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Why you’re struggling to concentrate - and what can help
August 9th 2018 / 0 comment
Are you ‘brain lazy’? If the daily onslaught of news, Zoom meetings emails and WhatsApps has left your attention span shot, you need to read this
Despite what the above suggests, this isn’t going to be a tech-bashing article. Apps, phones and wifi and most recently Zoom have made our lives infinitely easier and I’m a big fan of a bit of digital delegation to help me out of a life admin hole (thank you Monday.com).
However, in an attempt to solve one problem, our reliance on tech seems to have created another – it could be making us ‘brain lazy’.
I first heard the term from Harley Street hypnotherapist and life coach, Malminder Gill. She defines it as “the lack of motivation, awareness and/or ability to focus the mind, the absence of which leads to a conveyor belt style of thoughts, which in turn dictates mood, attitude and beliefs over time.”
Even before the pandemic, Gill had seen a rise in instances of brain laziness in recent times and believes that our overdependence on tech could be one of the key reasons behind it.
“It has become a widespread epidemic silently killing our ability to finish a thought, solve a problem, complete a sentence. In most cases, it causes a haphazard conversation at social gatherings. Focus is not fashionable anymore, it's dying and being reincarnated through squares and rectangles that we glare at each day”.
She points out though that it’s not so much the tech that’s to blame, more how we use it and the effect that this is having on our neural capabilities.
“Apps help and improve our lives except that we’ve reached a point now where we rely too much on them, so much so that we no longer need to organise and plan, tings that are critical cognitive functions needed to help us concentrate.”
It’s never been easier to outsource than it is now, but in doing so, Malminder believes it could giving us case of brain rust. “The prefrontal cortex plays a key role in planning - it's the area of the brain used for focus and concentration. If that’s claimed away by the use of multiple apps, the ‘muscle’ isn’t being used.”
It could be said that the inability to concentrate is a side-effect of the digital generation, with the constant bombardment of news and Twitter feeds, emails and WhatsApps making it near impossible to focus both in and out of work.
However, too much tech is only part of the problem. The fact that life’s more demanding and stressful than ever doesn’t help when it comes to staying focused and concentrating on one thing at a time. “Doing too much is to blame, but a deeper level of this is really our desperate need to fit in, keep up, belong and be included,” says neuroscientist and executive performance coach Dr Magdalena Bak-Maier. “That makes it hard for people to pause and stop and choose to simply think.”
Lockdown itself is having an effect on our ability to concentrate.
"Our home life, work-life, homeschooling and all versions of ourselves are overlapping; our brains are being pulled in so many different directions simultaneously. These are things that are normally compartmentalised." It's like multi-tasking in extreme," explains neuroscientist Tara Swart. "This erodes focus and concentration. Not to mention the underlying chronic stress that is slowly but surely sapping our brainpower."
The good news though is that there are ways to fix your focus and improve your ability to concentrate. Here are 11 tips from the pros that can help.
1. Avoid multitasking
Ever been too stressed to focus? For me, it often happens when I have a million things whirring around in my mind and I kid myself into thinking I can do them all through a multitasking and multi-device approach. However, in an attempt to be ultra-efficient, the results are quite frequently, far from it. Multitasking has become the new norm and almost a badge of honour but in our quest for quantity, quality can be compromised.
Instead of stretching yourself too thin, Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist, coach and anxiety expert and author of The Anxiety Solution advises trying the pomodoro technique to help you plough through your to-do list: “Set a timer for 25 minutes and aim to work continuously for that time,” she tells me. “Knowing that the timer is going will help to focus your mind. After 25 minutes, set your timer again to have a five minute break.” And repeat. [Author’s note: I tried this while writing this article and it works].
To make sure you focus on tasks throughout those 25 minutes, you can take advantage of streamlined music, developed by neuroscientists. Streamlined music puts you in the zone and helps you focus on one task at a time. It quietens your monkey mind (a term used in meditation circles referring to the brain’s tendency to jump around) and aims to increase your focus.
2. Take regular breaks
The busier we are, the less likely we are to take our lunch break. We’ve all been there with many of us all too ready to sacrifice that lucrative midday hour in the name of meeting deadlines. However, as counterintuitive as it sounds, working through your breaks isn’t necessarily going to see them done sooner. In fact, quite the opposite, and as mentioned in the above point, integrating them into the way you work (and throughout the day) will do great things for your productivity.
“Mental performance drops if we don’t take breaks; decision making becomes slower, attention levels wane and thinking can become more rigid,” explains Dr Dimitrios Paschos, consultant psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health.
If a task is becoming stale, taking a break will do wonders for your motivation mojo too. It needn’t be long. “Grab a drink, get some fresh air or stretch and come back to the task in hand with renewed energy and focus,” recommends mind coach and TV presenter, Anna Williamson. It’ll help fend off to-do list fatigue and lethargy and get your creative juices flowing.
3. Do some daily mental exercises
Getting distracted easily can be viewed as a bad habit. And as with most habits, it’s easy to break by introducing some small changes into your routine everyday. “It is important to remember that the brain is a muscle and as with other muscles in our body, practice increases strength and durability,” says Terrence The Teacher, Mindfulness Expert in The Wellness Clinic at Harrods. If you’re really struggling to fix your focus, don’t fret, as it’s possible to ‘train’ yourself out of it.
“Start by doing five minutes of focused work with a two minute break in between,” he recommends. “You can build up this way of working gradually. Let your mind get used to concentrating fully for those periods. Eventually you will find you can focus for longer.”
You can also help apply the brakes to a fast-track mind by mixing up your daily reading material. “Train yourself to read slower with a more focused mind,” says Terrence. “In today’s world of the internet and social media, our brains have been wired for quick information - a few clicks and we get bored. To get concentration and attention span back will take practice. Start reading one long article or news bulletin a day and question yourself on what you have read afterwards.”
4. Book in for that exercise class
It’ll do both the brain and body good. “Not only does exercise improve your physical and mental health, it improves cognitive function - you’ll be able to think and concentrate better straight after,” says Anna. “So get your trainers on and enjoy a morning walk.”
It also has a beneficial effect on stress levels too to create a less chaotic mind. “Exercise helps to metabolise the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, and restores calm in the body,” explains Dr Paschos. Oh, and it also helps you to sleep better too...
5. Take time out to rest and get a good night’s sleep
...which brings us smoothly onto our next point. Sleep is the secret to a quicker, sharper mind. As Terrence explains:
“A well-rested mind performs up to 60 per cent better than a tired, sleep-deprived one. If you want to be able to concentrate better, sleep and rest almost have to become your magic bullets. In deep sleep, your dreams allow the brain to process things learned and experienced the day before. This allows you to wake up with a renewed mind that will be able to give 100 per cent again.”
6. Try mindfulness meditation
Not only will this improve your sleep if you tend to struggle, but it’ll also improve your ability to focus throughout the day too. “Mindfulness meditation is a technique that trains your mind to be in the present moment,” explains Chloe. “Our minds have a tendency to go into the past or the future or go down the distraction rabbit hole as one thought leads to another. Being present means you can focus on the task at hand and you're able to steer your attention back to what you're doing when any potential distractions appear.” She recommends trying a mindfulness meditation class at your local Buddhist or yoga centre, trying a mindfulness app or simply taking 10 minutes to focus on your breathing to train your ‘mindfulness muscle.’
You’ll be able to see differences to your concentration skills surprisingly speedily. “Various research has shown how mindfulness meditation changes the brain functioning within six to eight weeks of practice,” Terrence tells us. He recommends a simple breath meditation to start things off - “One DEEP breath in. One SLOW breath out. You could do five to 10 breaths to start with. The longer breath out has been shown to almost immediately relax the parasympathetic nervous system.” It’s especially convenient because it can be done anytime and anywhere whenever you encounter a moment of stress.
7. Eliminate distractions
Do whatever you can to keep distraction temptation out of reach, whether that’s putting your phone on Airplane Mode or deleting time-wasting apps. “Turn it off and put it away," Dr Magdalena Bak-Maier advised us when we asked her for her top tips for cultivating a healthier relationship with tech. “Revisit white sheets of paper to sketch on, invest in a paper journal and make dedicated time for technology and stick to the task involved. For example, turn email on to check it and then turn it off. And turn the alerts off as well. Those constant pings really erode concentration.”
8. Become a more active listener
If your inability to focus has negatively affected your skills as a conversationalist, you’re not alone. With an increasingly large amount of our communication more screen-based these days, it’s no surprise that our social skills have suffered as a result. If this sounds like an all too familiar scenario, Malminder Gill recommends getting out of your head and actively listening in conversations rather than staying quiet to formulate your own thoughts. “Being an active listener really means being at one with the other person in the conversation,” she tells us. “Listening to their words, watching their body language and picking up on changes in tone - actually concentrating on what they’re saying without daydreaming or thinking about what your next sentence will be.”
By doing this, it’ll boost improve your auditory concentration skills and ability to process and interpret sounds - another muscle that’s in need of greater flexing in our digital-heavy world. Plus, it’ll also improve your memory too.
9. Make time away from your screen a priority - and schedule it in
Whether it’s a live performance, show or hobby, going to places or doing things where tech doesn’t play an integral role will preoccupy your mind so you’re less likely to succumb to distraction, and will relieve some stress too. “Doing things that distance us from screens can have a positive effect,” says Dr Kiki Leutner from University College London. “For example, going to the theatre is an experience that makes you totally present.
“Outside stimuli are removed, mobile phones have to be switched off, and for a couple of hours you are away from the real world and the impact of screens. Positive effects of theatre and live performance are present both for those engaging in theatre, and those consuming it. Brain activity appears to be enhanced when a performance is watched in theatre versus on a screen.”
And also, get socialising. “Socialising helps to reduce anxiety and depression and improves mental sharpness,” says Dr Paschos. “It’s important to establish and maintain good social networks and support.” There’s never been a better reason to get the drinks in.
10. Fuel yourself well
Think plenty of water and resisting high sugar cravings to keep concentration levels on an even keel. As Anna explains: “Too much sugar or caffeine will make you feel sluggish and will affect focus and energy levels, particularly once the 'high' has worn off. Eat regular healthy meals, and never skip breakfast to ensure you're fuelling your body and brain properly.”
11. Declutter your workspace
It’s true, clutter can kill your focus. A 2011 study by researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that when multiple visual stimuli are competing for attention, you’ll find it trickier to narrow your focus to just one of them. “The neater/cleaner/quieter your workspace, the better your concentration will be,” says executive and career coach, Anna Percy-Davis. “If your desk is just too busy and noisy - seek out a quiet, tidy space to do an important piece of work if needs be.” If you’re in need of some desk-spiration, we suggest heading over to Marie Kondo’s Instagram page. Her KonMari Method balances the professional with the personal pretty perfectly.