We live in a busy world. A world that is busy far beyond the imaginings of our ancestors. The volume of information that our modern life creates continues to increase at an exponential rate, and the noise and bustle of daily life continues to increase with no obvious end in sight. This cause us difficulty because we are equipped with the same brains with which we walked out of Africa and colonised the world.
This mix of the old and the new is responsible for many of the problems that twenty-first century living poses for modern humans. We are equipped with a threat detection system designed for a hunter gatherer life style. A world where change indicated a possible threat and the likelihood that a predator might want to eat us.
Our brain only has limited capacity to process information consciously – perhaps two kilobytes per second. Our unconscious, automatic mind processes much faster – about a Terabyte a second, bandwidth that is needed to handle the mass of sensory information that we receive. Our brains have a novelty bias built-in, so that when change occurs in our environment our attention is automatically drawn to it. Our conscious attention may then be engaged by the unconscious parts of the brain to help assess the threat. However, if the unconscious mind perceives a significant threat, it will react by activating our fight and flight response.
A world where change indicated threat.
As a consequence we live in a state of constant overload, reacting to the huge number of changes in the world around us before we have a chance to assess the need to do so consciously. Our brains respond automatically to change, so a ping on our computer announcing the latest e-mail, or an alert on our phone, are treated with the same importance as if they indicated that a sabre toothed tiger was about to tear us limb from limb.
This increasing demand for our conscious and unconscious attention means that our minds become easily scattered with the result that we struggle to focus on what actually matters in our world. Our conscious attention is limited so it is vital that it is used wisely. The constant need to refocus on something else, triggered by these unconscious threat alerts, takes a heavy toll. Distraction due to overwhelm from modern life is bad enough without our choosing to add unnecessary additional stimuli to the stress of modern living.
The brain makes up about 2% of our body weight but uses 20% of our daily energy consumption. Our ability to think and plan comes with an increased need for energy. Daydreaming uses about 11 calories an hour, while sitting in a lecture hall, taking in new information uses 65 calories per hour. Thinking and assimilating new information requires a lot of energy.
Every time we change focus this energy debt increases. Switching from one task to another uses much more energy than is required when we maintain our focus on one thing. The constant interruptions that occur all day, every day, contribute to this heavy toll, adding to our sense of exhaustion and depleting the brain’s stores of neurotransmitters and increasing our recovery time.
Multitasking is a misleading name. When we multitask we are actually switching from one task to another and back again. When we have to rapidly shift our focus from one activity to another in this way we allow no time for our brain to recover and rest and this broken concentration hinders our ability to solve problems and think creatively.
Give our brains the chance to recharge.
The brain’s resting condition – the Default Mode Network – is a state in which we seem to daydream or enter a state of reverie. When there is a cyclical switch from focus to reverie and back again this gives our mind the chance to recharge between tasks. When we do this we can develop a state of concentrated focus which can be then be sustained for long periods.
Sustained periods of focus work better than constantly being interrupted. It can take a lot longer than we think to get back to our pre interruption state. So, if we are working on along report or an assignment it can take thirty minutes to get back the same intensity of focus that we had before.
If our brains are to function at their best we need to achieve a balance between focussed attention and reverie. So it would make sense to set up our environment to maximise our chances of focussing onto the important things. If we are to do this it is a considerable help if we can keep the opportunities for our brain to distract us to a minimum.
How can we choose focus over interruptions?
- Switch off devices.
- Switch off notifications.
- Close unused apps.
- Alert others not to disturb you.
- Make a list of the things you want to achieve.
- Focus on one at a time.
In this way we can create a virtuous circle. When we train ourselves to put the rewards provided by finishing a task ahead of the quick rush provided when we respond to interruptions, we lay down a solid base for our own peace of mind.