Why we can’t focus any moreThis will take just over four minutes to read. If you can do it in one sitting, your attention span is above the US average.ARTICLE BY Samantha Page - 15 March 2022 - READ TIME: 4:30 MIN

We live in a distracted world and every day it seems to be more and more difficult to focus on one single task for a decent stretch of time. While everyone feels this way to a greater or lesser extent, the data is hard to ignore.

In the US, on average, office workers can only focus on one task for three minutes – and for teenagers it’s 65 seconds says Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.

Some 40% of US knowledge workers have less than 30 consecutive minutes of focused time in a workday and 70% of their emails are being opened within six seconds of receipt.

And the University of California Irvine has found that after every distraction and interruption it takes up to 23 minutes to recover and refocus on a task.

Is multitasking to blame for our inability to pay attention?

In the late 90s and early 2000s, multitasking was encouraged and there was a sense of accomplishment ‘baked’ into a strategy that tricked people into thinking they could ‘do it all’. Gadgets were new and owning a BlackBerry was akin to having a superpower.

And yet neuroscientist Earl Miller says people are deluding themselves because all they are doing is dividing the brain’s processing power between tasks as we switch from one task to another.

Nikki Bush, business speaker and author of Future-proof Yourself: How to Win at Work and Life, adds that multitasking has been proven not to work. ‘We must learn to focus on one thing at a time – to unitask. When multitasking, we constantly interrupt ourselves. Every time there is a ping or a ding from a new notification, we must start at the beginning again.

'The result is an unfocused mind and an unhappy heart because we never feel a sense of satisfaction.’

This should come as no surprise when you consider that the word multitasking first appeared in 1966 in relation to computers' processing units that could perform more than one task at the same time. But we aren't computers and more than 50 years later we have words such as 'crazybusy' to describe our lives.

Why are social media, constant news updates and our inbox so hard to resist?

While we have a heightened awareness about clickbait headlines, algorithms designed to feed us exactly what they think we need and compulsion loops, we still find the allure hard to resist.

Craig Blewett, a senior lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in the discipline of information systems and technology, suggests that one of the reasons we are so easily distracted is our addiction to dopamine.

‘Every time we receive new information, we are rewarded with a rush of dopamine which makes us feel good,’ explains Blewett. Social affirmation is addictive, which can explain why many people check their social media feeds every few minutes, as consistent 'dopamine hits' keep them on a high. It also keeps them sufficiently distracted so they don’t have to face realities such as poverty, debt, corruption and crime, which South Africans must deal with every day.

When a task is stressful or makes us anxious, the answer could also be as simple as avoidance – when faced with something that scares us, we either fight or take flight. And social media, random emails and even unnecessary meetings are all forms of flight.

Managing attention at work and finding real focus

‘What we’re talking about is shifting from being busy to being productive and this means we need to be more intentional about how we focus our time and attention. I also think we need to interrogate what is worthy of our attention and what will bring us closer to our most important priorities,’ says Bush.

One way to do that is by using the Pomodoro Technique (named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer).

The Pomodoro Technique essentially works as follows:

  • Work for 25 minutes and then have a five-minute break. Each 30-minute stretch is called a 'pomodoro'.
  • Repeat three or four times and take a longer break.
  • Commit to focusing on the task during each pomodoro. You can’t check e-mail or quickly reply to a WhatsApp message, and you’ll even need to resist the urge to watch birds outside building a nest.

It takes practice, but once you’ve mastered the technique the reward of doing productive work generates dopamine and reinforces a new habit of focused work. Blewett explains, ‘Instead of being overawed by huge tasks, it teaches you to commit to single small tasks that are achievable. I have used it and so have my students, and the technique has significantly improved our productivity.’

Learning to focus is about making a conscious decision about where to put your attention and how to bring yourself back to the task at hand when there is an interruption.

Giving in to the urge to read the latest news on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, or the pending fifth wave of Covid-19, or a natural disaster resulting from climate change, all qualify as interruptions. Unlike welcome distractions, these interruptions – doomscrolling – add to your stress, anxiety and feelings of helplessness.

Being able to complete a task, after giving it your full attention, is one way of regaining a sense of control and achievement. As Bush says, ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has been like an opening act for what will come next, so if you think we’ve been through disruption in the last two years, there’s much more where that came from; we’ll have to learn to live with continuous change and disruption. While that comes with higher levels of fear and anxiety, there’s also an opportunity to take back control by being more intentional about doing productive work.’

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By Samantha Page

Samantha is an experienced health and wellness writer and is Group Editor: Health at John Brown SA.

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