What really keeps us from concentrating

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People have always had trouble concentrating. Here’s what Nir Eyal says in his book The Unattracted: “Previous generations were helped by social pressure not to be distracted – before the invention of the personal computer, procrastination at your desk was visible to everyone around you. Reading a magazine or talking about your weekend on the phone made it clear to colleagues that you were procrastinating and write paper was definitely not getting done.”

Today it’s far less obvious, and if you’re working from home, the social factor falls away altogether. Yes, and circumstances, in general, have changed:

More people than ever are engaged in intellectual work; for them, long concentration is very important.

Intellectual work usually implies that a person needs to process an enormous amount of information.

The means for distraction, our electronic devices, are always at hand. What’s more, we have a false sense of productivity, such as when we read articles on the Internet and call it “gathering material.”

The invisibility of distractions to others reduces social responsibility.

All of these circumstances make concentration problems more noticeable, but they don’t cause them. After reading many books on attention and observing myself, I can conclude that the causes lie in our psychology.

1. lack of purpose

From a means to an end, productivity often becomes a fetish. We try to be productive and focused for the sake of productivity itself. But with this approach, the brain does not understand why we should concentrate and exert effort at all. Naturally, it is impossible to get good results that way.

2. The desire for novelty.

The ability to concentrate for a long time on one thing was unprofitable for evolution. Much more important was the ability to quickly redirect attention in response to an unexpected danger. As a result, our brains are still constantly searching for novelty. This behavior is reinforced by the release of dopamine when we switch to a new task, browser tab, or TV program.

Moreover, a person is willing to go very far in search of new stimuli. In one study, participants were asked to sit in a room for 15 minutes and just think. There was only a device in the room that could be used to give a mild but painful electric shock. Before the experiment began, all participants said they were willing to pay just to avoid it. But when they were left alone in the room with boredom, 67% of the men and 25% of the women used the device, some even more than once.

3. Attention Overload.

The ability to concentrate is not unlimited. When we go overboard and overload our attention, we lose our ability to concentrate. This happens when we try to do too many things at once or focus for too long on something difficult.

As Chris Bailey writes, the more often we fill our attention to the brim, the more time it takes us to switch between tasks, the less able we are to filter out unnecessary information on the fly, and the harder it is to suppress the urge to jump from one thing to another.

4. emotional discomfort

This is the biggest problem for me. As I weaned myself off the phone, I noticed a myriad of emotions and feelings arise throughout the day. They encourage me to shift my attention from what I am doing to something else.

Like the desire for novelty, this is related to our evolutionary development. As scientists write, if satisfaction and pleasure were constant, we would be discouraged from seeking further benefits and advantages. In other words, these feelings were not useful to our species, which is why we are constantly disturbed today.

For the past three years I have been trying to solve these problems. I clenched my teeth and tried not to be distracted. It worked, but only to a certain extent: I couldn’t get around the brain device. Things began to change when I accepted the causes of my concentration difficulties. I stopped struggling with them and began to learn how to work around them for my own benefit. In order to do that, we had to figure out how attention works.

How to manage attention properly.

Think of attention as a physical space that only holds a certain amount of tasks at a time. It depends on how much of our “processing power” is needed for each task. For example, you might iron laundry, listen to the radio, and sing along at the same time. Such tasks take up very little space, and we do them almost automatically.

Challenging tasks are different. They require conscious engagement and more space. It’s like having a serious conversation, writing a report, reading a book on philosophy. The more complex the task, the less space is left for the synchronized performance of others. For example, when you listen attentively to a friend’s story about his problems, you may find it difficult to make tea, even though under normal circumstances you do it without stuttering.

Your ability to concentrate strongly depends on how you manage your attention span. For optimal results, adhere to the following rules.

Leave “free” space.

During a difficult task, this allows you to do two things. First, think about the best strategy. You may have ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to you if your attention had been jammed to the brim. For example, remove the lengthy introduction from the presentation and go straight to the main topic. Second, notice what you are directing your attention to, and when you are inevitably distracted, return to the task at hand.

Curiously, the same approach is practiced in mindfulness meditation. The meditator is told to focus on the breath, but not to direct all attention to it. The rest of it is for observing what is going on in the mind.

Try to avoid “tails.”

They arise when we switch from one thing to another, especially if we haven’t finished the first one. Let’s say you’re writing an important message and suddenly the phone rings. While you’re talking, your brain keeps thinking about the message, and you find it hard to focus. Such thoughts are the “tail” of the previous case. To avoid it, try not to jump from one task to another whenever possible.

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