Attention span: Why we struggle to concentrate


So the key to improving your concentration is prioritising your focus and removing potential distractions.

Photo credit: Samuel Muigai | Nation Media Group

Do you find it hard to concentrate on your work? Or on your studies? Even talking to your spouse? Blame your brain’s attention system.

It’s function is to select what seems important from all the noise and clutter around you. And what it doesn’t select is completely ignored and discarded.

Which is why you often can’t remember the name of someone you’ve just met. It’s not that your memory is poor, it’s that your attention system didn’t select it. You also literally don’t perceive an object that hasn’t been selected, which is why you can walk right past something you’re looking for without seeing it.

On the other hand, things relevant to you always have top priority, which is why you suddenly hear your name mentioned in someone else’s conversation.

You’ll also miss things if you are absorbed on a task even if it’s something trivial like mulling over what to have for supper or looking forward to meeting a friend. Very familiar sensations are also filtered out, so you don’t notice your own breathing. Until of course I mentioned it!

Some people have learned to focus intensely, like athletes, artists, musicians and scientists. While others struggle to concentrate long enough to complete even the simplest of tasks. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, but we can all improve.

The trick is knowing that the brain’s attention system is divided into two parts. Your ‘bottom-up attention system’ is what makes you jump at sudden noises. It’s totally unconscious, runs constantly in the background, and you have absolutely no control over it.

It’s intended to protect you from anything dangerous, and instantly alerts you anytime it thinks something is important enough. By contrast, your ‘top-down attention system’ is under your conscious control and is how you choose what you want to concentrate on.

So the key to improving your concentration is prioritising your focus and removing potential distractions. Like your phone. Because even while you’re talking with someone important, like your spouse, your bottom-up attention system is monitoring your phone. So your conversation suffers because it’s constantly urging you to check it out.

And multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. So when you think you’re doing two things at once, you’re actually switching between them. And because it takes your brain a short while to refocus as you change tasks, you’re actually losing concentration.

So if you’re doing something important, remove distractions like your phone, music, emails, other people, hunger and thirst and you’ll get the job done much better.

 Take a break every 30 minutes, because that’s the optimum period to focus on one task, after which your mind starts to wander. Doing something less intensive for a few minutes means you’ll come back to the task refreshed.

Remove bottom-up distractions and your memory will miraculously improve. Suddenly you’ll feel in control of your life again. Maybe for the first time in years!