Who stole my focus?

Michelle Ensuque — Psychotherapist


I heard Johann Hari talk about our inability to focus. It made me think about my own situation and how much control we actually have over it. I find it almost impossible to watch a TV programme without (at worst) doing something else.

When did I become so impatient or lose the inability to focus? How much of this is a problem I have no control over? Is it something I can influence instead?

I look at the world of social media we live in, as well as the work environment. For me, the world is almost speeding up beyond my ability to keep up. Now don’t laugh, but I remember getting my first personal computer at work.

I was in the RAF at the time and very conscious that this technological advance saw the demise of the typing pool. Those lovely ladies that altered our letters after we had reviewed our own work, only to change our minds about what we wanted to write. I remember those letters folded and slid into envelopes and popped into post. The pace of life felt much slower, even if the sense of responsibility wasn’t any less because of it.

With the advent of the internet, the work environment has sped up beyond all measure. Open plan offices, created to increase communication (or was it to save money?) and all the sounds that came with it, I found quite tough as sounds distract me. My productivity on some days is reduced.

Concentrating on long documents, documents is difficult for me, unless I have silence. I can’t help throwing evil glares across the room at someone rustling in their crisp bag in the office. Hats off to those who can work with music as a backdrop — I wish I could! The last 18 months, working from home, have been a godsend for me. I have been more productive as a result. I imagine there are people screaming at me now, saying ‘you have no idea! I’ve had my kids home the entire time, and it was impossible!’. But we couldn’t have done it without communication via technology. It has been invaluable in keeping the economic wheel turning, enabling us to have safe connections with others.

Social media platforms such as Facebook Messenger have enabled me to keep in contact with people who don’t live anywhere near me.

Johann says the sites’ real intention is not to help direct conversation. We are, he says, “business,” and what they want us to do is keep scrolling so we can see the advertisements. If we stopped to actually set up direct communication with someone, they wouldn’t earn a thing.

Well, they must hate me then. I have only once bought something from an advert. I’m not an advertisers’ dream. I didn’t even know that shopping channels still existed for goodness sake! I am skeptical and not easy to persuade. I hate it when I see something I have searched for on the internet. But I have learned that many are not like me; they succumb to the advertisements happily.

But what has all this got to do with losing focus?

Well, more and more we are being watched, surveyed if you will, for our likes and dislikes. Technology is advancing so far so quickly.

Coming back to my own point though about focus. I love to shout about the fact that I can multi-task — fist pump, go me! Yet, if I’m focusing on one task and I receive a text or a pop up on my emails and read it, in essence my focus moves elsewhere. Then when I return to the original task, I have to refocus, which wastes time. So, how many times do I do that a day? Switching from one thing to the next, focusing and refocusing. If it takes 20 minutes to recover and refocus each time, how productive am I being if I am doing that at work? Add that to a world where emails have replaced letter writing and other forms of communication. This includes actually talking to each other for heaven’s sake. (Come on, I bet you’ve emailed someone sitting right next to you or at least a few desks away) Is it surprising that our focus might have dimmed?

So focused is our attention on the little screens. Now it appears some of us need a cage to put our phones in! Setting timers to keep it locked away, until we can grasp it in our fingertips again. For many, that might be a fantastic parenting solution. I am bereft if I leave the house without it. My phone has become my most prized possession. I use it to pay bills, check transactions, talk to my friends, reach my audience on social media, access my bank etc. etc.

But if you looked at people walking around and they all had their notifications on full volume, how overwhelming might that feel?

I am reminded of the advert in the cinema showing this on the screen, with hundreds of people walking around. It is enthralling that we can cope with that amount of information at any one time. It affects us.

The more technologically advanced we become, the more disconnected we become from each other. I saw a picture some time ago of people at a bus stop staring at their phones. This was next to one taken many years ago, showing people reading their newspapers. It argued it was the same, but I disagree. The pace was different.

You could focus on an article without a notification pinging through or feeling the urge to check the message. But that image shows that we were no more connected to each other at the bus stop reading newspapers than those on their phones. I will not moan about how life was great before all this technological stuff became such a pain in the ass. There could also be acceptance that we are not what we once were. We are ever developing. If we want something different, we have the choice to change it at an individual level.

So, what can we do about it? Why do we need to change, and how can we do it? Like anything that requires long-lasting change, it must be sustainable. Take dieting for example.

If I was to say, eat nothing but eggs for 2 weeks, it’s likely that the first few days are manageable. Almost exciting! (Has anyone else transposed it with the word eggciting? No? Just me then). But we can’t stick to it for 2 weeks. Even if we did, we would return to our old habits in a matter of days after stopping the egg fest.

I see technology as a good thing. I can google most things, including tutorials, that have both saved me time and money. I can book a holiday online. I can pay bills and transfer money to where I need to, without the need to set foot into a bank. In sum, I can be productive elsewhere. I am not wasting time doing things that used to take a lot of my personal time.

I believe I am connected with people I would have otherwise lost contact with. I can even connect with my husband living in a different country. So, the issue really is, if we are so worried about losing focus, what exactly will we do about it? How will our lives improve if we do make a change? If we can see no real benefit, why do it? If we are happy with the speed life is and feel energised, why slow down? It’s a personal thing.

I choose not to act on adverts. If, like me, you notice that you can’t even concentrate on a TV programme without getting distracted, we could make a small change. This could be turning the phone upside down and on silent, to find a way back to enjoying life in the moment. After all, I have lost my focus, but I haven’t lost my right to choose, have I?

So here are my top tips:

1. What is it you would like to change about your ability to focus, and why? Once you bring it to your conscious awareness, you can act on it.

2. What is within your influence to enable that change? E.g. if you want to stop all e-mail traffic in your company, you have zero influence. If you want to be less distracted by something flying in, you will have some options.

3. What is it that makes you want to move from one thing to another, just because your attention is diverted? Now that you know that, what could you do instead?

4. Where do you feel overwhelmed the most? It doesn’t have to be just technology. Rather than seeing it as one overwhelming issue, pick it apart and identify the most pressing element. Use item 2 to make the change

5. Create a new habit, starting small, that you can stick to every day. You can take some ideas from James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits. Those that talk about changing habits talk about the number of days it can take to embed a new one anywhere from 21 days upwards. However, I would disagree, because I’ve seen habits change just by working on the subconscious mind pretty much instantaneously. It is about what feels the right approach for you.

Sorry for stealing your focus for 3–4 mins, but if you do recognise you find it difficult to focus, what exactly will you choose to do about it?



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