Have you ever read the same page in a book or even the same sentence in a paragraph over and over again but still struggle to grasp the meaning? Or, have you ever lost your train of thought or completely forgotten what you were talking about in the middle of a conversation? We’ve all been there! Neuroscientists at UC San Diego and UT Dallas are conducting research to help us all understand what’s going on – and how we can help ourselves focus.
Both researchers determined that commonplace, modern workstyles are actually causing neurological phenomena which hinder our ability to focus and make decisions. Specifically, Sandra Bond Chapman of UT Dallas says, “multitasking, information overload, and constant interruptions are impairing the way our brains work.” Researcher Adam Aron states, “We get distracted, but that’s everyday life. Unfortunately, there’s a big cost to that when it comes to focus, and it’s increasing in this world.” After long-term exposure to continuous distraction and information overload, our brains become “trained” to expect and deal with constant distraction. So, even when we can get away to a quiet place to work – we can’t focus. Our brains remain vigilant and look for distractions.
Luckily, these neuroscientists have advice for all of us in the real world who are struggling with distractions and maintaining focus. (The list below synthesizes the advice from across the two articles.)
- Stop Multitasking – Now! The results are in after years of research. Multitasking causes real losses in performance in all the simultaneous tasks. Many researchers say that multitasking doesn’t really exist and that we are simply “task switching” quickly back and forth. Whatever the case, it can cause ongoing decrements in productivity and decrease the ability to focus.
- Limit Distractions. Turn off all your automated notifications that buzz, chirp or blink. Arrange your work and home environments to limit distraction from sounds, visual stimuli, and other people.
- Take Breaks. Aron suggests taking a short 5 minute break every hour or so. Taking a break doesn’t mean checking your Facebook, either. Chapman explains that “you need to get away from technology and work, and give your brain a few moments of rest. . .” Just a few minutes of rest keeps your mental energy high and improves your ability to focus and make decisions.
- Read Less – And Deeper. Chapman suggests that information overload causes us to process information shallowly. While we think that we need to read everything on a given topic to be informed, she suggests choosing fewer sources but going more deeply. We have to be careful to choose high quality information sources and to avoid reading only those sources that agree with our position. Chapman also says that exploring alternate – even opposing views – helps us develop flexible thinking.
- Practice Meditation. Meditation trains the brain to sustain attention for longer periods of time and may help to counteract the effects of living in a world with constant distraction. Research conducted by Emory University showed that daily meditation was associated with changes in the region of the brain which controls attention, helping you to recover from distraction.
Executive coaches can help you learn how to incorporate these and other tools into your regular routine to improve your overall leadership effectiveness. Below are links to the two articles which provide additional details.