Bye-bye multipasking – it is possible to revitalize the brain's ability to concentrate
Today, our brains are constantly in the midst of an information flood. Especially in knowledge work, everyday life is filled with constant interruptions. The phone rings and a colleague wants to talk again. Soon a smartphone beeps in your pocket. In Yle’s podcast Keskittyminen koronan aikaan (Focusing during the corona period), working life coach Paula Ikonen says she has encountered numerous employees who experience challenges in coping with work tasks precisely because of concentration difficulties.
After moving from the office to working remotely, someone might think it is finally possible to work without interference. But why is it still difficult to concentrate? Your concentration may be disrupted by household chores and possible family responsibilities, after which numerous Teams meetings and other accumulating work tasks should be completed. Multitasking, which in Finnish has suddenly turned into a joke term “multipasking” during the coronavirus pandemic, reflects the phenomenon of our time, where attempts are being made to cope with simultaneous tasks without success. Many of us have had to face the limitations of our concentration during corona time.
The loss of attention may also be explained by the prolonged “fire alarm” state of the brain. Neuroscientist Minna Huotilainen calls a brain fire alarm a condition in which, as a result of interruptions, a person can no longer concentrate even in a peaceful moment but constantly interrupts herself or himself. This situation may sound worrying, and, unfortunately, a surprising number of people are suffering from a brain fire alarm today.
The loss of attention is often blamed on who but yourself. However, this is not necessary, emphasizes working life coach Paula Ikonen. We live in a world of constant interruptions, and our brains naturally react to it.
So, what should you do when you realize that you start to lose focus at work? “The foreperson should look at the situation together with the employer and see what could be done,” says Ikonen. This is good advice, but what about entrepreneurs? A solo entrepreneur is the leader of her/himself and responsible for her/his coping. This is where the risk lies. Paula Noresvuo from the Finnish Mental Health Society Mieli ry says that entrepreneurs are often too good at stretching their coping limits and pushing forward, even if the mind and body are crying out for rest. However, the flip side of stretching yourself is that the mind can no longer concentrate: the view narrows, and attention goes solely to putting out fires.
So, what is the advice? Minna Huotilainen reminds us that you can train your concentration, like muscle or memory. Even if the situation seems hopeless, it is not. The researcher’s message is clear: fewer disturbances. The stream of interruptions accustoms the brain, which the brain then learns to thirst for. By reducing interruptions, you can teach the brain away from this habit. “It may take months to restore attention, but you can revitalize your concentration”, encourages Huotilainen. Noresvuo, on the other hand, says that it would be good to take breaks throughout the day. “Just when you have a hell of a rush, it’s important to take a breath and get perspective on what you’re doing so you don’t crash right into a wall.”
The authors are researchers at the University of Helsinki and work for the EntreFox project. Professor Minna Huotilainen spoke at an EntreFox event in autumn 2019. More on the topic can be found in Minna Huotilainen and Mona Moisala’s book Keskittymiskyvyn elvytysopas.