Attention

Hone Laser-Like Mental Focus to Escape Endless Distraction

Learn how to easily reduce distraction and be more effective in your life.

Posted May 11, 2020

Degree by degree, we humans probably don’t notice how our core attentional awareness abilities are being slowly stripped away by the technological convergence of increased speed and demands on our time. We’re barraged by the insatiable need for more and more technology. Instead of leaving us with more time, we are left with less. For many, their response is to seek escape through lifestyle addictions or be driven to distraction through multitasking. But going on auto-pilot and acting out compulsive and addictive behaviors or to attempt multitasking is not the answer.

The first step may be to understand just how you are using your brain. For example, if you think you are a great multitasker, you may be surprised to learn about what it does to the brain.

 Free Digital Photos
Total focus is like 20-20 vision.
Source: Free Digital Photos

Three Stanford University researchers tested the proposition that students can effectively perform a high-tech juggling act of multitasking, such as sending emails or text messages while trying to study or watch a television program. A group of 100 students were put through a series of three tests. Researchers developed a media multi-tasking index questionnaire to distinguish heavy media multitaskers (HMM) from light media multi-taskers (LMM). According to the study, the baseline for media use was based on “the mean number of media a person simultaneously consumes.”

Was there a cognitive price that HMMs paid for their attempts to split attention and concentration?

It turned out that there was, and the price was steep. In fact, the chronic HMMs couldn’t keep information separate in their minds. They couldn’t filter out irrelevant information or organize their memories effectively. On all three tests the HMMs underperformed compared to the LMMs. Observed one of the study’s authors, Clifford Nass, a professor of communication, “They're suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them." The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded with a "surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability." 

No one wants to be a sucker for irrelevancy! So, what can we do about it? 

It is my belief that critical wiring in the brain for interpersonal relationships is also being short-circuited by this fixation on multi-tasking and the barrage of sensory and media assaults on core awareness. Our attention is being splintered and fragmented, and the prefrontal cortex—that “reflect” part of the brain responsible for enhancing face-to-face, personal contact, and genuine interpersonal dialogue—is being sacrificed on the altar of time and speed consolidation. Direct personal contact is being replaced by text messaging and emailing, where the potential for meaningful exchanges is low and the potential for misunderstandings is high.

Basic mindfulness practice provides a resource for enhanced concentration and focus, a higher quality of empathy and compassion in relationships, and a path to giving one’s experience of life more meaning through a greater appreciation of the little things in daily existence that matter.

Here, then, is my simple 3-Part Prescription for Restoring Mental Focus.

1. Have at least one meaningful, face-to-face interaction with another each day.

In this age of shelter-in-place, that can be difficult, but things will open up eventually. Again, make a point of making this happen, whether during a meal or an "intentional time-in" with another. Make sure to turn off those devices. Let your brain and attention focus solely on that other person. Listen and see them with all the cells of your body! 

2. Make a concerted effort to unitask (or solotask), instead of multitask. 

Turn off "notifications" on your device that will distract you and pull your attention elsewhere. Before you start working on a task, set a time for working on that task, and do so without interruption. When you're finished, you can answer those emails, texts, and other items that weren't so urgent after all.

3. At least once a day, make a mental note of everything you can about one person you engage with, as well as one space or environment that you participate in. 

This means that you really take notice of the person and the environment. If you later cannot remember the eye color, the hair color, the clothes that person was wearing, that's a reminder for you to pay more attention and focus better next time. Do this until you can write down and recall all the details that come to mind, about a person and an environment. This will really help you build focus, and also help you participate fully in being present.