Staying focused in the era of digital distractions

Published: June, 2019

By the time you reach maturity, the neural networks that govern cognitive control have been well honed. Years of learning and experience have conditioned your brain to discriminate between important information and distractions. In theory, your capacity for focus and concentration should be at its best.

But the variables of daily life will inevitably throw obstacles in your path. To stay at the top of your game, it's important to recognize and address the physical and emotional factors that interfere with your focus and concentration. Also remember that your brain is a flesh-and-blood organ. What's happening in your body—from aging to diseases to lifestyle factors such as sleep and alcohol use—will play a key role in your ability to pay attention and focus. So will the neurochemical fluctuations that govern your mood. Let's take a closer look at one of the things that can cause you to lose focus.

Digital distractions

Love it or hate it, we live in the digital age and there's no going back. But today's tsunami of digital distractions can pose challenges to the neural networks that regulate attention.

In many ways, our ever-present smartphones inhibit the ability to remain focused on a task. The most obvious distractions are the alerts that come from the phone itself. Simply hearing the sound or feeling the vibration provides enough distraction to interfere with a task, even if you don't take time to view the message. Once you've engaged with the phone, such as to answer a call, it's easy to let your attention drift to other phone-related activities, such as answering email. Icons, bright colors, and catchy tunes heighten the attraction of these apps and enhance their ability to draw focus away from other tasks.

The pull is even stronger for activities we do for pleasure, such as engaging with social media or playing a game. Research has shown that social media cues, such as "likes" on one of our posts or pictures of our friends laughing, trigger a surge in dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, which may diminish the motivation to pay attention to anything else.

According to a 2018 survey by the technology company Asurion, Americans check their mobile phones an average of 80 times a day; the highest users surveyed topped 300 daily checks. But each time we interrupt something we were doing to check our phones, we break our concentration and have to start over.

In addition to the distraction factor inherent in media use, exposure to blue light emitted by phone, tablet, and computer screens can produce insomnia. A 2017 study published in the journal Chronobiology International, involving young adults in their 20s, showed that blue-light exposure before bed cut down sleep time by roughly 16 minutes. Blue-light exposure also reduced the body's production of melatonin, a hormone that is connected with normal sleep cycles.

To learn more about ways to live with everyday and abnormal distractions, read Improving Concentration and Focus from Harvard Medical School.

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