Our smartphones are often part of the problem, but there's plenty we can do to train our minds to concentrate better.

If you’re doing anything safety critical at work, or driving a car or van, you’ll need to stay focused to stay safe. But beating distraction has become harder with all the technology around us. We take a look at some of the technological factors that interfere with our ability to concentrate, and what you can do to improve it.

Blurry clock face in blue

With the vast majority of people using smartphones these days, there’s a danger our brains may get hijacked. And that applies even when our phones are off and out of sight!  We’re all becoming more distracted these days.  In fact, being distracted has become the new norm.  We check our phones every 12 minutes on average in the UK.  And 71% of us never switch off our phones.  Not only do they wake us up, but they’re likely to be just inches away from our pillows when we fall asleep.

As a result, we can find ourselves never really switching off completely.  Excessive social media use can amplify the issue, potentially having a long-term impact on our mental health.  Our brains have become increasingly susceptible to the digital clamour of smartphone alerts and notifications, all vying for our attention.  Alerts and notifications tend to be switched on by default.

Smartphone technology has been engineered to extract as much of your attention as possible – and it won’t give up without a fight.  In the time it takes you to read this article, you may well have experienced that ‘need’ to check your phone several times.  It is this heightened state of ‘readiness to respond’ that takes its toll on our ability to concentrate.  Your brain is being hijacked – it starts to become distracted by the expectation of being distracted!  In fact, one former industry consultant has coined the phrase ‘Continuous Partial Attention’.

We might persuade ourselves we’re adopting an always-on, anywhere, anytime mindset.  In reality, however, our minds are split between many different activities competing for our attention.  The myth of multitasking, often worn as a badge of pride, does a good job of convincing us that we’re working more effectively.  To use an analogy, your brain is a bit like a PC.

You may have lots of applications running in the background, but each one is using up a chunk of the overall computing power.  At some point, if you demand too much of your computer, it is liable to freeze up. It is the same with your brain.  What can you do to concentrate better?  There are lots of things you can do to improve your attention span.

Break free from your smartphone

It’s indispensable but also designed to hijack your brain.  You don’t need to wean yourself off it entirely, though some digital detoxing may be required depending on your level of addiction!  Try leaving it beyond arm’s reach for lunch, keeping it out of the bedroom altogether (that probably means buying an alarm clock), or having a break for six hours at a time once a week.

Sit for five minutes

Doing nothing has become a bit of a lost art.  But doing it well can actually improve your concentration.  If you can kill the urge to do something out of restlessness, you’re on the right path.  Ease yourself into a supportive, comfortable position, and just bring your attention to your breathing.  Every time your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breathing again, just as you would if you were meditating.

Extend your focus

By implementing a simple rule to focus for longer, you can boost your concentration.  Simply say to yourself ‘I will do five more’ whenever you feel like quitting an activity.  If you’re out jogging, do five more minutes when you feel like you can’t go on anymore.  In the gym, do five more repetitions.  Or read five more pages of your book or magazine before you switch your attention to something else.  This helps you push beyond the normal limit of your concentration.

Read for pleasure

Our reading habits have changed over the years.  If you read online, you’re much more likely to be interrupted by an alert or advert of some sort.  It’s no wonder that we end up not really paying our full attention to anything.  Instead, we either have our concentration continuously broken, or find ourselves perpetually scanning for something new.  Try picking up a book or magazine you want to read.  Exclude every other kind of distraction you are likely to encounter.  Do your best to stay with the thread or story and enjoy the experience.

Count or spell backwards

It sounds much simpler than it is.  For example, start at 100 and count down from there in 5s – 95, 90, 85, 80, 75 and so on.  Hold your concentration until you reach zero, bringing your mind back to the task if it wanders.  You can increase the difficulty level by counting back in say 7s, 8s or 9s.  If you’re feeling more confident, pick a higher starting number.  Spelling backwards is just a variation on this theme.  Start with a few simple words of objects around you: tree, cup, car and so on.  When you’ve mastered these, you can pick longer, more challenging words.

Watch a clock face

Gather your attention as you wait for the second hand of a clock to reach 12 at the top.  Then follow the movement of the hand clockwise for 60 seconds, refocusing every time you notice your mind begins to wander away from the task.  This is more difficult than it sounds but is a great technique if you want to achieve a calm state of mind.

Listen closely to a music track

Choose a three- to five-minute long track you know well.  Instead of merely hearing the track, listen in more attentively to the voices, lyrics, notes, and instruments.  See if your ear can pick up features that you haven’t heard before – there are normally quite a few.  Then on repeat listens, try focusing on a certain feature for the whole track.  This builds appreciation for the complexity of the musical layers.

Pay attention to a forgotten object

We often walk past objects, even those we love, such as a family photo or painting, without paying any attention.  After a while, they tend to blend in with their surroundings.  In taking them for granted, we may miss their important meaning in our lives.  This very same principle can be applied in safety-critical environments, where focusing on detail can help us anticipate hazards and prevent injuries.

If you consistently seek to build your concentration skills using these activities, you will find yourself being better able to resist distractions.  You will be able to get your work done more effectively because your mind has been trained to pay attention.  Not only that, but you are also helping both you and your colleagues to get things done as safely as possible.

Some recent CIRAS reports on distraction

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