We find it hard to resist the temptation to glance at our cellphones, even if we are with friends and aren’t anticipating an urgent text or email. We also find it difficult to concentrate on a task without being distracted. One of the causes of this lies in an innate and silent ability: sustained attention, which appears to be in free fall in the digital age. According to Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again, this discrete skill is weakening due to the deluge of information we are exposed to, especially since the advent of smartphones. From 1986 to 2007, the information to which we had access through any medium multiplied more than fourfold, according to an article published in Science. Presumably, this figure has now increased exponentially due to social media. Living surrounded by so much volatile information, which expires so quickly, has led us to a scenario of constant distractions that has eroded our attention span, argues Hari. And all of this has unintended consequences, even if we don’t appreciate them at first glance.
The habit of reading short messages or scrolling through videos quickly accustoms our minds to focus on the superficial and not to delve any deeper. We may read more, but we don’t necessarily understand more. The format is designed to make us consume content, not to make us reflect on it, which damages critical thinking and creativity and leads us to seek simplistic solutions. Reflecting requires time, a certain amount of effort and an environment free from distractions. In fact, being exposed to interruptions impairs our ability to respond to problems. As demonstrated by a study conducted at Hewlett Packard a few years ago, technological distraction — such as receiving calls or emails — reduces our functional IQ by 10 points. Students taking a test while receiving messages on their cellphones score 30% worse grades than those who were concentrating on the task at hand. It is also worth noting that humans are prone to becoming distracted. We find it very difficult to concentrate and do not switch from one task to another easily. In fact, it has been estimated by research conducted at the University of California at Irvine that an office worker only has the ability to remain focused on the same activity for a maximum of three minutes.
When our mind is full of distractions, we are more likely to make mistakes. Furthermore, it also affects our personal relationships and our own quality of life. It’s hard to give our loved ones the time they deserve if we are in thrall to our cellphones. It is difficult to deeply enjoy something — or to enter the flow state, as psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say — if we are beset by constant interruptions.
But all is not lost; far from it. We have the capability to train our sustained attention. The responsibility for our lack of concentration does not fall solely on mobile devices. In fact, Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable, suggests dealing with internal factors that make us more prone to distractions like boredom, avoiding uncomfortable situations, or those things that harm us — such as consuming content online during the pandemic to distract ourselves. Therefore, the first step toward regaining our sustained attention is to carry out an introspective analysis: a sincere self-criticism about the use of devices in our life, about what emotions we are trying to relieve, and the price we pay. We need to become aware of how the loss of attention affects what we do, how it makes us feel, and how it affects those around us.
After this reflection and self-criticism, action is required. On the one hand, we need to reduce distractions as much as possible. As can be imagined, the main source usually comes from devices, and we need to make choices. Some commitments are easy to think about, but difficult to achieve if we do not take them seriously: committing to checking social networks or emails only at specific times, taking a walk without a cellphone, disconnecting from the internet if we do not need it while working on the computer... essentially seeking strategies that help us to reduce what is really kidnapping our attention. As we put this into practice on a daily basis, we will gain control over our devices and not vice versa.
At the same time, regaining sustained attention not only involves reducing distractions, but also replacing them with something else. If we usually spend a lot of time on social media, we need to exchange it for something that provides more reward or health benefits, whether it is sport, resting, enjoying the pleasure of conversation, a hobby or reading. In other words, we need to invest our time in what makes us happier and more fulfilled. All this requires a serious commitment to regain our attention and to enjoy the pleasure of being in the present.
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