In 2014, in a public memo, then-Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told employees at the tech giant that “the really scarce commodity is, increasingly, human attention“. At the time, Orkut had just died, Instagram was just a photo-sharing social network, and WhatsApp had just joined the Facebook ecosystem.
Today, seven years later, Nadella couldn’t be more right. In the meantime, many studies have shown that the difficulty of maintaining mindfulness on a task is, in fact, a problem in virtually everyone’s life. A Harvard study, for example, found that non-industrial workers pass 47% of the time in a semi-distracted state. A survey of the Rescue Time app showed that people check their email 55 times a day – and, in the case of messaging apps, 77 times a day.
With the expansion of telecommuting during the pandemic, behaviors like these, which are real productivity drains, have become even more common. But the problem goes far beyond the feeling of fatigue and anguish of wanting to produce and not being able to. It’s a neurological issue. Frequently switching our attention between different tasks and distractions “wean” our brain from focusing, due to a phenomenon called “residual attention“.
The concept, created by researcher Sophie Leroy of the University of Washington, illustrates how this war for our attention hurts us. According to him, when we distract ourselves from a task to check a message, part of our attention continues to process this secondary activity even after we turn our attention to the initial task. And there is a scientific explanation for this.
In our brain, it all comes down to electrical impulses that flow through an immense network of neurons. When we begin to focus on something, be it a task or physical exercise, brain cells detect this electrical traffic and wrap the “neural roads” with myelin, a substance that increases the flow of impulses from one point to another in the brain. But that only happens when you’re focused. When you get distracted, this process is immediately interrupted, and starting from the beginning is like going back to square one—with each new distraction.
All for the pleasure of dopamine
Difficult and complex tasks can be a little tedious to solve, so we surrender to distractions in search of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that causes the sensation of pleasure. While work only generates dopamine in the long run, social networks do it instantly, requiring almost no effort on our part. But breaking this behavior and going in search of “long-term dopamine” is possible.
“The best way to do this is to feel boredom once in a while without running away from it,” explains Cal Newport, an American author and professor of computer science at Georgetown University. “With this, your brain understands that when you get bored, sometimes it will be stimulated and sometimes it won’t. That means that when it comes time to focus on something, the brain will go ‘oh, ok, that’s it another one of those circumstances where I won’t be stimulated, and that’s okay, I’m used to it.” This opens the way for myelin to speed up the functioning of your brain.
Three golden tips for more focus
In researching this article, EXAME found a series of tips that help to have more focus – they were even very useful for this reporter. Check out the main ones below:
Work away from your cell phone (and WhatsApp Web)
It’s hard to focus on something getting notifications all the time – or having your cell phone right next to you for boring moments. Leave the device in another room, or at least far enough away that you can’t hear it vibrate. Of course, notifications can wait.
Try to get rid of all distractions – for a brief period of time
Spending a whole day at work without being distracted is practically impossible. So let’s go slowly: it could be 30 minutes, an hour or two. Now mobile free, also silence computer notifications, turn off the TV and, if listening to music, prefer a genre without vocals, such as classical or electronic. Do not open emails and do not reply to messages. This is your time to produce, and the rest can wait. It may be harder for those who have kids at home, but it works!
start with you
Resisting job notifications first thing in the morning isn’t something you’ll get overnight, but gradually it’s possible. Instead of going straight out of bed to the demands, enjoy the early hours of the morning to do something you enjoy: it could be reading a book, exercising, sunbathing, watching a series… the only rule is that it has to be something that gives you pleasure. It’s the Law of First Things that, according to Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, improves mood, mood, and long-term productivity.