When was the last time you got through something you needed to do without taking out your phone and scrolling through Instagram? If it's been a while, don't worry — it's not really your fault (well, at least not entirely).
"These days, we are bombarded with so much stimuli," says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and teaching faculty member at Columbia University. "Look at how we converse with our loved ones, half-listening because we're reading messages and scrolling in our phones. There's a need to keep up with the information as it comes and the brain becomes wired to flip from one thing to the next just as we would TV channels with a remote."
It makes sense: Think about how many times you pick up your phone during the day, just to see what's happening on Instagram or to keep up with your group chats. Nowadays, we almost expect that behaviour from each other — you might expect a friend to respond to your Instagram DM, or feel the pressure to respond to someone's DM, lest they see that you've "seen" the message and get offended.
"We're not the same as we were 20 years ago," Dr. Hafeez says. "We're doing more mental multitasking."
Still, that doesn't mean it's impossible to stay focused these days. It just might take a little more effort, and if you have a hard time staying on track, Dr. Hafeez says not to get frustrated with yourself. Instead, take a look at your surroundings and see if there's anything you can change — if, say, you're distracted by noise in an open-plan office, trying ducking somewhere more private to buckle down, or putting on noise-cancelling (or even regular) headphones.
These days, we are bombarded with so much stimuli.
Sanam Hafeez, PsyD
"Eliminate other distractions and think sensory," she says. "For example, if you know you need to focus on driving to a new place, consider turning off the car stereo. If you're cooking, turn off the TV."
It could also help to give yourself a chunk of time to do whatever you need to, and tell yourself, I'm allowing myself to focus on this for the next 15 minutes or however long. And then after those 15 minutes have passed, see if you can try focusing for another 15 minutes, and so forth. Dr. Hafeez says that eventually, that'll help train you to be able to focus for longer.
If you want to improve your focus overall, she recommends practicing meditation, which she says is essentially exercise for the brain. If you hate meditation, don't worry — there are plenty of ways to get into that state of calm and mindfulness without sitting cross-legged and focusing on breathing.
"One can even enter meditative states during a shower, driving, riding a bicycle, jogging, painting, colouring, or hiking," she says. "Anything you can do to silence the mind and focus on being present will help."
If you have a hard time focusing to the point that it's affecting your life (for example, you lose your job because you can't get anything done, or you get into an accident because you couldn't focus on driving), that's when you might want to see a doctor to check if you have a more serious attention disorder.