Woman concentrating with notebook and laptop computer

Dude, where’s my attention span?

By Eilish Roberts, Class of 2019.

Am I the only one who feels like my attention span is becoming shorter than a matchstick? I used to be able to read an article in one sitting, but now I get a few sentences in before mindlessly reaching for my phone. Once I’m in the distraction vortex, I’m in deep; it can sometimes take hours before I pull myself out of it and remember, with umbrage, what I am supposed to be doing. 

Alexa, play “I Knew You Were Trouble” 

If you’ve made it this far through this blog, congratulations – perhaps you’re a little better off than me (what’s your secret?). If you’ve already opened another tab on your screen, then you better listen up, pal! A recent international study suggests that our entanglement with the internet is physically changing our brains, leaving us with shorter attention spans and poorer memories. Our smartphones and laptops issue an endless stream of prompts and notifications, creating a constant state of divided attention. This seems to impair our ability to maintain focus, preventing us from completing a single task. 

Photo by Rob Hampson on Unsplash
Photo by Rob Hampson on Unsplash

Alarmingly, this doesn’t just affect us while we’re on online – people in the study who regularly spent time flicking between short activities on the internet were found to have less grey matter in parts of the brain associated with concentration! Research has also shown that our penchant for trying to multitask on the internet is making us worse at tuning out distractions. 

Siri, you’re stressing me out

Indeed, we’re succumbing to a state of constant interruption. A 2018 UK study cites that people check their smartphones an average of every 12 minutes throughout the day. Being perpetually “switched on” means we are always alert and scanning our environment, but rarely give our full attention to anything. Over time, this mental state leads to a build up of stress hormones, creating a sense of addiction, which is temporarily relieved every time we check our phones.

Technology clearly plays a big part in our weakening ability to concentrate, but really, it’s exacerbating an already existing mechanism of our psychology. We are hardwired to be constantly on the lookout for new information, and, simply put, less good at completing the task at hand. Let’s look at it from an evolutionary perspective: it’s more important that you notice a man-eating tiger approaching, rather than continue whatever it is you’re doing in that moment. We’ve endured as a species by being ever-receptive to any stimuli we encounter – both useful and clickbait alike. And yet, this survival mechanism is doing little to help me survive my masters degree…  

Okay Google: How do I fix this?

So what’s the solution? There is a wealth of wisdom and techniques to help improve your focus and lengthen your attention span. The general theme is to unplug, step away from the omnipresent vice of technology, practice mindfulness, and slowly retrain your brain to concentrate for longer stints at a time. Some of my top picks are engaging in meditation, taking yourself into nature, and reading for pleasure. I also recommend using site blocker apps such as Self Control or Freedom to help keep you disciplined in designated work times. The fewer distractions, the better chance you have of seizing control of your wandering mind.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash