At a glance
By Linda Moon
Can’t focus? Feel frazzled? You are not alone. According to a study by the Technical University of Denmark, our attention span is decreasing.
Using historical data from Twitter, Google Books, Google Trends, Reddit and movie ticket sales, researchers have discovered that, over time, popular cultural items such as books, movies and social media topics have started to command less and less public attention.
They blame this largely on the rapid evolution of information channels and content to engage with, while our attention spans have decreased.
Social commentator Johann Hari, author of the book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, describes the issue as an “epidemic” and a “crisis”.
While typically viewed as a problem affecting young people, issues with attention span and focus are plaguing a growing number of adults.
How concerned should we be?
The high cost at work
According to Clare Mann, organisational psychologist, author and communication expert, poor attention and focus undermine productivity and performance.
They commonly manifest as mistakes, forgetfulness and the need to redo work. Tasks consequently take longer, increasing work hours.
Where a person’s work requires a high level of sustained focus, such as reading critical documents like government policy, the inability to focus can prove exhausting, Mann says.
“If you can’t focus, you’re going to have to keep doing it.” This can trigger mental exhaustion and burnout.
Stress, which typically occurs when we can’t concentrate, also shuts down our creative brain.
“When we’re in fight/flight, we don’t get those moments of inspiration, because we need our mind to be clear,” Mann says.
This explains why creative inspiration often happens when we’re most relaxed – on holidays or in the shower.
According to Mann, by interfering with our “flow state” – when we immerse ourselves in a task and become lost in it – inattention diminishes our sense of accomplishment, purpose and enjoyment in work.
In roles requiring attention to detail and being a trusted adviser, mistakes or delayed work may also have negative consequences for work relationships, Mann says.
The personal cost of lost focus
At a deeper level, lost focus saps our lives of meaning and joy, according to Hari. For instance, people who multi-task at dinner report tasting their food less and reduced enjoyment spending time with their dinner companions.
In short, we must be present to savour the moment.
Lack of presence in our relationships also reduces their quality, Mann points out. When severe, this can result in disassociation.
Alarmingly, untreated Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – the most studied attention problem – is associated with a higher risk of low academic and employment attainment, employment dismissal, low self-esteem, substance abuse, anxiety, depression, traffic violations and traffic accidents, criminal behaviour and social problems.
“Think of it like a continuum,” Mann says.
“On one level, it’s inconsequential if people can’t focus. You can go back and read a page. If you’re on the motorway or operating machinery and you lose attention, it could be life-threatening.”
Key factors behind the attention deficit
Far from being an individual problem, inattention is a widespread social phenomenon and the outcome of invasive tech and deliberate corporate hijacking of our headspace, Hari argues.
Other key factors that contribute to our diminished attention spans include stress, poor eating habits, poor quality sleep, mental and physical exhaustion, indoor confinement and chemical pollution, as well as the speed and overstimulation of modern life, according to Hari.
Signs and symptoms
The inability to focus may be cast as attention deficit disorder, ADHD, forgetfulness, digital dementia, brain fog syndrome and more, but the commonality between these labels is the inability to stay focused on a single thing.
According to Mann, key signs of attention issues include lack of presence, constantly switching between tasks, distraction, forgetfulness and procrastination.
These inevitably lead to lost productivity and failure to achieve goals.
Fatigue, stress, adrenal burnout and feeling overwhelmed can also relate to attention issues, Mann says.
The frustration and agitation of trying to focus, albeit unsuccessfully, can cause us to pump out cortisol and adrenaline, even from just getting behind in our to-do list.
Reclaim your focus
The starting point is becoming aware of what is stealing your attention. Most often, the culprit is technology.
Smartphone users touch their phones, on average, a whopping 2617 times a day, says Hari.
“People have to learn to tame tech,” Mann says.
This includes deleting unnecessary apps, using physical documents and books as much as possible and removing distractions and external triggers at work.
Prioritise, mono-task and chunk your time, she says.
Another technique is to know and harness your “Einstein window” – the time you are most productive – to maximise the flow state.
If monotonous tasks cause your mind to wander, Mann suggests interspersing them with more engaging activities.
You can also take short breaks in nature. Multiple studies show that nature and movement can rejuvenate concentration. Meditation also enhances cognition.
Hari emphasises the importance of sleep, exercise, healthy food, making time for meaningful activities, having space for our mind to wander freely, avoiding chemical exposure and reducing work hours to minimise stress.
It's about checking in – paying attention is an ongoing battle.