How to Pay Attentio........ ooooh shiny!


My wife gets telephone separation anxiety. Quite often, I catch her checking social media on her phone whilst I am talking to her or whilst we are out at a restaurant or other outing. I have often confiscated her phone of an evening when she says she really wants to watch a certain TV show, but a few minutes later I notice she is glued to her phone. She's not paying attention to the very show she claimed she really really wanted to see.

And it appears she is not alone when it comes to not being able to go 6 minutes without checking Facebook. Our attention spans are evaporating. Focus is fast becoming extinct. Research shows we check our phones up to 150 times a day — about every six to seven minutes.

However, you may think select segments of the community may have better focus than others; students perhaps? After all, they are studying things they are going to be examined on and a high degree of focus and attention is required. Nah, not so, according to a recent study.

Regardless of age, students were able to stay focused and attend to that important work only for a short period—three to five minutes—before most students self-interrupted their studying to switch to another task.

So, consider this; under laboratory conditions when they were specifically instructed to focus as long as they could on something they were told was important, they still couldn’t muster enough will power and self-control to ………. What was I saying?

Students are not the only victims. Look around you when you’re next in public and you’ll see what I mean. (Or talk to a teenager for more than five minutes and watch their eyes glaze over as their brain starts to zone out!) a significant portion of the public is now living life vicariously through their smartphone.

Think you can blame all this on your phone? Nope; it's your brain's fault. Modern technology just amplifies the problem. The human brain is designed to seek new information. It’s a caveman thing. Not that Neanderthal’s had smartphones but the same part of our brains that kept cavemen on the lookout for food and water actually rewards us for discovering new information.

In a nutshell, there’s a dopamine hit (The feel good hormone) from discovering something new, while doing something you are already familiar with does nothing for us.

The role of the dopamine system has been shown to relate to information-seeking behaviour in primates. Monkeys, for example, respond to receiving information in a similar way to rewards such as food or water.

But if our brains are so good at seeking new information, why does it suck at resisting distractions?

Because the information-seeking part of our brain is much stronger than the "cognitive control" part that allows us to complete tasks. Revisiting my caveman example, realising there was a Sabre-Tooth Tiger behind you was far more important than sticking to whatever task you were doing at the time.

If I’ve just described you, how can you fix this? Perhaps next week, I’m about to check my Linkedin notifications!