I can’t concentrate. Of course I can’t – you can’t either, can you? It’s endemic. The chronic inability to focus on any one thing at a time has become as characteristic of our generation as avocados, or starting sentences with “I mean”.
A familiar roll-call of factors can affect concentration: nutrition, hydration, sleep, exercise, hormones and mental health all play a part. But if it’s true, as claimed by Microsoft in 2015, that the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to a ‘worse than a goldfish’ eight seconds since the millennium, then it’s not hard to spot the new villain. Smartphones and social media have fostered a world of infinite distractions, pulling our focus this way and that like an endless digital tennis match.
There’s the social admin – emails to be replied to, events to engage with, the needy bloop-bloop of group chats going off in our pocket – and then there’s the allure of the unknown; the videos we haven’t watched, the shoes we haven’t bought, the 2,000-word think pieces we haven’t read yet. And the reason they make us twitchy isn’t just cultural, it’s chemical.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Jessamy Hibberd explains: “When you check your email or social media it causes the release of dopamine, the feelgood neurotransmitter.” And the pull of the new could be enough to outweigh any satisfaction we’re getting from the task at hand. “Dopamine is stimulated by unpredictability,” she says. “The fact it’s not guaranteed (there may or may not be a new email) adds to this. When you strike it lucky, it gives you a hit.”
Chasing that hit gets especially bad if, like me, you do the kind of job where you work alone and set your own schedule, with nobody looking over your shoulder to notice that you’ve spent 45 minutes clicking through a listicle of 45 Forgotten Baby Girl Names From The 1920s. Recently, my inability to focus has started to feel less like a charming quirk and more like a source of stress in itself. My work eats into my downtime, my downtime pollutes my work time. I exist in a nervy state of guilt with one eye on all the things I haven't quite finished. Recently I realised I am more productive when I need a wee – because then, work becomes a means of putting off another chore: getting up and going to the toilet.
So, enough. For the sake of my sanity, my bank balance and my bladder, how can I learn to rein in my wandering mind?
The first step, I decide, is to accept my limitations. Our brains need respite; a study by the Draugiem Group found the best ratio for productivity is 52 minutes working, followed by a 17-minute break. As even 52 minutes of focus seems beyond my reach right now, it seems logical to start with baby steps. “How do you eat an elephant?” one boss used to ask me, whenever I was in a panic over impossible tasks. “One. Bite. At a time.”
So I try the Pomodoro Technique, via desktop timer Tomighty. Invented in the late '80s by business consultant Francesco Cirillo, it’s a time-management method based on 25-minute bursts of working (a ‘pomodoro’, named after the tomato-shaped timer Cirillo used) with five-minute breaks in between. Every four pomodoros, you take a longer 15-30-minute break. It’s simple, but effective – particularly if you use the enforced breaks to stretch your legs or make tea, instead of just straying onto Instagram. Although like anything with rigid rules, I end up wanting to kick against it. YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME, TICKING TOMATO.
Even simpler, and something I probably should have done years ago, is a desktop site blocker. I install Cold Turkey and use it to block a personalised list of distraction sites, including Twitter, Facebook, ASOS et al, for anything between 15 minutes and 8 hours. It works brilliantly, provided I don’t actually need any of the distraction sites to do my work – and provided my phone is out of reach in its customary place, stuffed down the back of the sofa cushions.
Next I try Forest; a less authoritarian approach for the hippies among us, it’s an app that allows you to ‘plant’ and ‘grow’ trees by staying focused on one task, the trees withering and dying if you spend too long on other apps. It even plays forest sounds to block out noise distractions. With its gentle, soothing encouragement, I feel less frenetic and actually more like working.
But still I can’t shake the feeling that I’m cheating by using technology at all – is it counterproductive, or could apps actually have a positive effect on concentration? “I definitely think they can help,” says Dr. Hibberd, who uses Forest herself. “They break the autopilot of picking up your phone and make you more conscious of your choices.”
Time-management apps still rely on self-discipline, though. But what if, like the naughty child my brain likes to mimic, you could get better results by rewarding good behaviour than by punishing bad? Enter: gamification.
Using a video game to help you concentrate might sound paradoxical, but there’s a whole raft of evidence to suggest that if we apply the same psychological tools to our productivity as we apply to game-playing, it can have radical effects. The most persuasive example has to be SuperBetter, the brainchild (quite literally, it was created while she battled concussion) of game designer Jane McGonigal, which encourages players to “live gamefully” by scoring points on their own personal goals and wellbeing. You might score a PowerUp for taking a walk around the block, or complete a Quest by sending an overdue email.
A study by the University of Pennsylvania in 2015 found that playing SuperBetter for 30 days significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, increased optimism and boosted the player’s belief in their own ability to succeed. For someone who is struggling to focus even on their own basic needs, the gaming approach could be a lifeline.
Then, of course, there are the analogue methods. Dr. Hibberd reminds me that mindfulness – concentration by a sexier name – can start with something as simple as turning off notifications, or replying to messages less quickly and realising that nobody will ostracise you. Leaving your phone at home for an hour, then two. Or, yes, stuffing it down the back of the sofa cushions.
But whatever you do to improve your focus, self-flagellation is one task you can leave off the list. “It might sound strange, but research shows one of the most effective things you can do is forgive yourself for procrastinating,” she says. “It puts you in a better position to do well next time.”
And now, some good news: I managed to write this article and you managed to read the whole thing. So maybe there’s hope for us both.