Admit it—you reach for your smartphone every time you’re waiting in a line or even when you wake up at night. We won’t even mention that bathroom thing.
When you’re home, you’re surfing the Internet…or you have the radio or TV on as a constant backdrop…or both. No wonder it’s harder to concentrate for any length of time than it used to be. While it’s great to connect with old friends on Facebook or be able to look up sports or movie trivia any time, the impact this has on our attention spans is not good…at all.
Why that matters: Cognitive decline is real and can begin as young as age 45 even if you are healthy. We’re not talking about dementia, either—smaller problems, such as forgetting someone’s name, can be a normal part of aging. Research has shown that continuing to learn is key to minimizing this decline—but to learn, you need to focus. To find out more, Bottom Line Personal interviewed brain health expert Cynthia Green, PhD.
HOW DISTRACTIONS AFFECT LEARNING
Say we just met. If I tell you my name at the same time that your phone starts vibrating in your pocket and you glance at the screen, you’re not going to hear what I said. Later, you’ll think you forgot my name, but you never learned it in the first place!
Constantly switching between activities and attempting to multitask (which no one is really good at) is exhausting for the brain, draining it of the energy needed to focus. Result: We make mistakes big and small and are less productive, more forgetful and just slower at everything.
So…it’s time to rebuild your attention span and your ability to focus. Like any skill, it takes practice. The point isn’t only to ward off future cognitive disease but also to improve your ability to accomplish more and feel less stress from perpetual distractions…now.
You probably expect me to tell you to stop using technology so much. Sure, that will help. But few of us can resist its lure for long, and these days no one wants to miss that important e-mail or breaking news flash. Instead, you need to exercise better control over the disruptions, put technology to work for you and engage in activities that strengthen attention. My recommendations…
Stop being so available. You don’t have to answer every call, text or e-mail the minute you receive it—and the truth is, you don’t even have to know about every call, text or e-mail the minute you receive it, either. When you’re working on a must-do or should-do task, eliminate distractions. Turn off the TV, and quit e-mail, text notifications, Facebook, Twitter and news app notifications until you get your task done. If there are certain people who you feel must be able to reach you instantly, set your phone and other devices to “do not disturb” but program in exceptions for those people.
Build up your tolerance. Digital withdrawal is hard, so take a lesson from behavior-modification therapy and reward yourself for small successes. Set certain times of day when you’ll check e-mail, etc., and don’t look in between. Start by telling yourself, I’ll go for 15 minutes without checking my device, and then when the time is up, give yourself five minutes to glance at e-mail, Facebook, etc. Next, extend your uninterrupted time to 30 minutes before checking, then 45 minutes, then an hour. And experiment with rewards that don’t entail going online, such as having a cappuccino.
Find a meditative hobby. I’m not going to tell you that you have to meditate to improve your attention span—although “mindful meditation,” including special breathing and visualization exercises, does exactly that by increasing brain volume and density in areas that improve cognitive function such as the hippocampus. But if you’re not into meditation, you can get similar benefits from the regular practice of other focused, meditative activities such as gardening…walking in nature…running…swimming laps…drawing or painting…knitting or crocheting…yoga or tai chi.
If you would like to try actual meditation, you don’t have to go to a class. Online meditation training (yes, I see the irony of online training!) provides similar benefits to sitting in a meditation class, studies suggest. One app that I recommend is Headspace, which provides mini-meditations and mindfulness exercises (Apple and Android, $9.99 a month or $5.99 a month if you pay for the year).
Get moving. Regular aerobic exercise also expands the size of the hippocampus. Activity that gets your heart pumping stimulates the release of chemicals that improve the health and survival of brain cells and promotes the growth of new blood vessels in the brain. Result: You’ll think faster and more clearly. Yes, even brisk walking counts!
Be social offline. Social media helps us keep in touch with friends and family and introduces us to new people we might not ever encounter otherwise. But we lose out on the many cognitive benefits of face-to-face social interaction. Example: Online, you can take time to frame your thoughts before you answer or comment, but you can’t pause for five minutes when someone asks you in person, “What’s the best mystery you ever read?” By putting yourself in more situations where you have to answer questions and make decisions immediately, you’re exercising that ability to think on your feet. What to do: Get out there with people…and talk!
Play timed games. There are all kinds of purported brain-training and memory-boosting activities, but to rebuild attention span, choose ones that make you beat the clock. Timed word games such as Boggle, in which you have three minutes to choose the right word, are ideal because you have to pay attention and think fast. Sports such as racquetball and tennis, and even dancing, also are great choices because you have to move and react within a certain time. Tip: Dance lessons, which require you to learn new steps, are especially effective because you’re using your body and your brain and socializing all at once.
Drink up. Mild dehydration interferes with the ability to concentrate, but here’s the catch—your attention span suffers even if you aren’t feeling thirsty yet. So drink water throughout the day whether you think you need it or not.
Break out the wiggy music. Listening to symphonies moves the brain to pay attention as it tries to predict what’s coming next in these complex pieces, research has found—and this may train the brain to sustain attention.
Use pen and paper. The very act of writing in longhand engages your brain in ways that promote attention span and new learning. Example: When students take notes by hand, they listen better and learn more than when they use a laptop, studies show.
Good night, phone. If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re going to be less focused and make more mistakes, no matter what else you do. Yet how many of us go to bed with a phone or a tablet on our nightstand? If you hear it ping, or even worse, look at the blue light that the screen emits, that disrupts sleep. So turn off message notifications, and leave your devices far enough away that you’re not tempted to pick them up as soon as you wake up. If you need an alarm, a traditional clock still can get the job done. Your brain will thank you!