Saturday, 25 October 2014

Attention Span, Concentration and Age

Traditionally older people were the ones we fingered as the forgetful or "slow" among us. I have found this to be a generalization though, because I have worked with people in their fifties and sixties who had impeccable memory. Yes, natural aging and reduced brain cell count are inevitable as time passes, but their adverse effects are overrated and I firmly believe our modern lifestyle featuring information overload and multitasking is far more detrimental than any natural process like aging.

We now have data spanning decades which dispels the many generalizations and myths about mental ability and aging. For instance, results from the University of Washington in Seattle showed that middle-aged adults performed better on four out of six cognitive tests than those same individuals did as young adults, says study leader Sherry Willis, PhD.

In fact, it is the millenial generation (those aged between 18 and 34) who are forgetful, more so than people over 55. A Trending Machine national poll revealed that millenials are more likely than those over 55 to forget what day it is (15 percent vs. 7 percent) and where they placed their keys (14 percent vs. 8 percent). It goes without saying that much of this difference is attributable to differences in lifestyle: millenials have more information, less sleep and greater stress levels from a more demanding world.

Fortunately there are simple changes you can put in place to reverse the effects a modern lifestyle has on your mental functioning:

#1: Control your Information Diet

Your brain naturally omits low priority items. Now the more you load it, the more it omits, and invariably important bits of information are also lost in this process. Knowledge is power, but too much of it weighs you down.

Author Tony Schwartz expressed the problem information overload presents with this metaphor: "It’s like having water poured into a glass continuously all day long, so whatever was there at the top has to spill out as the new water comes down. We’re constantly losing the information that’s just come in -- we’re constantly replacing it, and there’s no place to hold what you’ve already gotten. It makes for a very superficial experience; you’ve only got whatever’s in your mind at the moment."

Quite simply, we’re exposing ourselves to too much TV, Internet, busy environments and music. Sometimes these things are unavoidable, but it’s far from unreasonable to unplug from electronic media on a quiet day like Sunday, where you switch off all alerts on your mobile phone, drive without music, and go for a walk instead of watching TV. You will feel alleviated by reducing the load you provide your brain to process.

#2: Sleep

During sleep your brain correlates and stores events and information for the day. If your sleep is disrupted or shortened, the storage process is compromised.

How often do you find yourself fighting to keep your eyes open because you feel compelled to watch a movie or sports game late at night? Is it really imperative to you to know what happens in the end? The answer to that is no, because your life isn’t affected whatever the result is. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t watch and enjoy a good movie or sports game, but just don’t do it at the expense of sleep.

The guidelines are simple: Keep your room dark, maintain the same sleeping hours, and get no less than seven hours of sleep.

#3: Multitask less

We live under the misguided belief that you need to multitask in the 21st century if you are to be productive. All that happens when you multitask however is you do bits of many tasks without completing any of them. There is absolutely no proof that shows you to be more productive when doing many things simultaneously.

It feels like you’re getting a lot of work done when you skip across many tasks only because your cognitive load is increased. You just feel busy, but effectively your rate of output does not increase. What multitasking does do though is increase your stress by forcing the brain to re-orientate itself each time you switch tasks. In the meantime you lose present moment awareness, as you anticipating the next thing you need to do and sporadically jump between jobs. In this process, your concentration span reduces and you unconsciously develop a habit of not completing things you start.

Often you will have many things to do, but plan forward and allocate solid blocks of time to one task at a time. It’s usually a reactive, unplanned response that causes you to stop one thing and start something else. Your productivity is at its best however when you work slowly and deliberately as far as possible, instead of trying to do too much.