The Fight for Focus in the Digital Age: Tools for ADHD
It’s no secret that just about every social media platform including TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, as well as many advertisements and entertainment productions are adopting the model for short bursts of content that are exciting and fast paced. Our brains are wired to experience gradual changes in our experiences and perception, but we live in a time where new and engaging stimulation is littered all over and constantly pulling for our attention. HEY! OVER HERE! KEEP READING! You may have even jumped to this section first because of the text in all caps! This short burst model is like our brains frequently being immersed in Times Square with lights, people, and jumbles of noise all competing for our attention and gradually creating a new threshold for what engages our attention and for how long. This makes it much more difficult to recalibrate our minds to accomplish long, more strenuous and important tasks that may seem dull at the time but often lead to much more gratification and dopamine (which is essentially the feel good chemical in our brain) release. The average attention span is now estimated to be at about a mere 8 seconds, compared to 12 seconds in 2000, which hardly facilitates effective focus throughout our day. This is especially true when it comes time to completing these tasks that we don’t exactly get excited about while those instantly gratifying distractions (mostly available on our phones) are more tempting than ever. So, what can we do to change this and promote the best means for productivity and success?
To start, the most simple yet powerful tool that you’ve probably heard emphasized before is to create a work environment where distractions are hard to reach. Turning your phone off and away from you if you’re able to and silencing any external distractions within your control is the first step. If an extra step or two is required to reach something that gives you instant satisfaction, you’ll be less likely to impulsively engage with it. But even if your work environment is distraction free, what if our mind just can’t stay centered on the task at hand? Here’s a little exercise: try to fixate on one stationary point or object for one full minute without letting your gaze or attention wander. Difficult, right? Even if you didn’t attempt this, it’s exemplified that there is often extreme resistance and a ton of mental energy spent when trying to subdue our impulses and agitation that arise from forcing our attention on something we don’t want to focus on. If we reconceptualize our attention as a mental muscle we have to train, then we can start to challenge ourselves to be hyper aware of when our attention drifts and gently guide it back to the task at hand.
The more times we successfully recognize and guide ourselves back on task, the stronger the corresponding brain regions become and the more satisfied we can feel for overcoming our mental resistance. But just like training any other muscle, there is inevitable fatigue that we just can’t work through. This is why it’s important to be very intentional about setting a specific amount of time dedicated to undistracted work. Studies show that our brain’s ability to focus shifts in about 90 minute cycles known as our ultradian rhythm. Without getting too deep into the scientific literature, there is ample evidence supporting that setting a timer for 90 minutes and committing yourself to stay focused on that task for the duration of that period can promote excellent productivity. Of course there will be moments where your attention wanders and you’re not entirely focused but that’s where mindfulness comes in to notice this and gently shift your focus back to the task at hand. Think of it like running a race. When you know there is a clear end point to your effort, you’re much more motivated to push through and make it to the end. Then you can take the much needed break and give yourself time and space to regroup. If you’re working long hours with no structure or clear end in sight for a break, you’re bound to become more anxious and stressed because you’re not respecting your brain’s demands for rest. This is like continuously running the race with no end point in sight and your pace keeps fluctuating up and down, it’s unsustainable.
Continuing on the notion of respecting our brain and body’s natural rhythms throughout the day, you may be familiar with circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are the natural cycle of physical, mental, and behavior changes that the body goes through in a 24-hour cycle. If we want to enable ourselves to be more effective in our work periods, we have to take into account that in the first 2-4 hours after waking, we are primed to maintain the best levels of focus. This can be further enhanced if we go outside in the morning, ideally within the first half hour of waking. Early light exposure, specifically sunlight and not artificial light, sends the signal to our brains that produces a natural, healthy cortisol spike that makes us alert and energized to start the day. This early light exposure also sets our body’s inherent circadian clock that makes us feel appropriately tired as the evening progresses into night. Understanding and respecting our physiological processes like these is essential to harnessing our best means of reaching success in any domain.
– Justin Supnick