When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us.
David Loy, Rethinking Karma
Recent research suggests that those of us who spend a lot of time on social media may be losing the ability to sustain focus.
This is seen in two published studies.
In the first, a group with high levels of engagement with various social media, performed less well on cognitive testing than a similar group stoned on THC.
The second study examined academic performance directly. It revealed that academic performance – shown by grades – deteriorated in girls who used social media the most.
In the 1990s the increasing digitization of the work place lead to a change in the performance of many middle managers – a condition called Attention Deficit Trait appeared. The constant electronic interruptions, from email, phones and other electronic communications, had negative effects on their ability to focus on the job in hand. This had a significant impact on job performance. The recent research ond this older finding have shared roots.
Variations in focus from free-floating to sustained attention is a necessity if we are to carry out any creative work. It is also vital that we sustain focus on the task in hand if we are to actually manage to finish things. When we are exposed to constant interruptions and distractions our brains struggle to handle the constant demands to attend to new stimuli.
The parts of our brain that have developed to keep us alive react to change, and when they are stimulated they demand that we switch our attention to these novel stimuli in order to carry out a risk assessment. For much of our evolutionary history change in our immediate environment has been an indicator of threat, and for this reason novelty has always demanded a response so that we can maximise our chances of staying alive.
If we work in an environment that is stimulus rich our fight and flight systems come to interpret every bleep and ping as a new sign of danger, and this triggers the appropriate response – a switch of our attention onto the new stimulus. This constant change in focus from our work to our environment results in a lot of wasted time while we regain our focus on what we were doing before the interruption.
When we are writing a major report or other significant piece of work it can take up to thirty minutes for us to regain the same level of concentration that had been present before we were interrupted. This results in significant increases in our stress and a matching fall in productivity – both of quantity and in the quality of what we do.
It is important to balance our different levels of focus so that we can maintain a high level of performance. This means that we need to minimise any additional noise and interruption to allow our minds to work to the best of their ability.
There are some simple steps that we can follow that will help retrain our brains to allow them to function as well as possible:
- Switch off all unnecessary distractions.
- Hold phone calls.
- Close all unneccessary apps or programmes.
- Close your browser.
- Put phone on silent.
- Switch off your internet connection.
- Reduce our response to social media. No-one dies if we only check our feeds at set times.
- Inform others that you are not to be interrupted.
- Wear headphones.
- Earphones can reduce noise distractions directly.
- Listen to music – this can help to improve focus as it can blot out background disturbances.
- Add your own.
Decluttering our stimulus environment has noticeable benefits for those, such as school students studying for exams, who need to be able to maintain sustained concentration.