5 Strategies to Increase Focus in the Digital Era

strategies to increase focusDid you know that the average attention span of a human has officially dropped below that of a goldfish? Yes, the frequently mocked unintelligent goldfish has an attention span of a brief nine-seconds, while ours now averages at an even briefer, eight. Admittedly this is a shocking (and slightly depressing) statistic, but why does it matter in the grand scheme of things?

In short, distraction has become an epidemic in the digital era that we live in today. Distraction frequently robs us of our focus, decreases our productivity, and can even determine whether we succeed or fail at work.

According to Cyrus Foroughi, a doctoral student at George Mason University, one minute of distraction is more than enough to wipe your short-term memory. An interruption as short as 2.8 seconds (the length of time it takes to read a short text message) can double error rates on simple sequencing tasks and a 4.4-second interruption can triple error rates. Linda Stone, a software executive who has worked for both Apple and Microsoft, explains that we are so busy keeping tabs on everything that we never focus on anything, a phenomenon she calls “continuous partial attention.”

A recent survey of smartphone users found that:

As New York Times Magazine’s Clive Thompson writes, “Information is no longer a scarce resource—attention is.” In this Digital Era where work/home/play are blended together, we may not always have a choice about our work schedules or our work priorities; however, there are powerful things that we can do to regain a sense of control about our happiness at work.

5 Happy Hacks to Get You Started:

  1. Unplug Strategically. As an increasing number of employers expect us to be plugged in via email or phone 24/7, we’ve become perpetually tethered to our phones. Aside from the obvious invasion of personal time that the modern 24-hour employee experiences, the constant barrage of communication can actually be counterproductive as well.

Studies have found that stepping away from technology, even briefly, can increase your focus, leading to a 57 percent increase in more effective collaboration, an 88 percent increase in learning effectiveness, and a 42 percent increase in socializing effectiveness. Since many of us can’t completely step away from technology, consider taking smaller steps to limit technology overload such as checking your email less frequently. A recent study found that individuals who limited their frequency of checking email to three times a day experienced significantly lower daily stress.

  1. Know Your Numbers. The average person checks their phone 150 times every day. This means if every distraction took a single minute (a seriously optimistic estimate), that would account for 2.5 hours of distraction every single day. That’s 912.5 hours a year, or roughly thirty-eight days each year!

Knowledge is Power, which means knowing exactly how much time you currently spend using technology is the key to limiting your future use. Download the Unplugged app to see how many times you turn on your phone each day and how you are utilizing your time. The data may surprise you and encourage you to make better choices about your time with technology.

  1. Share Your Game Plan.When you need to step away from technology to focus, set a short-term auto-responder explaining what you are really doing and when you will be back (i.e., I’m stepping away from my email to finish this project. I’ll be back in one hour). This small gesture communicates to others that you value them, but you also value your work (of course this only works if you are actually using your time productively). If you worry about how such a message will be perceived, fear not. Many employers are actually thrilled that you want to focus more (and even inspired by your initiative to communicate this because they secretly want to do the same thing).
  2. Hide Your Phone. Whether we admit to it or not, the majority of us have become physically attached to our phones. We’re afraid to even temporarily untether ourselves from our electronic umbilical cord for fear that someone might need us for something. We even keep our cellphones nearby and turned on while working. Although we’d like to believe our willpower is greater than our smartphone notifications, recent research shows that the mere presence of a cellphone can decrease productivity and attention on cognitively demanding tasks.

So, if you want to focus more on your work and spend less time shuffling between tasks move your cellphone out of your line of sight (put it in your bag, behind your computer screen, or in a drawer).

  1. Use the “Really?!” Rule.When you find yourself tempted to use technology to zone out at work for a bit, stop and ask yourself: Does this tech really make me happier and/or more productive?

For instance, does taking your phone to the break room really rejuvenate your mind or does it prevent you from connecting with your colleagues? A recent study of 450 workers in Korea found that individuals who took a short work break without their cellphones felt more vigor and less emotional exhaustion than individuals who brought their cellphones with them, regardless of whether they even used the phone.

Scrolling through our phones has become a reflex to empty moments, which is often why we bring it along on our breaks (or even to the bathroom). If you notice yourself frequently using tech to zone out rather than to tune in, try changing your behavior by focusing on ways you can spend your time that genuinely fuel your long-term happiness and productivity (rather than briefly distracting you).

Implementing these happy hacks in your life can help you learn how to manage distraction in the digital era and set yourself up for a future of greater happiness and well-being in the long run.

This article was first published on Thrive Global.


Amy BlanksonAmy Blankson is the only person to be named a Point of Light by two Presidents (President Bush and President Clinton).  In 2007, Amy co-founded GoodThink to bring the science of happiness to life for organizations and individuals. She is currently doing research in partnership with Google to determine how to make positive psychology strategies stick and create sustainable positive change. Amy is the author of the award-winning children’s book Ripple’s Effect and The Future of Happiness.

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