Procrastinating right now? You're not alone. How we lost our collective ability to concentrate

a woman looking around
How we lost our collective ability to focusblue sky in my pocket - Getty Images

I have a confession – it has taken me around 20 minutes to write this opening sentence. This is not because I’m an agonising perfectionist who ponders every single word - it’s because I’m increasingly distracted by literally anything that isn’t the task at hand. The moment I’m sat at my laptop, fingers hovering over the keys as if to start typing, my brain refuses to engage. I should quickly do the washing up from lunch. Did I reply to that message on Hinge? I think I’ll go and get a cup of tea before I start tackling these emails. Before I know it, I’m woefully behind (sorry, boss).

We are living in the era of distraction. There was once a time where I could read a whole book in one sitting, lazing on the sofa, completely engulfed in a fictional narrative world. I could watch three-hour films without getting up once and tell you in (boring) detail which scenes I loved and why. I could sit and have a tasting menu with my best friends without checking if I had a match on Hinge. Now, I can’t even make it through one 30-minute episode of Peep Show without scrolling through Instagram for no other reason other than to stare mindlessly at people I don’t even like. And the sad thing is, it’s not even unusual – we have accepted this state of constant distraction as normal behaviour.

I’m not alone in my inability to concentrate.In a study by King’s College London’s Centre for Attention, researchers found that 49% of adults surveyed felt that their attention span was shorter than it used to be, and a similar number (47%) agreed that ‘deep thinking’ was a thing of the past. Is the incessant pinging of social media, endless news blasts and instant messaging to blame? Or is something else going on?

There’s certainly mileage in that theory. My well-used iPhone 8 is the culprit of my own concentration deficit. I’ve genuinely got to the point that I can barely complete any task without stopping halfway through to pick up and fiddle with my poxy phone – and for no good reason. I’ll flip between WhatsApp, Hinge, Instagram and the artist formerly known as Twitter to scroll through absolutely nothing ad nauseum. Having it on Do Not Disturb does absolutely nothing for my self-restraint. I’ll pick it up to just stare into the small black mirror of its screen and put it down again, achieving nothing.

Research has shown that the pull of a notification can prove irresistible, causing us to immediately focus our attention on our phones when we receive a notification – even when the notification is set to buzzing rather than audio. And more than that, the mere presence of a mobile phone offers a distraction and impacts task performance, explains Erica Bowen, psychology professor at Nottingham Trent University.

While we battle our phones, it seems our brains are adapting to our newly discovered distracted nature. Dr. Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, measured the decline in our attention spans in her 2023 book: Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity. “In 2004, we measured the average attention on a screen to be 2½ minutes,” Mark explained in an interview with CNN. “In 2011, we found attention spans to be about 75 seconds. Now we find people can only pay attention to one screen for an average of 47 seconds.”

a woman overexposed looking both ways
Martina Rigoli - Getty Images

And of course social media also has a fair amount to answer for. A study conducted by Microsoft found that after just 20 minutes on TikTok, users experienced a "significant decrease" in attention span and working memory. We don’t even have the patience to watch even a full video on TikTok – data from the platform shows the average time users spend on each video is just 3.3 seconds.

But while smart phones and social media are certainly designed to be as addictive as possible, changes to our entire way of working are also having detrimental consequences. While the working from home revolution was welcomed during the pandemic years, it may have resulted in us actually being overstretched with work: A study by Liberty Games shows that 38% of people are working longer hours from home, while 29% admit feeling more stressed when working in the home environment as we can no longer put some space between what we do for a living and where we are actually living. Economic inclemency combined with improved efficiency ushered in with novel digital work systems means that many people working office jobs feel they are actually doing the role of multiple people. In my own work, I am constantly pinballing between the pings of Microsoft Outlook, various Slack channels and numerous other systems. Largely, I pass this off as work-related activities – it’s not procrastinating from the 2,000-word piece I have to file if it is also work! I am just nailing performance-based multi-tasking!

Sonya Barlow, a Londoner in her late twenties also attributes her struggles with focus to being too busy. As well as spearheading her own business, Sonya juggles content creation and presenting, which means she’s always booked up and busy. But despite having so much to do, Sonya finds herself being increasingly distracted; social media, emails and meeting requests break her attention away from focusing on individual tasks. “If you’re a multifaceted individual, you’re expected to show up in so many ways,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK. “When you’ve got so much to do, it’s hard to concentrate on one thing and it’s easy to become more distracted.”

And once we’ve been distracted, it’s harder to get back to work. According to a study titled The Cost Of Interrupted Work, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after flow is broken. Yep, every Slack or Teams DM or Whatsapp in the group chat quick Instagram scroll is costing me nearly half an hour of proper concentration.

While we can input PeRsONaL bOUndArIEs, it’s highly unlikely any of this is going to change. And we can’t regularly switch off emails for a day for some deep focus. Until AI starts fielding all of this for us, are we doomed to a life of distraction? Or, in the words of Troy Bolton, are there things we can do to try and get our head in the game? I pursued the answer by partaking in the tried and tested, scientifically rigorous and journalistic practise of…asking my friends how they stayed focused when I saw them down the pub.

A former colleague of mine swore by the well-trodden pomodoro technique. The tomato-inspired time management method based on 25-minute stretches of focused work broken by five-minute breaks (there’s more on it here) has helped even the most distracted brain stay focused. It makes sense it’s so effective, says Bowen: “It’s important we reward ourselves for periods of task-focused time – it’ll encourage us to keep working for longer periods. It’s also important we take regular breaks. Research shows that multitasking does not work – we increase our errors, take longer and increase our stress when we multi-task.”

But when I gave it a whirl, it seemed to be at odds with the task of writing. When I was finally in the rhythm of a piece, my 25 minutes would be up and I’d be forced to take the five minute break. When I was ready to work again, I’d lost my train of thought, and it took me ages to get back into it. By the end of the first four intervals, I was ready to throw my tomato-shaped timer out the window.

Cosmopolitan UK’s features director Harriet Hall swears by a hand-written to do list to manage to juggle her hectic schedule. “I find bookending my day with a task list really helps. And I live for a fancy notebook and the satisfaction of physically ticking things off.” Despite the world’s shift from analogue to digital, handwritten planners remain popular. There’s a psychological reason for this: a study by professors Baumeister and Masicampo from Wake Forest University showed that, while tasks we haven’t done distract us, just making a plan to get them done can free us from this anxiety. The study observed that people underperform on a task when they are unable to finish a warm-up activity that would usually precede it. However, when participants were allowed to make and note down concrete plans to finish the warm-up activity, performance on the next task substantially improved. They noted: “Simply writing the tasks down will make you more effective.”

abstract woman broken up into piece
Taya Iv / 500px - Getty Images

Influencer Grace Beverley's viral Productivity Method planner, which sold out several times over, cuts your to-do list to: Quick ticks, tasks, projects and non-negotiable items. In her explainer video on YouTube (yes, because learning how to write a list requires an explainer), Beverley says her drive for productivity comes from a place of laziness – she says the reason she’s so productive is because she just wants to get her tasks done efficiently and then be able to spend time on the things she loves.

After I sacked in my Pomodoro clock, I gave a distilled version Beverley’s productivity planner a go. Wile I can’t deny I didn’t get a great sense of satisfaction of ticking a box saying I’d completed a task, and it did help me structure my day, it didn’t actually stop me from being distracted. Knowing I have to do something isn’t enough – I need someone to actually make me do it in the first place.

My best friend Sophie, who is a Barry’s Bootcamp obsessive, says exercise helps her concentrate. Dr Ashleigh Johnstone, Lecturer in Psychology at Arden University, has conducted studies which support these findings.“My previous research has shown that martial arts practice has been associated with benefits in vigilance – the ability to sustain a level of attention,” she tells Cosmopolitan UK. “Our participants often told us that engaging in a training session left them with a level of clear headedness and focus that they struggled to get elsewhere! Similar findings have been reported with mindfulness and yoga.”

After trying various methods, I eventually settle on… listening to house music (this article was made possible thanks to Fatboy Slim’s Boiler Room set). And before you tell me to take off my headphones, there is some science to back this up. In one study, researchers found evidence to suggest that music can engage your brain in such a way that it trains it to pay better attention to events. This may not work for everyone; a 2021 article highlights research that suggests music can worsen performance in reading comprehension tasks compared with performance in silent conditions.

After a week of chatting to friends and colleagues about how they focus and testing out various tried and tested methods to aid my own fair weather focus, I’m close to panicking that our collective focus is dead forever. And then I speak to Dr Johnstone. She explains that emerging psychological schools of thought question whether the moral panic we have about technology rotting our brains is somewhat of an overstatement. “Concentration is a resource, as opposed to one entity,” she tells me. “Some psychologists argue that the human mind is wired for this state of continuous distraction. One study found that we spend around 47% of every waking hour ‘mind wandering’.

“The same study also found that mind wandering has more to do with unhappiness than the activities we engage in, implying that our overall wellbeing will hinder our ability to focus.”

Dr Johnstone argues that it’s not our attention spans that have gotten worse, just that there’s a new glut of distractions we now have to be mindful of – with so many of our devices designed to be distracting.

Dr Johnstone continues: “There’s evidence that a person's ability to pay attention can be improved by progressively pushing the person to higher levels of performance. But it’s important to note that external factors, such as our age, stress levels and the task at hand will always play a part in our concentration levels. This is why our lifestyle – such as the amount of sleep we get, our diet and our exercise routine are the first things we need to maintain in order to help us concentrate better.”

And to some degree, argues Craig Jackson, professor of occupational psychology at Birmingham City University, being unable to concentrate is a self-fulfilling prophecy. “My students seem to think they have short attention spans, thanks to TikTok and memes. But your concentration is better than you think it is,” he tells Cosmopolitan UK. “In order to improve our ability to concentrate, we need to move away from this idea that we can’t focus at all. We wouldn’t have pilots and surgeons if this was the case.”

With the era of intentionally distracting tech unlikely to go anywhere any time soon, it’s reassuring to know our attention spans aren’t completely lost causes when they’re being bombarded with pings and alerts. And perhaps instead of worrying about why we can’t focus or if we will ever be able to get through a TV show without dual screening, we simply need to reframe the situation. While the world is only going to get louder and more distracting, we have the power to claw back our focus because it’s exactly that – ours. We simply need to figure out how to best serve our brains – and acknowledge that sometimes our struggle to focus may be down to increasing distractions, it could also be that we just don’t care that much about the task at hand. Safe in the knowledge I am not losing the ability to concentrate after all, suddenly my own To Do list has become a whole lot clearer.

You Might Also Like