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NU #023 - The Top 4 Cognitive Costs due to Our Lack of Focus & Attention.

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote this tweet (& thread) about attention & hyperactivity.

Since then, I’ve been reading much more about this. It’s something I’ve long been interested in learning more about, so I figured that I’d share some of my new findings here with you.

Did you know that the average college kid in the US can study for an uninterrupted period of only 65 seconds? Did you also know that the average office worker in the US only has the capacity to do 3 minutes of continuous work without interruption? Lastly, the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets just 28 uninterrupted minutes per day? These statistics are hard to read. No wonder we have an ADD / ADHD crisis on our hands!

I’m going to introduce you here to the work of journalist Johann Hari.

This post ( & likely many others to come ) is influenced & inspired by his work. He recently wrote an international best seller: Stolen Focus. Why You Can’t Pay Attention - And How to Think Deeply Again. (The book is killer if you haven’t read it! ) Of course this topic has my full attention because of the work that I do with kids, parents & educators.

I want to highlight the 4 Big Costs of Increased Speed, Time & Filtering that Johann has learned throughout his hundreds of interviews (250+ interviews) with leading researchers from around the world.

Let’s break them down.

Cost #1: The “Switch Cost Effect”.

This first one is simple enough to understand. When we are constantly switching between tasks, our brain needs time to refocus on what we were previously doing. We have to remember what we were doing before we were interrupted and this takes time plus effort. When this happens, the results have proven that our performance drops and so does our efficiency. All of this is due to the fact that we’re switching our task & focus - repeatedly.

Cost #2: The “Screw Up Effect”.

We screw up a lot more than if we were working on one single task at a time without interruption. When we switch tasks frequently, our brain needs to backtrack a little bit and figure out where we left off before the interruption happened. This often causes glitches (think short circuit) to happen and our margin for error increases. We tend to spend more time on correcting our mistakes and backtracking - rather than thinking deeply about one thing.

Cost #3: The Creativity Drain

Multitasking is a myth. Years ago, humans were falsely convinced that “multitasking” was the key to being productive. All the recent data points to how untrue this actually was. Creative ideas come to us when our brains can draw links between two new ideas. In order for this to happen, we need to give our minds free & undistracted time to absorb our findings. This freedom allows us to piece together two ideas and see them together, in a new way that we previously hadn’t seen. A new relationship between two ideas is now formed. If we are constantly switching tasks & working at warp speed, the new connections are not permitted to happen because our brains only have the bandwidth to focus on one thing at a time. Freedom is lost and the likelihood for innovation is low.

Cost #4: The Diminished Memory Effect

This one holds true for me as I approach a big milestone birthday. I know that my memory isn’t as robust as before and my ability to recall information isn’t as fast as it once was. Sometimes, the ability to recall specific details of an event takes a bit more brain power. The research shows that it takes more mental energy and space to convert our human experiences into memory. If we’re spending a lot more time task-switching, we remember less and learn less.


The Lessons Here:

There are a number of solutions that Johann proposes and the most simple one that I’d like to wrap up with is this - we need to find ways to slow down (speed is killing us) and focus only on one thing at a time. How do we do this? There are a multitude of ways that he proposes. The biggest take away in the early chapters is this: “monotasking”. Don’t you just love the simplicity of this? Doing one thing at a time - on purpose and with intention.

So, if we continue down this path of continuous time switching & context switching, the evidence is clear that we will be slower, we’ll make more mistakes, we’ll be less creative and we’ll remember much less of what we’ve done & learned. I don’t know about you, but I’ll be intentionally working more deeply on one task at a time because I understand that it really matters. I’ll also be continuing to share what I’ve learned with the kids & adults who I support. I know that our tasks, activities & environments can be better designed in such a way to achieve this.

That’s all I have for now.

Thanks for reading.

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