Tim sits at his desk. He fidgets. He knows he has to get some work done, but he can’t. He is going to be in big trouble if he doesn’t. Oops, his mind wandered off again, quickly, back to the task at hand. He fidgets again. “Ohhh, this is so hard. I feel uncomfortable” his mind groans. He looks at the clock, how long has it been? Is it time yet? The tension is building, it’s like a kettle boiling over. This is so hard.
Tim isn’t a 12 year old school student needing to do an assignment. Tim is in his twenties and has a successful corporate job. But he can’t sit still and concentrate on a single task to save his life. Sound familiar?
What We Do Everyday Shapes Our Brain
But Tim wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t until technology changed and made things way more accessible, that Tim found his habits changing. Slowly as his habits changed, Tim’s brain and then his behavior began to change. And slowly he became someone who has self-induced attention deficit disorder.
The brain is a remarkable organ and as humans we possess the most remarkable brain of all. Our higher functioning brain separates us from the primates, allowing us the use of intricate communication skills such as language, advanced manual dexterity, complex problem solving skills and higher cognitive thought processes such as philosophy.
It also allows us to check email every five minutes, quickly update our Facebook status and look at Twitter responses. If I wanted to, I could also send an SMS to someone else while talking to another person on the phone. Just because I can, does it mean I should?
It’s True, The Brain Can Change
Probably one of the most profound medical discoveries that has really gained a lot of attention recently is that of neuroplasticity. It is a fancy way of saying that the brain is not a fixed and rigid organ but a malleable one, which is molded and influenced by our environment and repetitive tasks.
The brain doesn’t discriminate between good and bad things to adapt to. Constantly thinking negative thoughts? That can become ingrained and that brain pattern can become stronger and stronger over time. Only every concentrating on one task for five minutes at a time before you check email, open a new browser or send out a tweet? Do that regularly everyday for a few months and you have rewired your brain and probably not for the better.
We live in an age now where there is no shortage of information or things battling for our attention (a previous article spoke about how advertisers are trying to break through the clutter). There is no problem being connected or online anymore. Most of us are online all day at work. Now our mobiles are online also, and if that’s not powerful enough you have your portable laptops and tablets to take around with you.
We are basically online every waking hour. There can be a constant stream of information or form of communication reaching us all the time. But what has this done for our ability to stay focused on one single task, concentrate on it and just get it done? Probably not a lot of good. The problem is most of us may not realize that these distractions are really hampering our productivity.
The Marijuana vs Email Study
This study is shocking to say the least.
There was a study by a psychiatrist at King’s College in London in 2005 that administered IQ tests to three different groups: the first group just performed the IQ test, the second group was distracted by email and ringing phones, and the third was stoned on marijuana.
It was no surprise the first group outperformed the other two by an average of ten points. What was surprising was the email/ringing phone group did worse than the stoners by six points.
“Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers, new research has claimed.”
The disruption of a task at hand can take up to 45 minutes until you ‘get back on track’. It is like there is a certain amount of cognitive momentum that is lost and takes time to regain.
Our Attention Is Like A Flashlight
We should look at our ability to concentrate on something as a flashlight. It can only shine brightly on one thing at a time. Sure you can spread the light out over many objects, but the strength and quality will be dissipated. Pick your one task and focus on it.
How Can I Improve My Ability To Focus?
Practice some form of meditation. Meditation can take many forms, but basically it is the ability to concentrate on one thing. Be it the breath, a repetitive mantra or a certain object. Meditation has been shown to be highly beneficial to the brain, especially the frontal lobes which are responsible for concentration.
A practice of meditation does not have to be sitting cross-legged on the floor. You can practice meditation with any daily activity by fully engaging and concentrating on the activity. It can be done during washing the dishes. Instead of letting your mind wander aimlessly while dishwashing, bring it back to the present moment. At first it will be very difficult, but over time you will find it easier to do.
I think the best place to start is to just be mindful of our daily habits and the effect they can have on us. I see the unfortunate results of mindless behavior everyday now in adults with the attention spans of children. For example, a grown adult who cannot carry on a proper conversation with another adult in front of them without having to answer and reply to a text message. Be here now and be mindful of your current moment.
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