23rd August 2019

How the modern world affects your ability to concentrate and what you can do about it

I’m ashamed to say the first thing I did this morning, and do every morning, is look at my mobile phone. Sound familiar? Research from this time last year by the UK’s regulator, Ofcom, reported that 40% of people check their phone within five minutes of waking up. Something tells me this figure is unlikely to have changed...

We are constantly “switched on” via our smartphones. We have opened ourselves up to a world where information and notifications are a constant stream. But our 21st century minds haven’t adapted to cope with this.

We haven’t evolved to deal with the distractions of the modern world at all. In fact, we are pretty much the same human beings as our ancestors who sixty thousand years ago left Africa to colonise the modern world. Their eyes, which were hyper-sensitive to movement to increase chances of survival, are not much different from our eyes today.

If you hear or see a notification on your phone it instantly gets your attention. And this is a big problem when we are trying to complete tasks which require total focus.

So what can we do about it?

There are the obvious ideas that you’ll have likely heard about before. These may include disabling notifications, deleting social media apps or switching your phone off.

But phones are an essential tool which help us in our day to day work. We depend on them for communication.

If you find yourself attached to your phone there are still practical and easy to implement ways to tackle your distractibility. I’d like to run through a few tricks to keep up your sleeve...

It’s easy for other people to tell you “always take regular breaks”. But the type of break you take really matters. The best kind – and one that really works – is to transport your mind away to think about something completely different from what it was you were focusing on before. Making a cup of tea helps by getting you away from your desk, but chances are you’ll still be thinking about that thing you were just doing! And that’s not the purpose of a break.

Once an hour, every hour, I recommend doing a routine of exercises and movements. We call these “ergo breaks”. It’s effective because it gets you thinking about something different - your mind concentrates on the set number of repetitive movements - and it improves your physical health and wellbeing. Start by extending both arms to 90 degrees and rotate them forward ten times, then rotate your ankles ten times, then gently push your fingers back to stretch your wrists. Chances are that you, or someone you work with, already does this. When we feel tired, we naturally stretch our arms and shoulders – sometimes without even realising why. And that’s the body telling you “wake up!”

If you need something to do whilst sitting, an effective technique for boosting your concentration is to count backwards. If you count backwards in sevens from one thousand you are forced to concentrate hard. I recommend visualising the numbers as you count down. Do this for as long as you can, and you’ll find your mind is temporarily cleared of all other thoughts.

If numbers aren’t your thing, spelling words backwards is a great alternative to help you re-focus. Start with simple words like cat and dog and then start increasing the complexity of the word to things like hamster and goldfish. Build up the length of the words for as long as you can and before you know it your mind will have focused on something different for five minutes. You’ll then be ready to dive straight back into your real work and hit the ground running.

Keeping your mind active and stimulated will help you be more productive and spend less time getting distracted by the small things.

What step will you take today to take back control of your concentration?

“Dealing with distractions” is a key element of our ‘Accurate Documentation Skills’ workshop. If you or your colleagues work with written communications and documents like letters, emails or promotional literature, take a look at what this course has to offer. It’s fun, measurable and bursting with practical tips to help you write, prepare and check documents accurately.

For more information check out the webpage or call 01638 723590 for an informal chat.

Post written by Alice Hubbard, 23/08/19

How the modern world affects your ability to concentrate and what you can do about it

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