Beating information overload - Learn the secrets of training your brain to focus

13th April 2022
 minute read

Table of contents

Struggling to concentrate? You’re not alone. Here’s how to beat distraction and get back on track…

Ever find yourself checking your phone for no reason? It hasn’t even buzzed or beeped, yet you can’t help looking. It’s like a reflex to pull it out of your pocket or bag, time and time again.

In our hyperconnected world, it can feel as if we have messages and updates clamouring for our attention all day long. It’s like we’ve been trained to be always checking and always on the alert. That is why we can find it hard to focus on a single task, or be fully present with a friend, or even switch off altogether. Our time, energy and attention is precious, yet all too often, it’s hijacked by things that don’t really matter.

In other words, it is as if the entire world has become a mass distraction machine. But with mental health issues like stress and anxiety on the increase, this isn’t great for our wellbeing. What’s more, it can really get in the way of both our personal and career goals. So what can we do about it?

What’s the psychology behind it all?

Firstly, let’s look at how this battle for our attention is playing out in our brains.  

As explained by Dr. Adam Gazzaley and Dr. Larry Rosen in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, attention actually comes in two categories: bottom-up and top-down.

Bottom-up attention

This is when you are distracted by external things, like a loud noise or your phone vibrating. A bottom-up influence demands your attention and pulls you away from whatever you’re trying to do. It is actually an important survival mechanism that keeps us alert to danger but unfortunately, corporations and advertisers have hijacked it.

Top-down attention 

This is our goal-directed attention. In other words, it is what we choose to focus on, such as writing a report. It is when we make a conscious decision to direct our attention towards something, from a work task to a hobby. 

Unfortunately, we’re living through an era where we have more external factors pulling us away from our goal-directed attention than ever before. For instance, when was the last time you watched a film without checking your phone? Or spent a day focusing on a work project without looking at social media? In other words, there is a constant tug of war going on between bottom-up forces and top-down goals. 

Maybe this just means we’re all much better at multitasking these days? Not so, because according to neuroscientists, multitasking is actually a myth. What we are actually doing is switching back and forth between tasks, without giving any our total attention. And as a result, we can miss out on the wellbeing boost that you get from entering into a full, focused ‘flow state’. Yet the flow state is often an important source of inspiration and creativity.

What can you do about it? 

We’ve looked at the problem — bottom-up forces fighting for our attention more than ever before, pushing us into a distracted, unfocused state. But what’s the solution?

Maybe it’s time to take your brain to boot camp? In other words, since many of us go to the gym to train our muscles, why not train the muscle of your brain too?

Because the fact is, your brain isn’t a stone — it is constantly changing in response to how you interact with our environment. This process is known as neuroplasticity and many scientists believe that you can harness it to develop a more focused mind.

Tips for how to do this include:

— Practice sustained attention and single-tasking — set aside a block of time to only focus on one activity.

— Practice cognitive exercises.

— Learn mindfulness and meditation practices.

— Exercise regularly

— Spend time in nature.

— Put your phone out of sight.

— Commit to only checking emails at set times of day.

It’s also important to address the twin fears that can drive our distracted, multitasking behaviour: the fear of boredom and the fear of not being productive. 

With the fear of boredom, aim to train your brain to feel comfortable in an under-stimulated state, for instance, by taking five minutes to simply focus on sipping a cup of tea. And with the fear of not being productive, allow yourself a little time each day to just be in the moment experiencing pleasure, whether that’s by taking a walk, relaxing in a bath or playing with a pet.

Remember, training your brain is a marathon, not a sprint. But by gradually learning to improve your focus you can get better at concentrating on single tasks, experiences and conversations. And this way, you can turn down the noise and tune into the moment. 

Need help with stress, anxiety or concentration? Therapy can help, including
CBT, CFT and Mindfulness Therapy.

Book an appointment with an expert MTA therapist today.

Beating information overload - Learn the secrets of training your brain to focus
Clinical Director
Lumo Health team
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