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Being Distracted in a Digital World

Danielle Bertini

As I sit down to write this blog, my phone, laptop, and iPad all light up and simultaneously ding with notifications. It’s hard to imagine life before our world became dominated with smartphones and other devices that make us so accessible, but more importantly, so easily distracted. Although this constant fragmentation of our time and concentration has become the new normal, more and more experts are telling us that these interruptions might be eroding our ability to concentrate.

In 2002, it was reported that, on average, we experience an interruption every eight minutes. In an eight-hour workday, that is about 60 interruptions. The average interruption takes about five minutes, so that is about five hours out of eight. And if it takes around 15 minutes to resume the interrupted activity at a good level of concentration, this means that we are never concentrating well (Griffey, 2018).

But wait: aren’t humans good at multitasking? The truth is that we are not actually multitasking; rather we are switching rapidly between different activities. Adrenaline and cortisol are designed to support us through bursts of intense activity, but in the long term cortisol can reduce the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which help us feel calm and happy, affecting our sleep and heart rate and making us feel jittery. The fact that we are the cause of this, ironically, is good news since it allows us to change our behavior and reclaim the brain function that has been disrupted. This is important not only for our concentration, but also for our mental health. Psychiatrist Edward Bullmore suggests that constant, high levels of circulating stress hormones have an inflammatory and detrimental affect on brain cells, which he has linked with depression (Griffey, 2018).

So how do we change things? Here are some things you can do (Griffey, 2018):

The “five more” rule: Whenever you feel like quitting, just do five more. For example, five more minutes, five more exercises, five more pages, etc. This will help extend your focus because the rule pushes you just beyond the point of frustration and helps build mental concentration. It’s a form of training as well as being a way of getting something accomplished.
Meditation and focus: Switching off from both external and internal distractions does not come easily. Learning how to be more mindful, practicing mindfulness or meditation, can help facilitate greater concentration because feeling calmer restores equilibrium and focus. The article The Lost Art of Concentration: Being Distracted in a Digital World by Harriet Griffey offers some great meditation exercises.
Physical exercise: For any extended periods of exercise, the engagement of the brain with the body is also an exercise in concentration. Regular exercise also activates the body, which is beneficial for the brain. A Dutch study of children published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport in 2016 showed that interspersing school lessons with a 20-minute stretch of aerobic exercise noticeably improved attention spans in the children that participated.
Sleep: Poor sleep and being chronically tired affects concentration, while also reinforcing those stress hormones to compensate, making it a bit of a vicious circle. One place to start clearing out distraction is in your bedroom, including TVs, computers, and other technology. Although any type of light can inhibit sleep, research has shown that light towards the blue end of the spectrum, which is the light from computer screens, tablets, smartphones, etc., is especially effective at keeping you awake because it stimulates the retina in the eye and inhibits the secretion of melatonin from the pineal gland in the brain.
Reading for pleasure: Many people have noted that reading a book for pleasure no longer works for them. We have become so used to skim reading for fast access to information that the demand of a more sophisticated vocabulary, a complex plot structure or a novel’s length can be difficult to engage with. To help that, read from an actual book, not a screen: screens are too reminiscent of skim reading and just turning pages will slow your pace. Read for long enough to engage your interest, at least 30 minutes.
Digital apps: Ironically, digital apps might actual be helpful in monitoring, managing, or restricting digital time. However, you must also keep in mind that these apps will still keep you connected to your devices. If apps are something that interests you, try these: Moment, Cold Turkey, Stay On Task, Space, and App detox blocker. Newer versions of the iPhone also now include built-in software that can give you a breakdown of your phone usage.


Griffey, H. (2018, October 14). The Lost Art of Concentration: Being Distracted in a Digital World – The Guardian. Retrieved from

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