I was recently asked by a student inside Women Speaking Up about how a person’s ability to concentrate might be affecting their experience of visibility.
Consistency is a key aspect of brand visibility and lack of concentration can see us jumping from topic to topic with no follow-through. This, in turn, impacts negatively on how consistent you are in building brand awareness and staying connected to your community.
So let’s talk through some of the ways we can develop our capacity for concentration.
NOTE: this post is in no way attempting to address diagnosable conditions. If you have gone down the path of being diagnosed with a condition that affects your capacity to concentrate, you’ll work with a relevant licensed professional on your treatment plan.
What this post seeks to address as some of the broader underlying reasons why the broader population is suffering enormously from a lack of concentration, how we might better understand those influences in order to better manage them, and how that relates to the ways you’re showing up and being visible in the world. (This is the first article in a multipart series on this topic.)
Even the most focused individual may have noticed their concentrating being affected by the global pandemic. Whilst everyone’s experience of the pandemic has been different, one thing that seems to have impacted us collectively has been a general inability to concentrate. You probably heard this in your own network. The BBC produced this article explaining the work researchers are doing to understand the phenomenon.
“At the University of California Irvine, research is beginning on how the lockdown has affected people’s memories. It’s been reported that even some of those amazing people who usually remember events like buying a cinema ticket 20 years earlier because they have highly superior autobiographical memory are finding they are forgetting things.”
Here’s another article from the ABC about how being in lockdown is affecting people’s brains (in short, our brains are having a lot more difficulty accessing the prefrontal cortex which is core to decision making and higher-order planning).
Before you jump to any conclusions about the state of your own concentration, remember we’re all responding to the pandemic in the best way we can and lack of concentration and memory loss are a huge part of that. It’s not just you and it’s not a permanent thing. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself a break. Don’t expect too much of yourself. Build your concentration muscle as best you can (more to come on that later in this series).
Added to the pandemic are our current rates of engagement with technology. When you look at the combined effect of these two influences, it’s a minor miracle that any of us can keep a thought in our heads for more than 3 seconds. We have access to, and are processing, far more information than human beings have ever processed in the history of the world. Thus, need to give ourselves time to stop, reflect on what that means for us neurologically, socially, politically, and economically, and respond accordingly. In a proactive rather than reactive manner.
But let’s get back to the problem for a moment. It seems that the more connected we are to technology, the more our concentration is shot. Consider the number of notifications coming at us all day. Notifications that are specifically designed to distract us from what we’re currently attending to.
“Endocrinologist Robert Lustig tells Business Insider that notifications from our phones are training our brains to be in a near-constant state of stress and fear by establishing a stress-fear memory pathway. And such a state means that the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains that normally deals with some of our highest-order cognitive functioning, goes completely haywire, and basically shuts down…
Scientists have known for years what people often won’t admit to themselves: humans can’t really multi-task. This is true for almost all of us: about 97.5% of the population. The other 2.5% have freakish abilities; scientists call them “super taskers,” because they can actually successfully do more than one thing at once…
But since only about 1 in 50 people are super taskers, the rest of us mere mortals are really only focusing on just one thing at a time. That means every time we pause to answer a new notification or get an alert from a different app on our phone, we’re being interrupted, and with that interruption, we pay a price: something called a “switch cost.”
Sometimes the switch from one task to another costs us only a few tenths of a second, but in a day of flip-flopping between ideas, conversations, and transactions on a phone or computer, our switch costs can really add up, and make us more error-prone, too. Psychologist David Meyer who’s studied this effect estimates that shifting between tasks can use up as much as 40% of our otherwise productive brain time.
Every time we switch tasks, we’re also shooting ourselves up with a dose of the stress hormone cortisol, Lustig says. The switching puts our thoughtful, reasoning prefrontal cortex to sleep, and kicks up dopamine, a brain chemical that plays a key role in pursuing reward and motivation.
In other words, the stress that we build up by trying to do many things at once when we really can’t is making us sick, and causing us to crave even more interruptions, spiking dopamine, which perpetuates the cycle.”
“If you ever feel you are forever forgetting things and therefore losing your mind, don’t worry says Professor Michael Saling, neuropsychologist from the University of Melbourne and Austin Health.
“I get at least one patient a week who is convinced that forgetting things like car keys or picking up children is the result of a serious brain condition or early Alzheimer’s. The truth is the expansion of the information age has happened so fast, it’s bringing us face to face with our brains’ limitations. Just because our computer devices have perfect memories we think we should too.
“We’ve lost sight of the fact that forgetfulness is a normal and necessary phenomenon. We must keep pushing information out so it can deal with information coming in and if it gets overloaded we become forgetful,” Professor Saling says.
Attention and focus in humans has been examined by brain scans. A study using neuroimaging of frequent Internet users showed twice as much activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain compared to sporadic users.
This is the part of the brain that is used for short-term memory and quick decision-making. In situations where there is a flood of information, we have learnt to skim.”
We all have to adjust to the new reality we’re living in and if we’re going to retain our capacity for concentration and deep thought, we have to manage our environment thoughtfully.
Here are some of the strategies I’ve developed over the years to create a concentration conducive environment:
- I turn off all notifications when I’m working on a task that requires my concentration (like writing this article). No email, no social media, no phones.
- I notice the unhealthy habit I’ve built over time around responsiveness to external stimuli. That looks like an instinct to answer the phone, respond to a text message, or email as soon as I’m alerted to it. I notice the habit is connected to a level of anxiety in my body. There’s an old instinct that perhaps there’s something urgent that needs attending to. There’s a desire to stay ‘entertained’ and not take on deep work. There’s a fear of missing out or a perception that staying busy in such a way keeps me feeling important and valued. All of this needs addressing and so each time I notice any level of anxiety in my body, I immediately address the anxiety.
My quickest response is to use the Visibility Process™. It goes like this; I notice I’m feeling anxious. I stop. I connect with my heart centre and speak to my anxious self. I simply say; ‘I see you’re feeling anxious. I understand you’re feeling anxious. I’m so sorry this anxiety feels so personal.’ Then I take a deep breath and wait to see if there’s another emotion I need to clear. If there is, I’ll take the Visibility Process™ again. Let’s say it’s anger that comes up now. I’ll again connect with my heart centre and speak to the angry part of myself saying, ‘I see you’re angry. I understand you’re angry. I’m so sorry this anger feels so personal.’ What I find is that once I’ve managed the emotion that triggers the habit, I no longer feel the need to behave in a way that’s not in my best interest. In other words, the habitual pattern lessens each time until it dissipates completely.
- I limit my scrolling. I really think there are few things worse for your concentration than scrolling social media. It’s a neurological bombardment of the highest order. Every time I sit scrolling I remind myself that what I’m actually doing is increasing my cortisol levels, decreasing my capacity for productivity, and making myself sick. (Not to mention what happens when I read a post that I find offensive or triggering. That leads to a whole other level of emotional triggering which then needs to be managed. What a colossal time suck!)
- I create time buckets in my day. Parts of my day are for concentrated work. Parts are for engagement and interaction. Parts are for planning or content creation. As long as I’ve spent some of my day answering emails, responding to Slack messages, checking my social platforms, then my brain can tick that box which means it can then turn its attention to other tasks without worrying about things not progressing in the business.
- I work alone and in silence most of the time. I know this one isn’t possible for everyone but I do hope that the pandemic has made it apparent how much work you can achieve when not constantly interrupted by colleagues. Our workplaces have been so influenced by extrovert bias that values interaction and engagement above all else. And whilst I agree that these things are wildly important, so is being able to work without interruption, without being forced to switch tasks (attending to your own work, then talking to a colleague is a prime example).
Therefore, whilst it might not be possible to dedicate large swags of time to quiet introverted work, you might consider how you can create that environment for some of the hours in your week. And if the extroverts amongst you are feeling horrified by such a notion, please keep your introverted colleagues in mind when setting workplace norms. For an introvert, working alone is an important way to ensure they maintain their energy levels and really create their best work.
- I meditate. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything better for increasing your concentration levels than to train your brain through meditation. I know meditation can be hard. It is, after all, a skill like any other. We have to train ourselves to become proficient at it.
If you’re worried about where to start or feel like your brain is just too active to sit still, I hear you. I started meditating about 30 years ago and there’s no way I could have started my meditation practice by simply sitting and observing my thoughts. I was far too caught up in my thoughts to create distance from them. So I started with yoga nidra because following the instructions kept my mind occupied which allowed me to come to deep rest. Of course, it wasn’t a full proof thing. Even with the assistance of the voice giving me instructions around where to place my attention, my mind wandered – and continues to wander – from time to time. That’s normal. It’s not a sign you’re doing anything wrong or that you’re no good at meditation. When I notice my wandering mind, I simply bring my attention back to the instructions and continue to follow along from there.
Meditation is a practice in training the brain. It won’t happen overnight but it’s easily the best practice I’ve come across to counter the deleterious effects on my levels of concentration, caused by a busy and wildly distracting world.
Next time; some more ways our neural pathways are impacted by the world around us and some energetic considerations to keep in mind when it comes to concentration and visibility.
If you’d like to dive into yoga nidra, here’s one of my recordings to support you.