The Modern Brain Drain

Lack of concentration? Can’t finish a sentence? You cannot remember where you spent uninterrupted hours reading?

Now you can barely last 15 minutes without checking your phone. If you are an inveterate “double-screener”: sitting in front of the television, you swipe through Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook….welcome to the club. Poor concentration is the modern condition.

According to research by Microsoft, the average attention span was just eight seconds – one second shorter than a goldfish’s. 

In the report, Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, issued a disquieting prediction: that the “true scares commodity” of the future will be “human attention”.

Technology is heavily implicated. A 2014 education study found that more time students spent online, the less they were able to concentrate in class and, accordingly, the shorter their attention spans. The same year, advertising agency OMD reported that the average person shifts their attention between their smartphone, tablet and laptop 21 times an hour.

Social media, in particular is designed to be distracting and dependency.

This isn’t just affecting our concentration – it’s change our brain. Research by London-based psychologist Glenn Wilson found that those workers who are distracted by phone calls and emails see a 10 per cent drop in their IQs. A 2015 study by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab identified that 91 per cent of people questioned considered the internet to be an “online extension” of the brain.  The process treats facts as superficial, disposable, temporary – and scientists believe it prevents the proper “encoding” of memories.

Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He believes that remembering how to be bored is the key“Many people have become used to pulling out their smartphone or opening a new browser tab at the slightest hint of boredom. The effect is an addiction to distraction”.

Newport’s other idea is to practice something he calls “deep work”, in which one apportions at least 90 minutes to any task, putting it in the calendar and committing to completing it, as well as “productive meditation”, which involves thinking about the problem you have to solve for a specific block of time.

“Productive meditation” just sent me into an unfocused anxiety spiral – after identifying one problem, an immediate deadline, I remembered all the others – but the 90 minute rule worked brilliantly. Thinking about tasks unmissable meetings elevated them. You can’t sit WhatsApping your way through a meeting, accordingly, I swallowed the impulse to reach my phone. You can’t wander away halfway through and in the same spirit I resolved to make it to the end. It worked!

After a month I’m still distracted and suggestible but I am also better at noticing myself drifting off and, in turn, better at resisting temptation. Perhaps, as Newport argues, my brain really is growing more agile.

Focus is hard-won, then – but it can be done. The process requires discipline and willpower. But it can be done – I just need to concentrate !!!