Here's a great guest post written by Anju Joy, whom some of you might remember was on our team! Drawing upon her coaching experience with children and teenagers, Anju explores how the way we work has changed, and why we just can't seem to keep our minds on one thing. How do we reclaim our focus, in a world built to distract us?
I. The problem
It seems like just yesterday when I would sit in front of my books, get bored and go back to studying because there was nothing better to do. I’m kidding, that never happened. There would always be something better to do.
My biggest better-thing-to-do back when I was a student was to open the fridge, see if anything has changed since 5 minutes (which was when I had last opened it), and proceed to shut it, only to open it 10 minutes later.
Of course, the distraction world looks very different in 2023. The phone has replaced the fridge and texts have replaced the food in our fridge. We keep checking our Messages every 5 minutes not because an exciting message always awaits us but because we are drawn to doing it involuntarily. If it is not text, it is Youtube. If it is not Youtube, it is Netflix. If it is not Netflix, it is Instagram (now there’s Threads too). If not any of these, it is the good old fridge to the rescue once again. Anything feels easier to do than the task at hand. Staying with something attentively, especially tasks that require deep focus in today's world, feels like an unachievable feat.
We feel bored astonishingly quickly, so we switch from task to task, toggle between multiple windows (sometimes even multiple browsers), open and shut the fridge, watch a Youtube short, move on to the next short before the previous one is over and at the end of it all feel more bored and dissatisfied than we were when we first deviated.
There is just so much going on all the time, you can’t switch off even if you want to. Funnily enough, most of us don’t even seem to want to. We find ourselves choosing to stay in this consumption tornado and effortlessly give up sleep, exercise, our health, and everything else to continue to stay in the eye of it.
We struggle with attention. We struggle to focus. We then feel bad about not being able to focus. Our self-esteem goes down and then because our self-esteem is low, we feel bad again.
What is going on? Why is it SO hard to get anything done nowadays?
II. Behind the science of the problem
There are a bunch of things that underlie our issues of poor attention and focus (overstimulation, cheap dopamine, poor sleep, lack of sunlight, what we eat etc.). I’ll talk about 2 of the most in-your-face reasons behind our incessant scrolling / toggling behaviour.
Cheap dopamine and focus don’t mix well
Dopamine is the molecule in our body that makes us want to do things. One of dopamine’s chief functions is to motivate us - to eat, to sleep, to work. Without dopamine, we would struggle to do even simple things such as getting out of bed every morning.
If you are one of those people who struggle to get out of bed every morning, there is your first hint of what may be going on with your attention issues (low levels of dopamine).
Ideally, we should be spending our time doing things that replenish our dopamine reserves which will make it easier for us to increase time on task, pay more attention to things and stay focused. Examples of activities that replenish dopamine are walking, spending time with your loved ones, or in some cases, even power napping.
But most of us spend our time doing things that drain us of dopamine. Which specific activity qualifies as dopamine-draining is often subjective. For some, it is social media. Scrolling through reel after reel gives you a series of cheap dopamine hits that makes your brain a little too comfortable with the idea of feeling good for doing nothing. There is so much resistance afterward to do anything that requires effort because you have to do a lot more work to feel the same amount of pleasure. You are then caught in a double bind. It is not like you are enjoying reel-ing anymore but you find it so hard to get started on anything else, so you reel right back in.
For some others, junk food can be cheap dopamine. Eating crap unfortunately feels really good and again requires 0 effort. Listening to podcasts, reading trashy novels, and bingeing on reality TV can also be dopamine-sucking activities depending on what your brand of dopamine poison is.
This is obviously a problem because like I said, without dopamine, we just won’t feel like doing anything that is actually worth doing.
Overstimulation is pretty terrible too
Our brains enjoy being stimulated and some stimulation is necessary for cognition and learning. For example, reading a new book or watching a myth-busting video. But there is a zone of optimal stimulation. Outside this zone is where the procrastination and attention-hungry demons reside and most times, we walk right into the mouth of their caves.
The world we live in today definitely errs on the side of overstimulation. At any given point, we are being pinged on Whatsapp or DMed on Instagram or notified by Netflix, or mentioned on Slack. All this while we are in the middle of an important work meeting while our dog is completely losing it at a cat that she has spotted from the balcony.
Our brain doesn’t know where to focus and what to prioritise. Naturally, this shows up as poor attention. How can we attend to anything when there is always something else that needs our attention? When our attention is hyper-divided, we just cannot focus.
III. Simple solutions
We don’t want to let our overstimulated, cheap-dopamine-rich world play havoc with our ability to focus and attend to the things that need attending. How do we do this though? Where to get started?
Here are 4 ways to help you have one up on your procrastinating doppelganger:
1. Get your sleep in order
Sleep is fundamental to attention and focus. All of us may have experienced this at some point after pulling an all-nighter for work or staying up late with friends. You feel like a zombie the next day and the grogginess is hard to shake off no matter how many cups of coffee you summon as aid.
Sleep has a crucial role to play in alertness and focus. If you want to reclaim your powers of attention, there is no circumventing sleep.
Having a bedtime routine, putting away all screens and phones at least an hour before bedtime, and sleeping in a completely dark room are some ways to ensure that you get a good night of good quality sleep.
2. Avoid multitasking
We all want to be excellent multitaskers. Doing one thing at a time makes us feel that we are underperforming. Yet there is immense value in that kind of underperforming. Staying with a task at hand takes real effort and counterintuitively is the harder and more rewarding goal to chase.
After a full day of toggling between browsers and responding to texts while in the middle of meetings, all we are left with is 40 open but half-read browsers, texts that you hurriedly sent out but are filled with typos and meeting attendances whose contents you can’t seem to recall.
Here’s a better way - look at your todo list, pick one task, stay with it until you get done. Then, move to the next item. Single tasking > Multi tasking.
3. Get off cheap dopamine
Build the habit of doing nothing (yes, nothing!) when you take a break. Walk around the house, do a chore or two, talk to your spouse/kid/parent, play with your pet – these are all great break things to do. Picking up your phone the second you wake up, watching reels or shorts between classes or meetings, checking Linkedin constantly, binge-watching shows, binge-eating junk food - these are not going to help your pursuit of attention and focus.
4. Build stamina for attention
Treat your quest for greater attention and focus as a marathon that you have to run.
How would you train for a marathon if you had to?
Day 1 is probably going to be a walk, Day 2 might be a 5-10 minute easy run, Day 3 might be the same. But if you stick with it, soon you will be doing a 5k in under 30 minutes. And if you keep on training consistently, in a matter of a few months, you will be ready to run a marathon.
Working towards increased attention and focus works the same way. On Day 1, you might choose to do 5 minutes of focused work (no, 5 mins is not too small) or a single pomodoro. Over time, when practised consistently, you can build your capacity to do focused work up to even 90-120 minutes.
Meditation and mindfulness practices have also been shown to improve your ability to be present and therefore focus.
You are not alone in your ironic struggle to become more attentive and focused in an age that is fertile with noise-canceling headphones and meditation apps. These inventions have come to be because ours is a collective struggle.
The answer to solving this massive productivity crisis that has befallen us lies in how we lived our lives in the age of yore. For our brains haven’t caught up quite yet to the befogging levels (I’m talking artificial-intelligence-levels) of progress that have taken place in the last few decades.
We are still wired to function only if we sleep well, do one thing at a time, and slowly, almost imperceptibly build our capacity for deep focus and attention.
Perhaps there will come a time when we would have figured out solutions so good that we no longer have to stop ourselves from straddling the favicons of multiple browsers or poorly multitasking but that time is not here yet. So until then, we may be better off accepting the many limitations of our fantastic brain and striving hard to regain the attention and focus that once came so easily to us.
Take it one day at a time and as much as you can, also one task at a time.
Anju Joy is the author of Unpopular Psychology, a newsletter that aims to bust pop-psychology myths with evidence and some humour.
She is also the Founder of Kazivu, where she helps teenagers build habits that are essential for real-world success. Anju holds a postgraduate degree in Counselling from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, a certificate in Foundations of Mental Health Care from Harvard University, and another certificate in Trauma and Wellbeing Practice from Teach For All. She’s also a Teach For India alumna (2016-18).