Do you have trouble focusing on a single task for longer than five minutes? Feel deeply uncomfortable when you forget your phone at home and are unable to check texts, instagram, and facebook throughout the day? Find yourself chronically distracted? You’re not alone. A study by Microsoft found that our attention is now less than that of a goldfish. Teachers are noticing a blanket decrease in students’ ability to focus. According to the Center for Disease Control and prevention, the rate of diagnosis of ADHD jumped 15% between 2007 and 2013. What’s going on?
We live in a world where our attention is constantly pulled in different directions. In his post on How to Focus, Eric Barker interviews Duke professor Dan Ariely to explain this phenomenon: “The world is not acting in our long-term benefit. Imagine you walk down the street and every store is trying to get your money right now; in your pocket you have a phone and every app wants to control your attention right now. Most of the entities in our lives really want us to make mistakes in their favor. So the world is making things very, very difficult.”
At the heart of our distractibility is the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is central to the brain’s reward system, functioning as positive reinforcement for behaviors and experiences that improve chances of survival, such as eating, mating, and responding to danger. Modern life hijacks this system so that we are rewarded with hits of dopamine for engaging in behaviors that are unhelpful and unhealthy. Videos activate the startle response, triggering a hit of dopamine, which is why it’s so easy to disappear into a YouTube black hole. That mobile game you reach for the instant you feel bored is so addictive because it’s designed to get your brain to release dopamine. Even the stress of knowing you have unopened emails in your inbox releases dopamine.
Our brains have become dependent to the constant flood of this neurotransmitter, leaving us desperately craving a fix when we go too long without one. Dedicating several uninterrupted hours to studying for an exam or writing a blog post becomes almost impossible for our dopamine-addicted brains.
Luckily, the phenomenon of neuroplasticity means that, with practice and repetition, it is possible to train our brains to become more focused. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to build new neural connections throughout our lives.
The problem is, most of us are spending a lot of time throughout the day training our brains to be distracted. We check Facebook while working, text during in-person conversations, scroll through our Instagram feeds while watching TV, and fragment our attention in a million different ways.
From Eric Barker’s interview with the late Georgetown professor Cal Newport: “focus is actually a skill that has to be trained. You can’t just decide, ‘Now I’m going to go focus intensely for the next 3 hours on something.’ If you haven’t actually built up your capability to do that, you’re going to have a very hard time. When you’re checking Facebook all the time on your phone outside of work, that has an impact on your ability to perform the next day when you arrive at the office.” Several studies have supported this assertion.
So how can you utilize neuroplasticity to become more focused? Train your brain with regular practice focusing on a single task for small chunks of time, working up to larger chunks. Take breaks in between your chunks of focused concentration. A popular version of this idea is the Pomodoro technique. Eric Barker has some other great tips in his article How to Focus.
Focus is just like a muscle. Used regularly, it’s there for you when you need it.