At the turn of the millennium the average attention span of a functioning adult was a whopping 12 seconds. A scant 13 years later, Microsoft — interested in exploring how the explosion of digital life and connectivity impacts us — found that our attention span had plummeted and hovered somewhere around 8 seconds. That’s a full second less than the attention span of a goldfish (see study here.) So if you’re still reading this, congratulations! That’s slightly more than 8 seconds.
Operating in a non-stop state of busy-ness where digital pings, beeps, or twangs constantly pull at our attention has generated a mind state more akin to a dog walking through a park filled with distractions (squirrel!) than to a professional at work. So, what can we do to address the reality that living in the digital age has produced counterproductive qualities that require attending to?
Mindfulness refers to a quality of attention cultivated by present moment awareness with an open and non-judgmental attitude. In other words, mindfulness is being wherever you are, knowing what’s happening as it happens, and accepting each moment as it unfolds without judgement.
Research has found that those that practice mindfulness for 8 weeks exhibit greater cortical thickness (Hozel et al., 2007) in their prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for such key faculties as attentional control, strategic thinking, and emotion regulation. This area of the brain is the control center for higher order thinking. The fact that mindfulness helps to grow grey matter in this area bodes very well for those interested in improving their focus and overall cognitive capacity.
Mindfulness enhances focus because the very bases of the techniques are rooted in attention. Meditation is an umbrella term for mental training exercises that build skills and help you get to know your own mind. For example, holding your attention on one task for a sustained period of time — the process of “focused attention” meditation — can be directly correlated to neural development in areas of the brain used when we focus (for more information, check out Focus by Daniel Goleman). Have we lost you? Let us explain.
Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not “emptying the mind” to reach a nirvana state of zen where bluebirds fly and rays of light beam down from the heavens. There are many forms of meditation, several of which are based on five simple steps (Malinowski, 2013):
- You pick an anchor to place your attention on (e.g. your breath)
- Your mind wanders, because that’s the nature of the mind
- You notice your mind has wandered (this is referred to as meta-awareness, or awareness of awareness)
- You let go of the thought to where your mind wandered
- You direct your attention back to your anchor
Throughout this process, the idea is to apply a non-judgmental and curious stance, such that when you notice your mind has wandered you can gently guide it back without rebuking yourself (e.g. “You idiot! There you go again, you’re totally not doing this right!”)
When performed correctly the benefits can be fantastic, especially in the workplace. Although there are many beneficial applications of enhanced focus, consider these two examples:
Mistakes are an inescapable component of everyday life. Errors related to attention have been studied by researchers with tests that measure “attentional blink”, a tiny gap that occurs when we switch our focus from one thing to another. There is an increasing body of evidence that supports mindfulness mitigating the downfalls of attentional blink. One study compared a mindfulness conditioning regimen (participants committed to a 3-month intensive mindfulness retreat) against a no treatment control group to find that those who attended the retreat showed significant decreases in the impact of attentional blink (Slatger et al., 2007) compared to the control group.
Not surprisingly, as our days are filled with many tasks that we attempt to work on simultaneously, our attention literally blinks when we multi-task, or even so much as change the direction of our thoughts (e.g. work…work….is it lunch time?.. work…). This leaves us vulnerable to error. The ability to focus on one task for extended periods of time can lead to greater quality and enhanced productivity — two compelling reasons to learn more about mindfulness.
Imagine getting into a spat with your partner, colleague or boss and then sitting at your desk. How productive will you be as you fume over the conversation that just happened?
When our emotions are running high, it becomes extremely hard to focus. This is because emotions and thoughts are processed along the same neural pathways. To compound the problem, we’re genetically wired to allow emotions to have processing priority over cognition due to evolutionary requirements of the early caveman days where responding to our emotional signals increased our chances for survival (e.g. run, a sabre tooth tiger!)
Incorporating a mindfulness practice into a routine has been empirically shown to enhance our capability to regulate our emotions so that we can calm ourselves down and focus more clearly on the task at hand. One study found that participants who practiced mindfulness consistently increased their working memory capacity (which is responsible for managing cognitive demands and emotion regulation) suggesting that mindfulness may protect against the cognitive impairments that occur in high stress environments (Jha et al., 2010).
Leveraging mindfulness to enhance focus is a practice that many high-level individuals employ. From Olympians and high-level military personnel, to professionals in all types of disciplines, there are ways to train, improve and build your capacity for sustained concentration.
The two benefits above are just a drop in the goldfish bowl.
To learn more, join us in our exploration of Mindfulness for Tech for meetups and live streaming events.
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Hölzel, B. K., Ott, U., Hempel, H., Hackl, A., Wolf, K., Stark, R., & Vaitl, D. (2007). Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Neuroscience Letters,421(1), 16–21.
Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. New York: A&C Black.
Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10(1), 54.
Malinowski, P. (2013). Neural mechanisms of attentional control in mindfulness meditation. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7.
Slagter, H. A., Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Francis, A. D., Nieuwenhuis, S., Davis, J. M., & Davidson, R. J. (2007). Mental training affects distribution of limited brain resources. PLoS biology, 5(6), e138.