Attention, or more specifically the lack thereof, has been the subject of much research, heated debate, and discussion for some time now. In addition to the substantial amount of time and money allocated to the scientific study and medical etiology of inattention, it has become a prevalent topic in a wide range of more accessible communication mediums. On what seems like a near daily basis, one or more of the local newspapers will carry an article or spotlight on the subject. Add to this the copious amounts of information available online, information received from healthcare and education providers, television programs, parenting groups, on the playground, or even at your weekend dinner party, and one is left with a myriad of opinions.
Accordingly, it seems useful these days to evaluate the changing environmental factors that do affect our relative ability to sustain our focus and attention, particularly the often overwhelming pace and stimulation in our current lifestyles as a result of social media and technological advancement. In today’s extraordinary world of mobile calling, wireless downloading, emailing, text messaging, Facebooking, blogging, tweeting, BBMing, (and any other ‘ing’ I neglected to mention), we are regularly bombarded with distractions. For some time now, we have had the ability to ‘connect’ with another human being – or multiple human beings – within the space of a few seconds. The presence of these ‘instant’ communication tools, in combination with the already-present forms of stimulation such as cars driving, horns honking, people talking, adverts blaring, etc., results in a significantly higher number of “competing demands” that our brains must take in, process, select from, switch our attention between, and discard. The greater the amount of stimuli in the environment, the more taxing it is on us with respect to the cognitive energy required to manage it.
Attention itself can be defined as the process in which a person’s concentration or focus is sustained on a specific element or activity in their environment, usually to the exclusion of other elements or activities. We attend primarily through two senses: Visual and auditory. In today’s highly connected world, we are able to process and produce things at a pace we would never have thought possible years ago. Technology has progressed and our environment has evolved. But has our brains’ relative ability to process information progressed to a proportionate extent? We have an astoundingly large – and ever-growing – number of things all jockeying and competing for a spot on our attention radar –all while we try to listen up in a meeting, write a lengthy report, have dinner with a loved one, or watch an important presentation.
What does weak attentional functioning and focus look like in real life? A person may act without thinking or respond to someone or something in their environment preemptively (ever hear of a recent phenomenon called “phantom cellphone vibrations?”), appear to be excessively anxious or restless, appear to be easily distracted or to mentally ‘wander off’, and to demonstrate poor ability to organize and prioritize daily tasks and follow through of routines. And what is the potential impact of a weakened ability to selectively attend and focus on important tasks and events to our lives and emotional well being? At the middle to higher end on the spectrum, potentially less than ideal social interactions (how easy is it to chat with someone who is constantly distracted, checking their phone for updates, or who impulsively interrupts or finishes sentences?), to poor driving records (fender benders, or much worse, due to distracted driving), to finding oneself in hot water at work or school by not completing tasks (usually as a result of forgetfulness, missing vital details by failing to hear or see information presented, and inefficient planning or organizational strategies), and these can all result in feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and lowered self-esteem.
While there are certainly times when being able to divide one’s attention amongst several things is beneficial, the key is to retain the conscious ability to provide your undivided attention and sustained focus to one activity for a long time when you need to or choose to. The following are a few general tips in order to promote focus and attention in today’s world:
1. Get adequate rest! The connection between lack of sleep and weak attention cannot be emphasized enough. Look after your overall health, making sure adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise is part of a regular routine.
2. When sitting in a presentation/meeting/lecture/classroom, sit as close as possible to the speaker or source of information, in order to minimize distractions. Seat yourself away from sources of noise, such as doorways, windows, or chatty people. And turn your phone off or on silent.
3. Practice good listening strategies such as: a) keeping your eyes on the speaker’s throughout conversation/instruction; b) using self talk to stay focused (e.g. I’m being really attentive. I’m not going to look away; c) identify the visual and auditory distractions in a room or space and make note to actively filter them out.
4. When working on a large task or project, break it down into smaller tasks or chunks. Order the tasks by starting and finishing with the easiest ones, and putting the more tedious ones in the middle.
5. When completing a long task or activity requiring your sustained focus, choose a quiet, low stimulus location. Turn off the television, switch off that phone, and log out of email (give the temptation to email-refresh every few minutes a rest).
6. When something becomes boring or tedious, use the things you want to do as a reward for what you need to do.
7. Take regular breaks that occur after consistent time intervals, and last the same amount of time each time. Even five to ten minutes of a clean break from a prolonged activity enhances your ability to return to it with your full attention.
8. Have your schedule written down on a whiteboard, or some other form of visual presentation, and posted in full view.
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