Concentration: Natural and Trained Ability

Attention span and concentration abilities can vary for a variety of reasons, with some individuals simply having good abilities at baseline. There are also a variety of factors that can make concentration more challenging for some individuals, including both stable and modifiable medical factors (e.g., neurodevelopmental disorders, sleep difficulties, normal mild changes over the lifespan, etc.) as well as psychiatric factors (e.g., depression, anxiety, etc.). Over the past few years, I have been noticing an increase in attention difficulties and concerns from patients, and at times wonder if it is partly due to our fast-paced world where technology reduces the need to focus for long periods of time. For example, most social media platforms utilize short videos as a way of posting content, requiring even less focus than other online activities.

Ability to focus and concentrate is partly natural, but it is also a trained ability, like a muscle – it requires work to strengthen it, or it can lead to atrophy and lose its vitality. This becomes a challenge when the “distraction” is our phone, electronics, or social media, since this is closely tied to dopamine (i.e., a very positively reinforcing neurotransmitter), which is instrumental in feeling excited, interested, and feeling rewarded by engaging in an activity. This contributes to less interesting or reinforcing activities feeling lackluster or downright frustrating. Although somewhat oversimplified, attention has two primary components in day-to-day life: first, the prefrontal cortex in our brain is instrumental in deciding what we pay attention to, as well as other executive functioning tasks (e.g., decision-making, being disciplined enough to engage in unpleasant but necessary tasks, etc.). Second, we need to be able to ignore distractions, since we are exposed to a breadth of distractions even without our phones (e.g., thoughts, conversations, sensory information, etc.). It takes work to ignore distractions, and the less we practice this skill the worse we become at it. Over time, we reinforce the same mental pathways and circuits that make it harder to sustain focus to begin with, and we become “better” at not focusing.

If there are specific medical or psychiatric factors at play, those may be causes of difficulty that can be treated in additional ways that are not included below, such as medication and therapeutic considerations. However, generally speaking, it becomes important to engage in habits and lifestyle changes that strengthen concentration and focus, and the following may help improve those abilities in day-to-day life.

  1. Assess the impact of technology in your life – assess how much time you are spending on your phone or other technology. Tracking apps can be utilized in order to take an inventory of how much time is spent per day since we tend to underestimate the amount of time spent.
  2. Consider making some changes – reduce the number of notifications on your phone, set boundaries around phone/technology usage (e.g., “no phone zones,” reducing phone usage when waking up in the morning and falling asleep at night, change where you charge your phone so that it is out or reach for a time, make a rule that no phones are permitted during dinner or family time, etc.).
  3. Engage in replacement activities – engage in other enjoyable activities or interests that may have fallen by the wayside.
  4. Exercise your attention span – identify attention building or cognitively challenging activities that you enjoy for at least 10-15 minutes each day (e.g., meditation, mindfulness, puzzles, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, chess, etc.); there is no need to engage in unpleasant activities to see positive outcomes.
  5. Identify helpful cognitive strategies – for example, when studying or working on a project, set a time to work for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break; after 4 time blocks, take a longer break before returning to the task.
  6. Improve sleep – regularly failing to attain a good night’s sleep can easily disrupt concentration, as well as other cognitive abilities. Try to attain 7-8 hrs of sleep per night, and improve sleep quality (e.g., no screens an hour before bed, develop a pre-sleep routine which signals the brain to “power off,” go to bed/get up at the same times each day and maintain a similar schedule over the weekend, engage in exercise during the day, etc.).

The above information is broadly based on an interesting book called, “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” by Catherine Price (a science journalist). Her book is an enjoyable and engaging read on this topic.

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