‘Many of us are not optimally using our concentration span’

Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne asked Professor Stefan Van der Stigchel about his new book Concentration: Staying Focused in Times of Distraction (MIT Press).

To ask you the question you pose in Chapter 1, why is it difficult to concentrate? Are we in a ‘time of distraction’ or has it always been hard?

In a way, concentration has always been difficult. In order to focus on one task for a longer period of time, you need to ignore both distractions from the outside world and internal distractions. The internal distractors consist of mind wandering, for instance. I think that everyone can relate to the fact that it is very easy for your mind to start wandering when you are focusing on a specific task. One lapse of concentration and you are thinking about your favourite friend or some childhood memory. With respect to external distractions, one could argue that concentration has become more difficult. With more information available than ever, most of the time within reach via your mobile phone, we surround ourselves with notifications, pop-up screens and flashing billboards with commercials. Although evolution is not so quick that our brains are differently wired at birth than, say, 200 years ago, our surroundings has changed. The good news is that we can control our environment, so if you have problems concentrating, there are many solutions.

I’ve heard people worry about the fact that they can’t concentrate on their work for very long without needing a break – reading the news or checking social media. Is this really something to worry about or is it normal to need a short break every so often?

Because concentration is intrinsically difficult, it’s normal for the brain to lose focus. When you notice that your focus decreases, it’s time to take a break in order to charge the battery. It’s important to take the right type of break, however: try to minimize checking social media or other things that heavily tax your attention. The best break is to go outside and take a walk in a quiet park, or any other environment that doesn’t require a heavy load on your attention. Science is clear in showing that you focus better after a break in which the concentration network in your brain was not involved, compared to a period of devoting yourself to an attention demanding task.

Is multi-tasking always a bad idea for concentration?

No, definitely not. When you have young kids and need to prepare dinner, it’s a good idea to check your kids while cooking. Yes, your dinner might be finished later, but your kids will hopefully be safe. Multitasking is generally fine, except when your work requires a longer period of concentration. If you are trying to do multiple things at the same time, you are actually switching between tasks. This results in time costs, more errors, but also in higher stress levels. 

In the book you address the myth that our attention spans have become shorter than those of goldfish. Is there any truth in the common assumption that our attention spans are decreasing?

No, there is no scientific evidence that our attention spans are decreasing. When you look at the origin of all the myths, especially about the goldfish, we can easily classify them as ‘fake news’. That doesn’t mean it’s not the case, however; we simply don’t know. There is no solid scientific study that focuses on the development of our attention span across generations. We do know that many of us are not optimally using our concentration span, with unnecessary multitasking; from my room at the university I can see the students studying with their phone in between themselves and the keyboard, checking their phone every time they have finished writing or reading a sentence. That is not an optimal strategy to study efficiently. Furthermore, many employees are working in open office spaces that are notoriously bad for our concentration.

What solutions for improved concentration do you recommend for the ‘sender’ of information and the ‘receiver’ of information?

Read my book, of course! There are many solutions based on solid scientific data, such as daily routines, meditation, concentration rituals, technology breaks, but they require knowledge about the underlying mechanisms of how concentration works in the brain. It’s not rocket science, so everyone can learn the tricks of efficient concentration by studying the attentional processes in the brain.

Concentration: Staying Focused in Times of Distraction by Professor Stefan Van der Stigchel (MIT Press) is out now.

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