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For Business
November 19, 2013

Pay attention! 5 ways to avoid digital distraction

It’s all too easy and tempting to split your attention. I’m sure we’ve all browsed the web while talking to our friends, tweeted our way through TV programmes, or worked on a report while keeping up with an email thread.

We’ve talked at length before about the neuroscience that shows that our brains aren’t capable of multitasking – we can’t actually do two things at once, we just rapidly switch between tasks, dramatically reducing our performance as we do. And yet we carry on doing it, kidding ourselves that we can really give our full attention to two things at once.

Cory Doctorow once called the online world an “ecosystem of interruption technologies,” and it really feel does feel that way when you need to pay close attention to something. Pop ups, notifications, the lure of all that new information appearing when you’ve got something tough to do can be very hard to resist.

When we sit at our desks with email and social networks open alongside whatever we’re working on, we’re creating a high level of stimulation and input, or ‘hyper-attention’ to use the terminology of N Katherine Hayles.

She describes hyper-attention as: “Switching focus rapidly between different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.”

It’s great if you’re a teacher or an air-traffic controller, but for most of us, the state we need to be in at work is deep attention, where we focus on a task closely for an extended period of time.

But many of us find deep attention boring, because we’re hooked on the excitement of all that incoming information, and we miss the level of stimulation it provides when it’s not there.

Nicholas Carr’s now-famous article ‘Is Google making us stupid?’ noted the impact of the internet on our attention back in 2008:

“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”

If you can identify with these words, then these tips for focusing your attention might help:

1. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness isn’t just about meditation – it’s an open state, where you actively pay attention and observe the here and now. Trying to adopt a mindful approach to work will help you to focus and will also make it easier to identify and recover if you’re getting off track or being distracted.

2. Find your flow

You know those days at work when you’re super-productive and it just feels effortless? That’s flow. Psychologically speaking, to increase your chances of hitting that flow state you need clarity, feedback and to feel confident that you can do the task. To help, spend some time deconstructing your task and how you’ll approach it. Breaking it down into mini-goals can help you track your progress towards completion. You should also be confident in you abilities, but don’t be afraid to ask for assistance where you need it.

3. Have an attention strategy

Think about the task at hand and work out what kind of attention it needs, deep attention, hyper-attention, or something more relaxed. Sometimes it’s good to let your mind wander!

4. Have a technology strategy

Think hard about what tech you need to get your task done – make sure you’re using the right hardware and software for the job from the tools at your disposal. You should also switch off or put away anything you don’t need, for example turning off your WiFi if you think it will distract you from the job at hand, or closing down your Twitter app or client if it’s going to get in the way.

5. Give yourself a break

90 minutes is really the longest you can concentrate without compromising your performance, so make sure you take regular breaks. A simple timer app can help you remember to have a rest. You also could try blocking out 90 minute sessions in your diary, with 15-30 minute breaks in between, which you can use to catch up on emails, make calls, tweet or watch a few funny cat GIFs for a change of pace and to recoup your energy.

Do you have any tips to help you keep your attention where it should be?

This article is part of Nokia’s Smarter Everyday programme, which aims to inspire you with the latest ideas on productivity, collaboration and technology adoption. To download our latest ebook Mobile Mastery visit

Image credit: Leon Fishman