‘Attention is a scarce commodity, but we spread it very thinly’

Finishing a book, working for an hour without checking emails or social media: we are less and less good at it. That also suggested The morningjournalist Lotte Beckers. She led the way a new series looking into the question of where this concentration crisis comes from, and what we can do about it (ourselves). ‘Concentration is like a muscle: you have to train it.’

Dieter Bauwens

What inspired you to make this series?

“I noticed a few years ago that the number of hours I spent behind my laptop and the number of hours I actually worked was quite different.

“Or read a book: I used to be able to do that for hours on end, stretched out on the couch. In recent years, however, I was no longer able to do that, because I was constantly reaching for my phone. When I talked about this with friends or colleagues, it turned out to be recognizable for a lot of people. That stuck, and then I started to delve into the theme. The attention crisis turned out to be a real phenomenon, not just with me.”

Has our ability to concentrate really declined as much as we feel?

“You cannot scientifically prove that our ability to concentrate is worse than before because you cannot measure it. At most, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence. What we do know for sure is that there has never been so much distraction as today, and that many people experience it that way.

You already mentioned our phone, which we all seem to have grown into. Are there any other distractions?

“Our phone is a very obvious cause. In addition, the many landscape offices are also extremely bad for our concentration. Many people also noticed this during the corona period, when they had to work from home much more often.

“Research shows that office workers on average spend between 40 seconds and 10 minutes working on a task before being interrupted. This could be because of a message on their phone, chatting colleagues, or because they check their emails or Instagram themselves. We also interrupt ourselves very often. That is because we are no longer trained to concentrate for long periods of time. Because there are so many distractions.

“Concentration is like a muscle: you have to train it. And we do that far too little. We are constantly distracting ourselves, and it also takes a lot of effort to fend off all those stimuli.

“Then there is also such a thing as the attention economy. Our attention is worth money, so it is constantly competed for. There is a lot of advertising: in bus shelters, when you go to the toilet in a café, when you walk past the DPG Media building. Attention is a scarce commodity, but we spread it very thinly. This leaves very little time for the things that really matter: studying courses, reading a relaxing book, a good conversation with a friend.”

Is there a link with the increasing number of burnouts?

“Burnouts are complex phenomena that are not yet fully understood. It is true that our brain hardly ever gets a rest. When we are waiting for the tram or train, almost all of us pick up our phone. Or how many people do you not see sitting in a café or restaurant with their smartphone in their hands all the time. That causes fatigue, because we are constantly processing stimuli. Moreover: if you are constantly distracted, it also leads to stress. Those two things together cause a kind of agitation that we could link to burnout.”

What did you learn while making this sequence? Do you have some useful tips for maintaining concentration?

“I think the best practical tip is to eliminate distractions as much as possible. For example, I no longer have Instagram, Facebook or Twitter on my smartphone. So I have to take my laptop for social media. My mail is somewhere in a tab at the very back of my smartphone.

“When I work, I do it in blocks of time, for example. I set an alarm and set clear tasks for myself: ‘Now I’m going to tap out this tape for an hour’. In the meantime I also turn off my mobile phone, and I close all tabs on my computer so that there is actually nothing that can disturb me. I now work much more structured than before, spend less time behind my computer, but I am just as productive as three years ago. So for me it works.

“What is also important: taking regular breaks. After all, it is nonsense that you can concentrate for eight hours straight. That’s how work is organized, but that’s just not possible. Concentration requires a lot of energy. No one can do that for eight hours straight. So we need to take breaks to just give our heads some rest. As I said: it is like a muscle, you also have to give it a rest.”

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