Thursday, October 16, 2014

Restoring your attention span

The rapid march of technology in our times is truly remarkable, and shows no sign of abetting. Smart phones exemplify this trend: over the past decade they have become as ubiquitous as credit cards—even the majority of schoolchildren in our society seem to own one. In fact, the presence of smart phones in our lives has become so prominent, that many of us strain to recall how we managed to function with landlines and dial-up internet just fifteen years ago.

While the advantages of this development are clear—extraordinary connectivity with the people in our lives, and an unprecedented repository of knowledge at our fingertips—the pitfalls are less frequently acknowledged. (Leave aside, for the moment, the capacity for governments to track their citizens’ movements and communications as never before.) A growing body of research suggests that one pernicious effect of the newfangled gadgets has been a diminution of the average person’s attention span. In other words, as the number of visual and auditory stimuli in our environment increases, our ability to concentrate on one single element of our surroundings tends to suffer. This can put a serious damper on both our productivity, and our ability to think deeply about things.

To enhance and regain your concentration, try the following:

Remove clutter and distractions. If you face an important task that you anticipate will require your undivided attention for an extended period of time, remove as many of the unneeded stimuli from your environment as possible—particularly those which tend to distract you. Switch off your phone temporarily, close unnecessary windows on your computer desktop, and remove superfluous items from your workspace. This requires a bit of discipline, but the effort is usually worth it.

 Ambient sound. This is not a recommendation that necessarily applies to everyone. Some people are best able to concentrate in silence, others find that a bit of music or bustle (as in a coffee shop) actually enhances their productivity.

 Go for a walk, jog, or bike ride. A bit of light exercise in advance to tackling a demanding task will facilitate the flow of oxygen to your brain, and induce the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine—both of which will, among other benefits, help you concentrate. A brief stroll has the added advantage of giving you time to collect your thoughts, and temporarily remove yourself from sources of stress in your work environment.

Make time for sleep. It may seem obvious, but too many people with demanding schedules tend to sacrifice sleep on the altar of progress. Now that the aforementioned smart phones have afforded us the ability to communicate with each other anywhere, anytime, and through a variety of channels, the temptation to forgo sleep is particularly acute. However, remember that fatigue will invariably detract from your productivity the following day—while a chronic lack of sleep can have detrimental effects on your health, quality of life, and career longevity. Set firm ground rules for yourself and your co-workers: if they e-mail you at 1:45 a.m., they shouldn’t expect a reply before morning.

Keep healthy snacks on hand. The contribution of proper nourishment to your ability to concentrate is significant. Fruit, granola bars, yogourt, and nuts are preferable to sugary items like doughnuts, candies, and milk chocolate. Eschew sugary drinks like pop and from-concentrate juices, and aim to limit your coffee/caffeine consumption to no more than a cup or two per day. (See Make time for sleep, above.) Less caffeine generally translates into fewer trips to the bathroom and more time for productive effort.