’s why the internet has affected those of us whose brains once seemed to work differently.)  

Reading Carr’s explanations of the ongoing plasticity of the brain (a relatively new thought—for many years researchers believed our brains were fixed at a certain age), reminded me of the classic switch Dr. Martin Seligman experienced. After many years of studying learned helplessness, Seligman asked a compelling question: if we can teach ourselves (learn) to become helpless, could we also teach ourselves (learn) to become optimistic? (Distraction warning: here’s a great video about his work.) His research said yes, but like all change, it requires awareness, attention and work. The brain is capable of change and growth at any age.

Also, Carr notes that your brain is hungry. It wants to learn. That’s part of the reason you are on the hunt for more “stuff” from the internet. So if you are easily distracted, you might want to reframe that as “eager to learn more” and find ways to harness that desire.

So what do you do now?  How can you stay up-to-date and avoid FOMO while still retaining focus? Awareness is always a great start. 

  • What changes have you noticed in your attention and concentration? 
  • How have they affected you at work? 
  • How have they affected your personal and professional relationships?
  • How often are you interrupted, or do you interrupt yourself, with email and social media?
  • Do you find yourself losing patience or responding more critically to others? 
  • Are you frustrated with how long certain tasks seem to take? 
  • Do you feel pressure to perform quickly? 

Although no cures appear on the horizon, Carr provides some suggestions for countering the effects of the internet, including getting back to nature and finding ways to calm your mind. One helpful tip might be to set specific times to check your emails, and silence your phone or other devices when you need to focus on tasks which require concentration. You have probably heard that meditation can provide a needed respite for your mind (even though meditation can be particularly hard when your mind is wired from too much time on the computer).

Want to learn more? In my next post, I will present 10 tips for improving concentration and attention, including how to develop a counter state of mind: the experience of flow at work. Click here to read it. 

© 2018, Dr. Katharine S Brooks. All rights reserved.