The Lost Art of Concentration

As some of you may already know I have a thing about mobile phones.  I often cite the research showing that if you leave your phone on the table during a date, you are 30% less likely to get lucky.  The phone is really sitting there saying “you know what, there are lots of things in my life as important or more important than you right now”

This phone intrusion has reached new levels with the proliferation of “notifications” particularly when coupled with the i-watch.  This slick device lets you know when you have new email, text or voicemail of course, but also a new pin on pinterest, a message on whats app or even an imminent rain shower from your considerate weather app.  I find myself constantly turning notifications off on all my devices and never quite winning the war – somehow one or two always get through, an infuriating invasion.

The phone also made some unwelcome appearances on recent holidays.  One memorable moment of my skiing holiday with four friends was at lunch, when they were all hunched over their phones.  I was sitting there looking, I suppose, a little lost and bemused when one turned to me with great pity in their voice and said. “Did you forget to bring your phone?”

This summer I was on the beach with a different group, it was as close to heaven as you could ask for.  Hot with a breeze, wonderful clear water, drinks on tap and the kids splashing about.  I turned to find both of my friends entirely absorbed in their mobile phones.  This set me thinking.  Am I the odd one out here – the luddite who is becoming a stuck phone record or is this a worrying trend?

This further set me thinking about concentration – the act of giving your attention to a single object of activity.  Clearly notifications are a destroyer of concentration, but is concentrating on your phone really concentration?  It turns out that it may be what psychologists call Hyperfocus.  You know what happens when your partner is looking at their phone 2 metres away from you but literally cannot hear what you are saying?  Or when your kids are in front of the TV?  Hyperfocus does shut down all other tasks but is not seen as helpful for mental wellbeing.

The healthier form of concentration is known as flow.  I have written before about the seminal work of Mihaly Csikszentmihályi.    Flow is likely to occur when one is wholeheartedly performing a task for intrinsic purposes.  There are three sets of criteria for flow to be achieved;

  • The task must have a clear set of goals and progress
  • The task must have clear and immediate feedback
  • The task must be challenging but achievable

Not only is flow hugely enjoyable (it is that experience of time flying by) it has the potential to make life more rich, intense and meaningful.

A different type of brain activity is the well named Mind Wandering which is equivalent to our brains “at rest” and happens at least 30% of the time.  This tends to be the hallmark of creative people.   We experience this when are driving on an empty motorway, or more simply when we are day dreaming.

So perhaps a healthy combination of concentration (flow) and mind wandering is the answer for a happy and healthy mind.  My fear is that mobile phones prevent both.

Go Back