In 2013, the National Center for Biotechnology Information conducted a study which found that the average human attention span has dropped to 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. By now, most people have heard of the so-called “goldfish” effect, but why has the average human’s ability to concentrate dropped so precipitously? Does modern society drive us to be distracted? If so, what can we do to be less distracted while cultivating an ability for deep focus.
Many people blame social media for our lack of ability to focus, and for good reason. Content creators and social media platforms constantly fight for our attention. The average human spends 2.5 hours per day on social media and is constantly inundated with the most absurd, attention grabbing, neurologically stimulating videos and news. It’s no wonder people, especially kids, can’t focus when they’re conditioned to respond to endless 30 second, extremely entertaining, videos.
The average TikTok user spends a shocking 1.5 hours on TikTok alone per day. Even more startling than that, the average watch time per video is only 3.3 seconds.
This means that while spending hours on social media, they only have the attention span to watch a video for about 3 seconds before swiping to the next one. It’s no wonder people are so distracted these days. There is also plenty of research to support this phenomena. One study found that social media usage and social media multitasking significantly lowered the average GPA of Chinese university students. Another article found that the number of children who read for fun has declined from 35 percent to a meager 17 per cent. Social media is at the very least partly to blame for this dramatic decrease in human’s ability to focus.
Food and Obesity:
There are some other very important considerations to make when determining why people are so distracted today. One study looking at the connection between ADHD and obesity reported that, “compared with individuals without ADHD, both males and females with ADHD hyperactive impulsive presentation (as per DSM-5 terminology) had significantly higher BMI”. Another study found “that Individuals with childhood ADHD had significantly higher BMI (30.1 ± 6.3 vs. 27.6 ± 3.9) and obesity rates (41.4% vs. 21.6%) than those without childhood ADHD, even after adjusting for socioeconomic status and lifetime mental disorders.” While it’s unclear whether obesity causes ADHD or if ADHD can cause obesity, there is clearly a strong correlation, and that relationship is likely bidirectional.
So what does this mean for the average human, and how can they use this information to be less distracted and even improve deep focus?
Well, the first and most obvious step would be to lose weight and lower total BMI.
The next, and slightly less obvious step would be to improve diet. There are a few key foods and ingredients that can contribute to lack of focus. I will briefly list them below. Conversely, there are a few different types of foods that can help you improve your focus, I will also list them below.
Foods bad for focus:
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Negatively impacts hippocampal function
- Gluten & Folic Acid
- Correlated with ADHD, depression, anxiety, and more.
- Processed Meats, Nitrates, and MSG
- High in glutamates which can negatively impact focus.
- Food dyes
- Pesticides, Herbicides, Fungicides, etc.
- Most vegetables are sprayed with these. Make sure to eat organic and well sourced vegetables as much as you can.
The list goes on and on, but the overall message is simple: don’t eat processed foods. If you struggle with focus, you should really take this seriously. Eliminating these foods and especially all processed foods can make an enormous difference in your ability to focus.
Foods good for focus:
- Foods high in folate
- Eggs, green leafy vegetables, beets, avocado
- Anthocyanins and other flavonoids can greatly benefit focus.
- EPA & DHA
- Eat a variety of seafood
- Foods high in Protein, especially meat
- Always make sure to eat grass fed, well sourced meat.
Again, the list goes on and on, but the primary point is, eat a balanced diet and a wide array of well sourced (sourcing is key) meats, fruits and vegetables. Again, eliminate processed foods, and eliminate non-organic fruits and vegetables.
Sleep is extremely important for focus, if you’re not getting enough sleep or if your REM and deep sleep are for some reason impaired, your focus will suffer enormously. The factors here are so obvious that it’s not worth getting into many of the details at all. If you’re interested in reading more check out this study which discusses how sleep and sleep disordered breathing can have significant negative effects on focus and contribute to ADHD. For more information on how to optimize your sleep, check out this FP article. For information on how addressing your biomechanical dysfunctions can drastically improve sleep, read this FP article.
How to cultivate the ability for deep focus:
Two practices that can really help you focus are reading and mindfulness meditation.
People who are easily distracted, have a tendency to get lost in thought more easily. Thoughts are constantly arising in your brain. People who have an easier time focusing, don't necessarily have less thoughts swirling around (although they might), rather they are very good at simply letting thoughts be without engaging with them. This allows them to continue working on the task at hand without becoming distracted by thoughts, emotions, or external stimulus.
So, how can you cultivate this ability for deep focus?
Well, like so many things, focus is a muscle that you must train. Mindfulness is a great tool you can use to improve your focus.
Practicing mindfulness meditation is simple yet quite challenging. Here is a quick explanation of how to practice mindfulness for developing deep focus:
First, find a comfortable place to sit and set a 10-15 min timer. As you relax, start to become aware of your thoughts. Notice that thoughts independently arise in your consciousness, without you needing to do anything. Especially if you have a strong tendency for distraction, while meditating you will likely become lost in thoughts, often for minutes at a time. When this happens, all you need to do is notice you’ve become lost in thought and simply redirect your attention to observing your thoughts, rather than actively participating in thinking. Allow thoughts to arise into consciousness and pass away, all on their own.
As you develop this skill you can apply it to other areas of your life. You will likely notice a stronger ability to focus and you may even notice a reduction of intrusive thoughts.
Reading is another good way to practice your focus. Reading is very difficult for many people in modern times. It takes a lot of discipline to read and finish a book. Even just reading 10 pages can be psychologically challenging. So many different thoughts, emotions, and external events can arise that draw your attention away from your book.
Start reading more. By slowly building up your capacity to read many pages straight, you can grow your ability to focus.
Again, focus is like a muscle, and developing the ability for deep focus requires time, consistency, and practice. It will not happen overnight and it will not happen without you intentionally improving upon it.
Improving your focus requires a combination of different practices. As with most things there is no one size fits all approach, or a magic bullet solution. But if you take the above practices seriously, you will certainly experience an improvement in focus.