Last night I was putting together a proposal for a client. It took me four hours – start to end. Agreed, it needed to be customised, but I couldn’t help noticing the innumerable messages and mails that kept bombarding into my life uninvited.

It got me thinking about attention spans, focus and distractions. It turns out, I am not alone. Research shows interruptions occur about every twelve minutes in the workplace. In an age of constant digital interruptions, it is no wonder I am having trouble ignoring distractions.

Attention isn’t as simple as it seems. In fact, paying attention involves two separate functions:

  • “enhancement” (our ability to focus on things that matter) and
  • “suppression” (our ability to ignore the things that don’t).

Interestingly, enhancement and suppression are not opposites, they are distinct processes in the brain. They are run by two different networks in the brain – each of which is critical for attention. If either of these brain processes is impaired, we lose focus. For example: we struggle with attention when we are tired, drunk, and, most notably, as we age.

Older adults are biologically more distractible than young adults. Research demonstrates that our attention capacity peaks near age twenty and diminishes over time. Researchers have also figured that age-related declines are caused by a deficit in the suppression (ignoring) process.

“Our main finding in this study was that, interestingly, older adults [focus on] relevant information as well as twenty-year-olds. Where older adults suffered a deficit was in suppressing the irrelevant information. We discovered that their main attentional issue was that they are more distractible than younger adults.”

The attentional decline we experience as we age has more to do with our inability to filter out distractions, not our lack of concentration. If you think it’s hard to pay attention now, just wait until you age a few more years. On a lighter note, this also explains the long arduous meetings that we sometimes have especially when we meet senior folks – conversations are long, passing though several instances which may not have relevance and takes a long time to get back to the conversation highway.

Another interesting research about avoiding distractions is got to do with an age – old habit which all of us have. Have you ever noticed how we close our eyes when are trying to remember something? Interestingly, closing our eyes to remember is not just a habit.

When our eyes are closed, our brain doesn’t need to work hard to filter out visual information. Instead of struggling to ignore everything in your field of view, our brain can devote more attention towards scanning our memory. Researcher Gazzaley conducted an experiment to see what type of visual information is the most distracting. He and his team asked volunteers to remember details while looking at one of three visual scenes: a plain grey screen, a busy picture, or with their eyes closed. The results of this experiment revealed that their ability to remember details was significantly diminished when their eyes were open and there was a picture in front of them, compared to either their eyes being shut, or their eyes being open while they faced a grey screen.

To improve our ability to pay attention, we need to both remove distraction (especially as we age) as well as boost our capability to focus on one task at a time. Many app based games seem to have established direct correlation to improvement in focus and the number of hours of play. It is like exercising your muscles at the gym. Perhaps it’s time, we looked at enrolling ourselves into mind gyms otherwise, what takes 15 minutes to complete may very well consume a couple of hours to finish.

This Ganesh Chaturthi, may Lord Ganesha bless you in staying sharp and focussed!

I would be happy to share more information on how we can help your teams focus better and avoid distractions. Able Ventures team of more than 150 trainers, facilitators and assessors across the country are empaneled after a rigorous selection process. Our services are valued by over 50 clients – because of our ability to understand business challenges and provide scalable solutions across the length and breadth of Indian sub-continent. Do write in to know more –