Why individual attempts to improve concentration don’t quite work

“Call me a drama queen, but I feel my weakening concentration is making me lose control over my life,” Mina, a 21-year finance student based in Barcelona told DW. She would love to excel in programming, which would help her find a well-paying job; but it is getting more difficult for her to maintain a deep focus on learning materials.

Every time she attempts to sit down and finish a coding exercise, a feeling of boredom and restlessness pushes her to pick up her phone to check her Instagram, text someone or play a game.

“It’s not just about my productivity. I am also finding it hard to finish reading the novels and books I like or do hobbies that require some level of mental energy.” Mina said, refusing to share her surname, fearing that her future employers might find out about her problem while googling her name.

Mina’s sentiment is shared by a growing number of people, who post stories of their agonizing struggle with concentration, and the guilt and shame it causes, on social media.

Questions like “How do I get my brain to focus?” or “Why can’t I concentrate?” remain popular Google searches.

Countless books, articles, podcasts, etc. have attempted to answer these questions, mainly by introducing skills and methods that are supposed to help individuals strengthen their focus and navigate their life through what their titles call today’s ‘distracted world.’

But how serious is our concentration problem? Can self-help methods mitigate what seems to be a widespread complaint?

What is happening to our focus?

There seems to be no study that has monitored the changes in concentration skills in a large sample of people over two generations. Some research papers have suggested that the attention span of office workers and students has been shrinking.

But their findings have been challenged by other studies that argue attention span varies depending on the task itself, workflows and environmental factors like classroom or office lighting.

Another set of studies highlights the detrimental effects of increased social media use and long screen time on our cognitive abilities, including focus and attention span.

Designed to constantly stimulate the brain, social media algorithms aim to hook people up to short, flashing content for hours, making it difficult to sustain deep attention on less entertaining tasks.

However, not everybody agrees that a shortening attention span and lengthy screen time are necessarily bad signs.

“It is true that compared to the past, people are now paying attention to things that are much smaller and don’t last very long; things like tweets versus books,” Thomas Hills, professor of psychology at the University of Warwick, told DW. “But it might mean that we have come up with shorter and faster ways to send the information across.”

We are incessantly showered by bits of information these days, which fiercely compete to get our attention, Hills said. “But we might be able to adapt to it and shape our lives according to it,” he added.

“What we need to do is to teach people the necessary skills to manage their time and protect their mental health,” Hills said.

“It’s not your fault”

But for Johann Hari, author of the New York Times best-seller ‘Stolen Focus’, the problem is far more complex. Attention problems today are worse than ever, he told DW, and our society and culture are contributing to it.

We are surrounded by huge forces that degrade our ability to concentrate, Hari explains in his book. Compared to about a hundred years ago, we get less sleep than we used to, with its quality getting worse due to our constant exposure to glaring screen lights.

There is a rise in chronic anxiety, particularly experienced by those in insecure financial situations, which has proven to damage concentration.

Poor diets, unhealthy eating habits, not to mention pollution, also have durable, impairing effects on brain functioning, withcases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) on the rise in many countries.

Among the most important culprits are big tech companies whose business model relies on maximizing the time people spend on social media platforms.

“We’ve been told it’s just a personal failing. When I struggled to focus, I said to myself: you are weak. You are lazy. You are undisciplined,” Hari said. “But in fact, our focus is being stolen from us.”

Collective action to regain focus?

“If you see this as an individual problem, you are trapped,” Hari said. “We need to stop blaming ourselves and start taking on the forces that are raiding our attention and stop them from continuing to do it.”

Without collective action, personal solutions will have limited, and in many cases, temporary impacts, Hari noted.

Taking a big chunk of time away from screens is one of the main recommendations of almost any self-help tutorial to improve attention. But people whose jobs hook them up to their computers barely get the chance to do so.

Campaigning for legislations like ‘the right to disconnect’ — a labor law adopted by the French government and passed by the European Parliament, could give millions the option to take some time to improve their concentration levels, Hari said.

Poor concentration has emerged at the center of multiple movements and initiatives so far. The Center for Humane Technology (CHT), a non-profit organization, aims to stop tech algorithms from constantly distracting us and to force them to respect users’ attention.

Since 2013, the CHT has campaigned for small changes such as dispelling with features like notifications, as well as lobbying for more strict regulations on big tech use of personal data to profit from the time people spend on their platforms. Turning Life On is another example, which pushes for protecting kids from getting hooked on social media from an early age.

“At the moment, it’s like we’re all being covered with itching powder, and the people pouring it all over us are saying “you might want to learn to meditate — then you wouldn’t scratch so much,” Hari said.

“I’m in favor of meditation — but we have to stop the people pouring the itching powder on us in the first place.”

Edited by: Lucy James

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