The pandemic has destroyed our attention spans, here's how to regain focus
This time last year when we had taken our first tentative steps into lockdown we had grand plans for how we were going to fill our time: Learning a language, taking up a new hobby or even writing that novel we've always wanted to.
Fast forward 12 months and we've struggled to even finish reading a book, let alone managed to write one.
The problem, it seems, is that we've lost our ability to focus on anything at all.
Even scrolling social media is a struggle these days, as our increasingly short attention span makes it hard to concentrate on things that used to be simple every day tasks.
So what's going on? Why have our attention spans taken such a hit lately?
The unpredictable nature of the past year has contributed to our lack of focus, according to Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of mental health and self-development platform Remente.
Watch: Learn how to shift your mindset
"As the UK looks back on a full year of COVID-19-related lockdowns and restrictions, many may find that their attention span has diminished, or that they are struggling to focus or concentrate on the smallest things," he explains.
"Throughout the pandemic, we have been in a continuous state of flux, with restrictions and measures frequently changing.
"This unpredictability may be causing many to be feeling rather flummoxed by the fact that we are unable to plan, or even maintain a regular routine, resulting in a cyclical situation of stress and worry.
Read more: Pandemic diary of a child psychologist
"The inability to form plans and create routines has also left many people often feeling overwhelmed by the simplest of situations, which is a natural coping mechanism as the body goes into survival mode," Eék continues.
"The long-term implications of which can, however, result in heightened stress levels and an inability to focus."
Eék says stress can be one of the biggest causes of a muddled mind.
"Prolonged feelings of stress may lead to the overproduction of the hormone cortisol," he explains. "This can have a negative impact on our ability to think straight and remember pieces of information."
Our increased reliance on technology may have also played a part in the destruction of our attention spans.
"In my opinion, it’s not necessarily the lockdown/pandemic that has affected our attention span, it’s the over use of screens - smart phones, social media, computer gaming, TV, laptops and so on," explains Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, psychologist, author and founder of The Village.
"It’s the 'psychology of the mind' behind all of these to make sure we are coming back to the screen. The over-stimulation creates a FOMO effect, training our brains to seek fast stimulation."
Watch: How to improve your sleep
Dr Ben-Ari says that spending an increased amount of time looking at screens becomes an addictive behaviour which can have a knock-on impact on our focus.
"We crave immediate gratification rather than staying, imagining, concentrating, reflecting, wondering, or just ‘being’ without ‘doing’," she explains.
In addition to constant notifications pulling our focus, Dr Ben-Ari says even just the presence of a phone can interfere with our concentration.
"There is evidence to show that concentration is lower when our phone is in the room, even if it’s on silent," she explains.
"It’s like our mind is worried about missing out, if we don’t see an Insta post or a text, we will miss out on something hugely important. The problem is that this is a vicious cycle - the more you use social media/apps etc, the more your brain seeks this kind of stimulation."
Read more: Here's how to help a young person struggling with anxiety
Being on technology from dawn til dusk is playing havoc with our stress levels, which will have a knock on impact on our ability to concentrate.
"Whether for work, pleasure or simply to pass the time, research shows that digital overload can contribute to increased feelings of stress and anxiety, therefore impacting our ability to concentrate when needed," Eék explains.
"Constant news updates, notifications, and messages throughout the day can all cause our bodies to produce more of the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, which can, in turn, cause nervousness, anxiety, and restlessness.
"The barrage of news about the pandemic that we get through our phones and screens can also cause or worsen feelings of stress and anxiety."
Digital devices give us access to an almost infinite amount of information, which can lead us down the dangerous path of getting caught up in a continuous stream of negative news and articles, also known as ‘doom scrolling’.
"Research has shown us that digital overload can contribute to increased feelings of stress, as a constant barrage of negative news can cause our bodies to produce more of the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, eventually leaving us feeling overwhelmed and unable to think straight," Eék explains.
How to regain your focus
The good news is, there are some steps we can take to combat attention span zapping stress and reduce our exposure to technology.
To rebuild your attention span and regain your ability to focus, try the following:
Get back into a routine
A steady daily routine is important, according to Eék, as it can provide you with some sort of normality in an otherwise uncertain time.
"These routines don’t necessarily need to look like the ones you would normally follow outside of lockdown," he says.
"Creating small routines in your day, like getting up and dressed at the same time each morning, or eating meals at set times, can be one way to create a structure for the day, leaving you feeling less aimless and more positive."
Create 'quiet time' away from technology
Take some time-out from the tech, to jump start your focus. "For example, as people cannot take their phones to the shower, this becomes the only place to break from screens," explains Dr Ben-Ari. "This is also a place where people reflect and find solutions and creativity to solve problems or dilemmas."
Dr Ben-Ari suggests taking all screens out of the bedroom. "Leaving your bedroom a ‘tech free space’ will not only improve your sleep quality but also improve your concentration," she explains.
"Try reading a book before falling asleep instead. Your energy levels the next day should improve."
Eék also suggests setting aside some time in your day where you put your phone away or avoid screens entirely can help your brain recover from the stresses of the day.
"Reducing exposure to external stressors in your day will help you to gain mental clarity," he adds.
Pause and take a deep breath
As we've seen, stress is likely one of the reasons why we are feeling a little hazy right now. "When you are feeling stressed, breathing techniques can be a simple but effective way to focus on the task at hand, enabling you to continue with more mental clarity," Eék explains.
"Practising breathing exercises at different times throughout the day, or in the moments you find yourself feeling really overwhelmed, can calm your mind, reduce stress and help you to find more focus."
Read more: UK slips down global happiness rankings with mental health a 'COVID casualty'
Set yourself goals
It is easy to get bogged down with feelings of stress and frustration when you cannot concentrate or focus properly.
"Goal setting can be a great way to help manage how we react to the world around us and, in turn, put us more at ease," Eék explains.
"While never-ending to-do lists can seem daunting, and leave us feeling a little overwhelmed, setting yourself achievable goals throughout the day can be a great way to help focus the mind, and reduce stress, enabling you to concentrate on the task at hand without losing focus and procrastinating."
Know that it’s okay to seek help
If you are feeling continuously stressed and overwhelmed, or find that you are struggling to cope, seek help from your GP.
"Maintaining good mental health is as important as maintaining good physical health," Eék says. "You can also look to websites and mental health charities that are there to help, such as Anxiety UK, Mind or Rethink Mental Illness for additional resources."
Watch: Ease stress and anxiety with this DIY reflexology treatment