Pay attention to your attention span | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Pay attention to your attention span

BySonali Gupta
Feb 20, 2024 04:21 PM IST

Over the last 10 years and more so in the last two years, the number of clients in therapy who bring concerns around difficulty concentrating or focusing has significantly increased. I remember a 29-year-old tell me, “I feel like my brain’s capacity to process information has slowed down

Over the last 10 years and more so in the last two years, the number of clients in therapy who bring concerns around difficulty concentrating or focusing has significantly increased. I remember a 29-year-old tell me, “I feel like my brain’s capacity to process information has slowed down. I’m no longer working at the pace I could before. I’m fatigued and keep moving between screens. I’m scared that at this pace, I will get bored with everything and soon I won’t be able to finish a book, podcast or just pay full attention to work.”

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This is a concern I hear from clients across age groups and genders although younger folk - between 18 and 35 - bring these concerns more into therapy sessions in the context of procrastination, productivity, and then low self-esteem. Very often, concerns around inattention are followed by reporting how they struggle to fall asleep or have poor quality of sleep.

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Our capacity to pay attention has shifted in the last few decades. There is strong evidence to support that our capacity to sustain attention has reduced, with an increase in our screen time and the choices we are making in relation to use of devices. Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine and author of the book, Attention Span: Finding Focus for a Fulfilling life has tried to understand how the rise in computing has impacted people’s attention span over the last two decades. In her book, she says, “In 2004, in our earliest study we found that people averaged about 150 seconds (two and a half minutes) on a computer screen before switching their attention to another screen. In 2012, the average went down to 75 seconds before switching.”

What she describes of the period between 2016 and 2021 is the most shocking. She mentions that in these years, the average amount of time on any screen that people spend before switching is relatively consistent between 44 and 50 seconds. Gloria talks about how other studies have found similar results. This number is telling of how often we are switching screens and swiftly moving attention from one task to another. Even if there are no messages or notifications, clients report how they feel an itch to check their phone or social media. This itch, whereby we distract ourselves also becomes an impediment when it comes to attention.

The good news is we can work on improving our focus. I remember in 2019, I read Gloria’s work which talked about how it takes us 25 minutes on average to bring our attention back to a task after an interruption. This was a penny drop moment, which led me to change my relationship with screens and interruptions. What has worked for me is to schedule a day prior what I want to achieve the next day and then set aside multiple pockets of deep work which could last anywhere between 30 minutes to two hours. This is the time I use for exploring ideas, writing, refiguring how a presentation needs to look. During this time, I sit in the same place, mute my notifications and as a rule, just keep one window open so that I can focus. If I feel the need to do research or get clarity, I write it down: but choose to not switch between windows as I feel it’s a rabbit hole that leaves me distracted and dilutes my attention. For me, my attention span is at its sharpest early in the morning so I have learnt to capitalize on that and use that golden hour to begin work. Learning to work in alignment with our natural rhythms and what time works best for us allows us to maximize our attention. Monotasking has allowed me to feel a greater sense of agency. I often advise clients that, how often we take a break between our tasks and what we do during the break determines our attention. So instead of looking at the phone, a simple act of closing one’s eyes, looking outside the window, listening to music, a power nap and then doing something creative are ways to relax your mind without tiring it further.

Our capacity for attention is a precious resource and we need to start paying attention to it.

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