The “Lost Focus” Crisis. The Plague of the 21st Century
“I have said that to you three times already, you just don’t listen!” I have lost the count how many times my wife has said that to me. Some would joke this is perfectly normal. At the end of the day, people do not listen to their partners half the time, right. If that was any good an explanation at all, I would not have worried, but that’s not the full story. I often struggle paying attention in meetings, recalling the last few book pages I have literally just read or even follow whole conversations. I also can’t sit down on the sofa and watch a movie without being on my phone too, as if watching a movie alone, just isn’t good enough. Needless to say, I end up missing all of it. These all suggest a wider attention problem. There must be something more than: “I am just not interested in what my wife is saying” that systematically hampers my ability to focus. I am not the only one experiencing this. In fact, it is a global problem and one that deserves attention because it is only bound to get worse.
Losing focus is an interesting problem. On the one hand, it is significant enough, crippling the memory and productivity of millions (in fact billions) of people worldwide, but on the other hand, the very fact that we consider it a problem in the first place, means that at least in many parts of the world, we simply don’t have any bigger ones. Thankfully, for large parts of the world in the 21st century, sustenance and physical security are no longer widespread issues. But every time has its own challenges and losing focus is not one to underestimate. Let me put things into perspective for you by citing a few facts and findings:
University of California discovered that the average worker spends only about 10 minutes on a task before being interrupted. To be honest, this even sounds conservative to me, because I cannot remember the last time I was fully focused on anything for 10 minutes.
Work interruptions result in 28 billion work hours lost a year, roughly totally USD 1 trillion worth of wasted effort in the US alone. For comparison, this is almost the full annual GDP of Florida and is equivalent to the annual GDP of the whole of Netherlands.
It is estimated it takes between 23 and 30 minutes (estimates vary) for someone to get back to being fully focused on a task after interruption. This contributes to the effort waste referenced in the point above.
Ofcom research found out that the average person in the UK checks their phone once every 12 min during their wake time.
Reading the above, one might ask, “Ok, we are getting easily distracted, so what?” There is, in fact, a long list of adverse consequences, but I have only listed the key ones here.
Loss of productivity: Well, this one is more than obvious. It takes time for us to mentally switch from one task or thought process to another. And then it takes even more time for get back to the original one… the so well-known: “Where was I?”
Fatigue: Interruptions and the constant switching between tasks come at a high mental cost. We do not feel it immediately, but the energy drain adds up until we feel completely exhausted at the end of the day. Our brains are arguably the most energy-intensive organs in our bodies, consuming 20% of our total energy. Every little task swap adds to the energy bill.
Loss of IQ and errors: An often-quoted experiment conducted in 2005 by Professor Glenn Wilson at King’s College London demonstrated that when exposed to constant interruptions, people tend to lose 10 IQ points, more than what has been observed after smoking marijuana. Of course, this in combination with increased levels of fatigue, makes us more error-prone too.
Memory Loss: Exposure to distractions has been found to impact the amount of information we retain in the short term, but also has an indirect impact on the storage of information in our long-term memory that takes place when we sleep. The logic goes like this: interruptions e.g., excessive use of mobile devices reduce the length and quality of our sleep and hence hamper the process of storing long term memories. More on this later.
Loss of creativity: One of the key factors impacting our creativity is our brain’s capacity to wander e.g., that seemingly wasteful staring through the window, which is critical for building logical connections between different ideas, events and objects. Many of the world’s inventions such as the air conditioner were in fact the result of free mind-wandering rather than deliberate though at the time.
Distraction from what really matters: This is probably the single most important negative consequence from constant distractions for me personally. Our brains have finite capacity to consume, process and retain information but we are being constantly bombarded by distractions from various sources all the time – phone notifications, visual and noise stimulation, interruptions by others, etc. And they only have so much mental strength to fight them off until they are completely exhausted and unable to pursue what we really care about and find important in life – whether this is spending more time playing with our children, going to the gym or finishing that side project we have been putting aide for the last three years.
What are the key factors eroding our ability to focus?
Let’s consider some of the main factors together with some simple ways how to help ourselves.
The good news about this focus problem is that it isn’t us. Unfortunately, the bad news is also that it isn’t us. Confused? Let me clarify. To a large degree our attention problems are the result of our modern lifestyle and environment. They are issues largely outside the individual control of each one of us. There is nothing fundamentally broken in us as I had started wondering. Simply, our brains were not designed to live in the hyper fast, over-stimulating, information-overloading world that we know today. They have changed very little over the last few thousand years when the world was a very different place. Now, the bad news is, if this is a wider problem, it means each one of us individually has limited power to solve it.
Smartphones and Social Media
This is probably the single biggest problem for our ability to concentrate. We are absolutely addicted to our phones and social media accounts, and many of us do not even realise it. I would even argue this is worse than a drug addiction. At least the latter requires a conscious action. You might not be able to fight the desire in more severe cases, but you know you have that itch, and you know how to scratch it. Social media, on the other hand, has been brainwashing us, without us even realising. We pick up our phones and go on our Facebook, IG or TikTok pages without even thinking about it half the time, it has become a routine action.
If we look at the average smartphone screen time a day, the data are frightening. There are a lot of sources of this information online and opinions differ, but the most conservative estimates show 3 hrs and 15 min a day. Most of the sources fall within the 4.5 hrs to 7 hrs range. Yes, some of this time is arguably used for work, learning, or other useful and creative purposes, but most of the time is spent on mindless scrolling through social media pages, videos, or gaming. This is awful long time that each one of us wastes every day.
My personal screen time until recently was just over 4 hrs a day, with a fraction of this used for work, reading the news, taking notes or essential communication with friends and family. I would literally sit down and almost subconsciously tap my phone screen every few minutes, so it lights up and shows me if I have any notifications. Then if so, I can almost feel a small dose of dopamine being released by my brain screaming at me: “great, it must be something super urgent and important, check it out NOW!” Of course, it never is, and my excitement dies down until I repeat the exercise 5 minutes later, when another critically important notification could be up. I have started feeling like one of those lab rats they run experiments on and get a small reward every time they press a button or find their way out of a maze.
It does not only happen to me. It is a global problem and it is growing. Big social media companies these days employ whole teams of psychologists, marketers and engineers, whose sole purpose is to discover yet better ways to keep people hooked to clicking and scrolling mindlessly through their platforms for hours on end. CSR… my ass!
Some practical tips:
Set app limits. iPhones now come with the built in app “Screen Time” which helps you set a few different restrictions on phone use. I assume other brands have similar by default and if not, some are available in the app stores.
Disable notifications or set them to appear in bulk at certain time intervals to reduce the constant distraction from them trickling every few minutes.
Set down time on your phone during certain hours e.g. 10 pm to 5 am blocking most or all of the apps we use on the phone in this period.
Busy work and multi-tasking
Capitalist corporations have done an amazing job convincing many of us that we need to work longer and harder, and give our blood, sweat and tears for them. The “work hard, [arguably] play hard” culture is more prominent in some industries, with finance usually a good example of one, but certainly not alone in this. We are constantly inundated with e-mails and virtual meetings all day every day. Having 5-6 back-to-back meetings before a gap in a common occurrence, some people having a lot more than that. Simply, there isn’t enough time in the workday to answer all e-mails, follow up with all your actions and still be present and fully focused on the countless calls. Many of us work longer hours, sacrificing family and free time or try to do more than one thing at a time, to make the equation balance. The result of this is higher stress levels, tiredness and you guessed it – distractions!
It is now a well-known fact that multi-tasking is a myth. We cannot concentrate on two things at a time. And there is no such thing that women can do it, but men can’t. No one can, we are just under the impression we can do it, but instead of our brains doing two things at once, they just quickly alternate focus from one thing to the other and back. The net result is – nothing gets done properly, but a lot of energy gets wasted in the process.
My issue normally is finding time to get on with my “To do” list and responding to e-mails between all the calls. Most people I know struggle with the same. One simple but effective solution I have is blocking off two or three 30-min slots in the diary at regular intervals, which I would then use to catch up with things before jumping on the next batch of calls.
Another good alternative is keeping your phone off the desk to avoid distractions and also signalling to others when you have to get on with work and do not have time for the 5-min question or chat. They often aren’t 5 minutes and even if they were, the time it takes us to get back to our original task adds up to a lot more than that.
Lack of sleep
Chronic lack of sleep is another reason why many of us struggle to stay focused. This is hardly surprising as sleep is one of the most critical ingredients our body needs to function well. Inability to focus is just one of the many problems associated with inadequate levels of sleep. Busy life does not help us either. Since mid-20th century, the average time we sleep has gone down by an hour with many people nowadays sleeping no more than 5-6 hours a night.
Human performance under the condition of tiredness is a fairly well researched topic and the overwhelming consensus is that when tired, our reactions slow down, and we struggle to perform even simple tasks. Neuroscientists have researched what happens in the brain when we are tired, and the findings are curious. They have established that our attention weakens because part of our brains goes to sleep. They term this local sleep because it only happens in a localised part of the brain. In this state, we are awake and under the impression we are alert, but this is not entirely true. This is what causes that feeling of drowsiness.
The usual response strategy most of us adopt in this case is to drug ourselves with huge dozes of coffee so we can make it through the day. This, however, is not a perfect solution. Coffee does not possess magical properties, making tiredness go away. Rather, what happens is that throughout the day, a toxin called adenosine builds up in the brain and signals that we are getting tired. What coffee does is, it blocks the receptors in the brain, which read the adenosine levels, effectively masking the fact that we are tired.
There is a more than obvious answer to this specific issue – get more sleep. I know many of us would argue that we are just too busy with life and have way too much to do and simply cannot go to bed early. I am sure this is true for some people or maybe everyone from time to time. But of all people I know, there isn’t one who falls in the category of “I simply don’t have time to sleep”. Most of us make the conscious decision to stay up and play on our phones or watch Netflix. This makes going to bed at a reasonable time a matter of personal choice.
There are, however, people who find it difficult to switch off mentally and go to bed. In many cases this is due to the blue light our TVs and phones emit, which approximates the sun light and misleads our bodies that it is still early for bed. Admittedly, this is a more challenging issue to address these days. It is usually recommended that we refrain from watching TV or using our phones for 2 hours before bed. I personally cannot see this happen completely as it would mean people going a few centuries back in time, when our predecessors would spend their evenings reading at candlelight. However, simple things like avoiding watching TV in your bedroom and reducing screen time in the evening are steps in the right direction.
There are many other factors, which impact our ability to focus. The ones I called out above are probably the main ones, but it is also worth noting that being exposed to continuous stress and lifestyle choices like bad diet and lack of exercise also have strong connections to our thinning attention capacity.
This is a huge topic and one you cannot cover within a short article, but one thing is sure – our ability to focus is under constant attack nowadays and it is only poised to get worse. It is significant enough an issue for many to declare it a crisis. There are numerous factors and influences that contribute to it. Most of these are related to our modern lifestyle, consumerism, and rise of technology, which are too big global trends for us to change as individuals. There are some who call for organised action and protests against technological companies and their business models built on keeping us glued to our screen for longer and overloading us with banners, pop ups, spam notifications, etc. There calls are not unjustified but a lot harder to achieve. Each one of us, however, has the power to make small lifestyle changes, which could reduce our levels of stress, tiredness and hours wasted on social media or constant switching from one thing to another to the benefit of better and happier lives.
References and Further Reading.
Ceci, L. (2021). Time spent on average on a smartphone in the U.S. 2021. [online] Statista. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1224510/time-spent-per-day-on-smartphone-us/.
Griffey, H. (2018). The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/14/the-lost-art-of-concentration-being-distracted-in-a-digital-world.
Hari, J. (2022). Stolen Focus. Bloomsbury Publishing.
RescueTime Blog. (2018). Interruptions at work are killing your focus, productivity, and motivation. [online] Available at: https://blog.rescuetime.com/interruptions-at-work/.
Statista. (n.d.). UK daily time spent on mobile 2021. [online] Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1285042/uk-daily-time-spent-mobile-usage/.
#author.fullName} (n.d.). ‘Info-mania’ dents IQ more than marijuana. [online] New Scientist. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn7298-info-mania-dents-iq-more-than-marijuana/.