Have you ever been on Instagram for a quick scroll, and those 5 minutes turn into 20? Or been focussing on a piece of work when your phone bleeps. Before you know it, you’re on the nursery Whatsapp group accepting party invites and checking out the latest soft play recommendation. (Then wondering, ‘What was I doing again?!’)
We are susceptible to distractions – internal triggers such as worrying thoughts, external noises like our phone notifications, or visuals such as colourful sale banners enticing us to CLICK. In the digital era we live in, those distractions are in abundance. So much so, we have been conditioned to focus in short bursts of time.
As a result, we often self interrupt by compulsively checking our devices even after a few minutes. Some studies show we can concentrate on a task up until 3-5 mins before we interrupt ourselves. As busy parents with limited time, a never-ending to-do list and the mental load of managing a household, it’s essential to set boundaries on your devices to ensure we remain focused. This will save you energy, less stress and hopefully leave you with more time for the things that matter most.
Behind every app, website or device are savvy developers whose mission is to grab your attention and hold it for as long as possible. This is because we live in an attention economy, your eyeballs being the currency! There is fierce competition between the apps on our phones or web pages we use to get us to look and spend more time than intended on their product. More time = more revenue.
One app releases a new feature, and it’s not long until it’s replicated elsewhere. That could be Instagram introducing ‘reels’ to compete with TikTok, or Facebook implementing Autoplay on videos just like YouTube. Netflix may have the lion’s share of the streaming market, however, they still have a fierce competitor. Not in Amazon Prime, but sleep!
Thankfully there are lots of ways to restore our attention when we lose it and ways to harness more focus. Here are just a few:
Controlling External Triggers
That means disabling notifications on your phone, so you don’t get distracted by the alerts and using Ad Blockers to prevent pop-ups when you’re browsing.
It may be tempting to read articles on the web. Still, more often than not, it means jumping from article to article, not thoroughly reading any and spending much longer than intended. Try installing an extension such as Pocket. It pulls the text from the article and saves it without ads and other distracting visuals, so you read it when you have planned.
Move your most distracting apps onto your desktop to prevent you from habitually checking it. This makes it more intentional and will help retain your focus on other things. Oh and keep devices out of sight to avoid temptation when trying to focus on a task. Even when your phone is in view, you feel its presence.
This means we are in a constant state of alert and expectation. Studies show we unlearn to think in creative ways when we are in a continuous state of alert.
Reducing Internal Triggers
We always think about interruptions as being external, such as hearing your phone ring or the ping of a new email. But we also experience internal interruptions that we respond to.
We reach for our phones and use our devices for many reasons. Some are purely practical, some are subconscious, but some are surprisingly emotionally deep. Reducing our internal triggers means becoming aware of what’s going on inside the mind that make us want to reach for our devices to distract from difficult or uncomfortable sensations.
Enhancing Useful Behaviour
Get into nature! According to some theorists, even just 10 minutes of being in natural surroundings such as in a park or your back garden with your little one can help restore attention and ability to concentrate.
Nature allows us to be totally immersed in an alternative environment, providing relief to your current situation, which may be dominated by worry, stress and demands. All these states drain your attention and energy supplies.
Read. And I don’t mean grabbing your phone and skim reading through the Mail Online app. Swap out 5 minutes of doom scrolling for a printed book instead. If you are new to reading, start off small and gradually increase your time. Like on the treadmill, reading to the mind is what exercise is to the body.
Reduce Damaging Behaviour
Minimise digital multitasking- switching from app to app, using your phone to Whatsapp whilst watching Netflix and writing emails on your laptop simultaneously.
When we multitask, we are actually just rapidly switching between tasks. This involves loads of cognitive effort, putting the extra workload on the prefrontal cortex, which controls Executive Functioning (memory, how we focus attention, self-control, and judgment).
When we engage in multitasking, it actually interferes with how much information we are storing in long term memory. Suppose you are not entirely focused on something. How can you expect your brain to make sense of it when it’s continually having to stop and focus elsewhere?
Another rule of thumb is to work for concentrated periods, free of distractions. Try 5 minutes at first, then build it up, remembering to control your external control triggers.
Lastly, only use the digital tools you must use. Consider having a monthly digital declutter – look into the apps that provide true value and are aligned with your goals. Get rid of the rest, especially the most distracting ones!