There’s a type of attention that’s required for your brain to be able to focus exclusively on a specific task to completion. It’s called sustained or focused attention and it’s particularly relevant when problem-solving or learning new and complex information.
In the developed world the average human preference for sustaining attention on one task for extended periods of time seems to have decreased in favour of divided attention, also known as multitasking. The result is that the average human brain’s ability to focus on learning and assimilating complex information for extended periods also seems to have decreased. In short, a lot of humans are struggling to learn and find depth of meaning from new and complex information, instead skating superficially across the surface of knowledge. Hence the somewhat critical and circular argument exists as to whether the ‘average’ human is becoming dumber. All the more reason not to settle for being an ‘average’ human!
Think about your own ability to focus and sustain your attention on complex tasks.
How long can you focus for? Are you struggling? Do you find it more difficult than you did a few years, or even months, ago?
The main cause of this decrease in sustained attention is, of course, a certain type of technology. In particular the continual stream of billions of bitesize chunks of information, much of it over-simplified and highly abbreviated or just plain irrelevant, through online feeds and social media streams accessed via our smartphones or ‘popping up’ to invade our computer screens, and our brains.
Considering the ‘average’ person spends 3 to 5 hours a day looking at information on their smartphone, it would seem that rather than focusing on learning one piece of information at a time we subject our brains to a barrage of words, images and sounds that we scroll through rapidly. Our neurons flit distractedly from blogs to vlogs, likes to hates, political platitudes to skimpy outfit selfies, stories on starvation to sex abuse, bigotry to baking, homelessness to happiness memes and opinionated judgements, often in the space of seconds, leading to a state of cognitive overload where there’s little brain energy left to attend to tasks requiring higher, more complex thought processes.
Towards the end of last year I realised that my own ability to sustain my attention on specific tasks and work on projects to completion was seriously compromised. In a nutshell, I was getting nothing done. Even my creativity was suffering. I was struggling to write, to organise my time, finish what I’d started and not a lot was getting crossed off my daily and weekly planners.
So, I removed Facebook and social media apps from my smartphone. I decided not to be the ‘average’ person. I created new motivational monthly and weekly planners and started the new year by setting some serious time-dependent goals for the first 90 days. I’ve switched off autofeeds on my laptop so I’m not distracted by a stream of unnecessary information ‘updates’ popping into the corner of my screen as I’m working and concentrating on tasks to completion.
After a month of not behaving like the ‘average’ person I’ve regained my ability to focus again and I got more done in the first 3 weeks of the year than I used to get done in entire months when I was a Facebook ‘feeder’. Yes, it took some time to get used to and, yes, I think I even had some ‘withdrawal’ symptoms. However, combined with the application of mental discipline I’ve largely stayed away from what had become a daily distraction and a seriously bad habit.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-facebook or anti-social media and I don’t believe anyone should remove it from their lives completely, if they don’t want to. Being on facebook enables me to keep in touch with friends and old work colleagues at the other end of the country as well as on the other side of the world, and that’s a great thing. But it’s made me realise what’s important and how much time I wasted in the past scrolling through trivial nonsense.
As a result of my experience I want to challenge you.
I want to challenge you to regain your ability to focus, concentrate and apply mental discipline so you can be and do your very best, both in your academic life and life in general. I want to challenge you to become far, far more than the ‘average’ person.
So, from today, switch off those autofeeds, reduce the time you spend on social media and scrolling through meaninglessly superficial feeds. Reserve a short amount of time each week to interact meaningfully with the people you use social media to keep in touch with or reach out to, and start regaining your powers of focus, concentration and mental discipline. It may take some effort but then so do all activities that are worth it in the long term.
At certain times of the year your body needs a bit of extra help to stay well to study well. When you start a new course you tend to meet lots of new people and, unfortunately, that means you get exposed to new germs! When you’re under pressure to meet deadlines or you’re experiencing revision and exam stress your immune system also gets put under a lot of stress leaving you more susceptible to viral infections.
There are a couple of chemical-free ‘secret weapons’ that I use daily to keep those dreaded bugs at bay. They can prevent you from falling ill with a virus that leaves you bedridden for days, knocking out your carefully planned study schedule that you were fully in control of.
First, take an acidophilus supplement
If you’re thinking ‘what on earth is that?’ acidophilus is a probiotic type of bacteria that naturally occurs in your gut and can be found in natural yogurt.
The theory is that 70% of the bacteria in your body that support your immune system reside in your gut. Diet, stress and other lifestyle factors can deplete these good bacteria so topping them up in large doses can help you stay healthy. The number of colds I caught reduced dramatically after I started taking acidophilus regularly and I can’t remember the last time I had the flu.
The secret of success to taking acidophilus is in the number of live bacteria you ingest so make sure you check the number on the front of the bottle. The higher the number, the more potent the pills are, so aim for millions, if not billions. The best brand you can buy is Biocare. Other brands do work but Biocare is the leading brand of acidophilus supplements. Shop around to find the cheapest stockist as prices vary. The link above will take you to a very reasonably priced option.
Keep the pills in the fridge to preserve the live bacteria. Start by taking two every day for the first week, preferably in the morning with some yogurt or fruit-based sugar such as jam which will enable the good bacteria to thrive. This will give your immune system a good initial boost so you can then reduce your intake down to 1 pill a day. After a couple of months you could reduce your intake down to 1 capsule every other day but increase it again over the winter months or just before and during your exams.
Take vitamin B and C supplements
If you’re feeling tired a lot of the time and regularly catch viral infections, you probably need to boost your vitamin levels. Vitamins B, C and folic acid are all water soluble which means they are not stored in the body so you must top up your intake regularly to maintain good health. Vitamin C is essential for fighting infection and the seven different forms of vitamin B are essential for metabolic functioning, maintaining healthy functioning of the nervous system, immune system and vital organs in addition to helping the body generate energy. Folic acid, which works in combination with vitamin B12, is essential for your body to form red blood cells.
Hence, if you’re feeling low and ‘drained’ a lot of the time, it’s highly likely that your vitamin B levels are low and drained. I spent years of my life feeling drained and low in energy and, at times, that prevented me from making good progress on the goals I’d set out to achieve. Taking a vitamin B supplement daily boosted my energy to the point where it changed my life as I now regularly wake up before my alarm clock, get up and get more done.
Avoid caffeine and energy drinks (which also contain caffeine)
A large, hot latte or quick cappuccino may provide you with an immediate perk. However, long-term, caffeine depletes your vitamin C stores which you need to fight off germs and viruses, leaving you feeling worse by the end of the day. Look at the list of ingredients of most so-called ‘energy’ drinks and you’ll find near the top is sugar, followed by caffeine, along with a list of chemicals most of which really only belong in a laboratory, not inside your body!
If you need something that will really give you a boost, take some soluble vitamin C with zinc. However, check the ingredients of whichever brand you buy and get one that doesn’t contain aspartame, saccharin or other chemical sugars. Dissolving these in water means your body gets the instant dose of vitamins and minerals it really needs, and you get to increase your water consumption. Eat an apple, banana or some berries to help top up those vital vitamins throughout the day.
Get enough sleep
This may seem like stating the obvious but if you have deadlines looming and you’re getting up early and going to bed late, or even working into the small hours of the morning to get assignments finished, you will become run down. Be conscious of how many late nights you’re putting in and, when you can, take time out to relax and have some down time. Have a lie in or go to bed earlier than usual.
If you struggle to get to sleep because you’re stressed about deadlines, exams or making progress with your studies in general, keep a notebook by your bed and write down your worrying thoughts. Getting the thoughts out of your head is the first step towards dealing with them and it may even help you to think of some solutions as you’re writing. Use some meditation techniques to calm and slow down your body and brain.
Also, accept that sometimes your brain will switch into ‘overactive’ mode, especially if you have multiple deadlines coming up. If you really can’t sleep and feel awake enough to study or work on an assignment, then get out of bed and do it. There’s no rule carved in stone that says you can’t or shouldn’t study in the middle of the night. I’ve suddenly woken up at 5:30am and written the first draft of an essay conclusion. And I sometimes find myself at my desk at 2:30am being quite productive which is the preferred alternative to tossing and turning in bed. Although since I started taking a vitamin B supplement, I sleep better and wake up earlier refreshed and ready for the day ahead.
If you’re really struggling to get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, try a herbal sleep supplement such as Kalms Night and aim to get to bed earlier. Only use these until you start sleeping properly. Try and avoid visiting your GP for sleep problems as they tend to prescribe antidepressants and these are the last thing your brain needs if you want it to function properly at a higher level. If you really can’t sleep and it’s affecting your ability to function, make an appointment with a member of your school/college/university’s welfare team.
Last, but by no means least, breathe properly
Yes, I know you’re breathing right now but most breaths we take during the day as we’re dashing around from place to place are shallow. Living in a city also makes it a challenge to really fill your lungs with clean fresh air.
Take 5 or 10 minutes each day to consciously breathe deep into your lungs. If you can, go and stand outside in a green space somewhere, preferably next to a tree or plant and take a couple of long, deep inhalations through your nose. Or just stand up next to your desk if you can’t get outside.
Put your hands on the lower part of your ribcage, just above your waist, and inhale slowly and gently through your nose for a count of 5, or longer if you can, until you feel your lower ribs expanding and your hands moving out with that expansion. Breathe out by blowing slowly and gently through your mouth to make it a good cleansing breath that completely empties your lungs so your hands move back inwards.
Repeat this 5 to 10 times, or more if you can. If you get dizzy (because your brain isn’t used to having so much oxygen!), stop, sit down or lean against the tree and just breathe normally.
“Breath is the inspiration and blueprint for all movement in life. When we breathe well, fully and deeply, we can move and be well. Every area of our life is affected by how we breathe … The breath’s responsiveness and our awareness of it enable us to thrive in life.” – Jean Hall
Take good care of yourself and stay well to study well.
If you have any questions about any of the above or any other tips that you use to stay well and healthy, I’d love to hear them. Post your comments or questions below or on The Unlocked Learner’s Facebook page.