The chaos of Covid has exacerbated this. Those of us working from home throughout lost all our time markers and had our lives upended.
‘Even when there were minimal distractions, I struggled to focus,’ admits Jenn. ‘Then with going back into work, the stresses of not knowing what was going to happen with Covid, being told to work from home again, the 24-hour news cycle and the internet, my brain feels completely overwhelmed.’
Professor van der Stigchel confirms her impression. ‘Multitasking is certainly a problem. The rise of social media is presenting us with ever more opportunities for it. If you believe you are able to do several things at once without difficulty, you are likely the victim of the illusion of multitasking.
‘What happens is that you switch so quickly between two tasks that it appears as if you are doing them simultaneously,’ he explains.
‘However, you can observe in the brain that the two halves charged with executing the tasks become alternatively – not simultaneously – active, meaning that the brain has to switch continuously between the two. Multitasking can therefore be more accurately described as switching between tasks as opposed to combining them. It is less productive, more prone to errors, and mentally exhausting.’
Neuroscientist Dr Amishi Jha, author of Peak Mind, believes that the pandemic has definitely exacerbated matters. ‘We are not losing our attention spans – our attention is working so perfectly that computer algorithms can predict our attentional tendencies.
This can feel as if we are in an attentional crisis, like our attention is not our own. Three main forms of kryptonite for attention are stress, threat and poor mood. The demands on us over the pandemic have been filled with stress, threat and poor mood. This leaves us in a cognitive fog, making errors, feeling emotionally reactive and socially disconnected.’
So what’s to be done? Dr Jha has found that mindfulness training can gradually rebuild our ability to focus. Her book suggests 12 minute-a-day exercises ‘to lift the mental fog, declutter the mind, and strengthen focus so that you can experience more of your life’.
One of the exercises involves ‘mindfulness meditation’: allotting a period of time during which you focus on the breath and redirect your attention back to it when you notice your mind wandering off-track.
Training ourselves in this way doesn’t mean our minds won’t roam when we’re engaged in daily tasks. However, it does mean that we’ll notice when our attention has strayed, and be able to redirect it.
Jenn Tripp staged her own detox: ‘I went for a holiday with no TV, and set up parental controls that blocked all social media, internet and games. If I wanted to entertain my brain, I had to do one of the non-tech-related things I had planned. I hiked miles, read three books in three days, and relaxed by the fire at night. It was heavenly; I didn’t realise how much I needed it.’
Psychologist Dr Gemma Briggs of the Open University recommends extending this beyond a holiday. ‘The attention-loss notion keeps being revisited because people are constantly multitasking. A good corrective is setting boundaries: if you’re working on something, don’t check your phone or social media; don’t try to do multiple tasks at once; snooze social-media notifications; set your phone to “do not disturb”. The proliferation of information available to us now makes distraction more likely, but it’s a choice. Our brains haven’t evolved to reduce our ability to focus attention.’
Boundary building is also advocated by Professor van der Stigchel, not least with so many of us slogging away at home once again. He suggests ‘strategically altering’ your environment and mindset.
‘Do your best to make your workplace distinct, and close your office door,’ he says. ‘But, if you must set up at the kitchen table, dismantle your workplace and clear away your materials to signal the end of the working day.’
Ah, the end of the working day, I remember that. Professor van der Stigchel is right: for me, it’s not just my domestic space, but my mindset that needs addressing – I need boundaries, downtime, the odd Sunday off. I have never bought into the mindfulness movement.
As a depressive, my mind tends not to be a safe or happy place to be, and I spend too much time locked in it as it is. However, being present would be preferable to crouching in the dark, dog mess in hand, having no idea where I am, so perhaps I’ll explore meditation. If I can remember to. Watch this – currently entirely blank – space.
Four ways to improve your attention span
By Professor Stefan van der Stigchel, author of Concentration
- Avoid multitasking. Impose boundaries at – and around – work. When you try to perform two tasks at once, your brain needs to switch between them, which creates mental fatigue.
- Experiment with meditation and mindfulness. These practices help you focus on being fully present in any moment. Meditation is great concentration training, because it helps you learn how to deal with distractions.
- Play background music. This creates a wall of sound around you, which makes you less prone to small distractions. Just don’t listen to anything attention-demanding.
- Get enough sleep, eat sensibly and keep hydrated. Sounds obvious, but whatever is good for your body, is good for your brain – and your concentration.