What to do when you can’t focus and feel constantly distracted

distracted

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If there’s one complaint I hear over and over again from almost everyone I talk to — from clients to course participants to friends and family — it’s this:

“I’m so TIRED.”

In the contexts I’m hearing it in, “tired” can mean a ton of different things: fatigued, drained, anxious, overwhelmed, unfocused, lethargic, blue, depressed, unmotivated, distracted, frayed, and harried.

Our brains and bodies are undoubtedly fried. But because almost everyone feels this way to some degree, not many people are questioning it. We assume this is normal — that this is just how people are.

Except … it’s not normal at ALL. And I did some digging to prove it.

YOUR BRAIN LITERALLY CAN’T EVEN WITH THIS

Last night a client was sharing how she felt so tired, overwhelmed, anxious and distracted all the time, and instead of cutting herself some slack, she said: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I like this?”

And in an impatient, tough-love sort of way, I just wasn’t having it. I said:

“Listen! It’s no wonder you feel fried. You — and the rest of us — are processing an unimaginable amount of information every day. I bet our brains are having to work SO much harder than they ever did a couple hundred years ago. I seriously doubt our brains have evolved to catch up with what we’re putting them through. So of COURSE you feel this way!”

I got curious after that, and it turns out I was on to something:

According to Daniel J. Levitin, a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist, our brains have not evolved to catch up with the speed of information we’re expected to process.

In fact, In 2011 Americans took in five times more information than we did 25 years earlier, in 1986. Imagine how much more we’re taking in today, in 2018!

Here’s a zinger from his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload: “Neurons are living cells with a metabolism; they need oxygen and glucose to survive, and when they’ve been working hard, we experience fatigue. Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport, or how best to reconcile with a close friend you just had an argument with.”

WE ADJUST SO QUICKLY THAT WE’VE FORGOTTEN THIS ISN’T NORMAL

It seems like we’ve come a long way, but on a biological level our brains are the same as they were hundreds (and thousands) of years ago.

Think about it — 200 years ago, a middle class person might have access to a small library of books. They spent time reading and writing letters. They might also read a daily or weekly newspaper. For entertainment they played music and card games with their family.

And before that — before the printing press made mass publishing possible — hardly anyone but the wealthiest people at the top could even read or write.

And think about the number of people you would have been exposed to back then. Some people might have only encountered a thousand other humans in their whole life.

Nowadays you can pass that many people in 30 minutes on any major street, in any big city.

Daniel Levitin says that the processing capacity of the mind is about 120 bits per second, or the equivalent of two people trying to talk to you at the same time.

So, if having our conscious attention split two ways is the most we’re capable of processing, is it surprising that we’re almost literally overheating our brains? I’m pretty sure most of us feel like our attention is split in at least 20 different ways in any given minute!

AND WE WONDER WHY WE’RE FRIED

Not only is it normal that you’re fatigued, it would be a miracle if you lived in this culture and didn’t feel that way, to some degree. We’re literally being barraged by data from all sides, with no breaks.

And do you know what else happens when you’re that tired and stretched too thin?

Your mental health starts to suffer.

Have you ever hung out with an over-tired toddler before? You know how they reach a point where they’re so burnt out that they have an absolutely epic emotional breakdown?

Well, in the case of a toddler, you can (with a good deal of tears and wrangling) force them to go to sleep. And usually they wake up happy. Problem solved!

I think a lot of us ARE that over-tired toddler, with one big exception: Because we’ve got a lot more responsibilities to take care of and information to process, we never get a reset.

We’re stretched so thin that we’re constantly running on empty and this close to an emotional breakdown of some kind or other.

And the stats back this up, too. I was pretty astounded to read that the CDC reported that between 1999 and 2014, regular use of anti-depressants rose by 65%.

Listen, I’m not a scientist. I know that correlation does not always imply causation. But I have a good deal of common sense, and I can’t ignore that:

If it’s true that use of anti-depressants skyrocketed over the same period of time that our intake of information also skyrocketed — particularly during that time where literally everyone got access to a cell phone and the Internet — might there possibly be a connection there?

I’ll let you decide. But personally, I’ve heard enough to be persuaded. And I’m ready to give my brain a break.

IT’S TIME TO SERIOUSLY PULL BACK ON THE INFORMATION OVERLOAD

I think the stats I’ve found prove that we can all benefit from being WAY more intentional about the information we’re allowing into our system.

It’s time to cull and curate, and I’ve got some ideas for how we can get started:

  • Pick ONE social media platform and delete the rest. I personally stopped logging in to Facebook and Twitter years ago, and I’ve never missed them.
  • Delete apps from your phone. If you still want to have Facebook but don’t want to be checking it all the time, delete the app and check it on your actual computer.
  • Turn off notifications. The only notifications I get are calls and texts. Apps, news, and everything else don’t get to interrupt me.
  • Unsubscribe from almost everything. I get VERY few newsletters in my inbox. I’m hearing from the people I follow religiously, and no one else.
  • Curate your podcasts. Anyone you don’t listen to regularly, unsubscribe. You can still check their feed once in a while if you feel inclined.
  • Be intentional about your TV viewing. Don’t just have it on in the background. If you’re going to watch something, watch it. And not while you’re also scrolling mindlessly on your phone! Be there fully, or don’t be there at all.
  • Take breaks and create space to do nothing. We desperately need time in our day where we’re processing as little information as possible. That’s why meditation is so good for you, and why taking a walk in nature is so restorative.
  • Exercise regularly. Not only is it obviously good for your body, but you can’t be scrolling on your phone while doing yoga or cycling.
  • Have limits on time spent working. If I work for more than 2 hours straight, I can feel myself getting frayed and mentally drained. Taking a break lets me refuel and allows me to be more productive later. “Pushing through” the fatigue only ensures a breakdown later on.
  • Cut the social obligations. We’re all juggling way too many events and activities out of obligation and guilt rather than true desire. Commit to things that you actually want to be at, and start bowing out gracefully from almost everything that doesn’t fall into that category.

So, here’s the bottom line:

Information overload isn’t harmless. Everything we’re allowing in is straining our resources that much more. Asking ourselves whether it’s really worth the expense of energy — and the potential fatigue and anxiety it may cost us — is a form of self-preservation that has got to become a habit.

These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. There are countless things we could do to limit our information intake, and I’d love to hear YOUR ideas. Come share with me in the comments below.

IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN YOU’LL ALSO LOVE…

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Much Love,

Rachel (& Kristen)

10 Comments // ADD COMMENT

10 comments

  • TravisBundrick

    Great ideas and very much needed. I am a believer of the simple life, but have allowed too much info to start entering my mind due to FB, etc. Usually, it is because of my job…but because of this blog, I can and will cut down on it for sure. Thanks!

  • Steph

    How do you tune out information outside of your control? Like for example, my work place has music playing in the background, emails coming at you, and someone asking for soemthing. And my office is an unusally relaxed office considering have have work in a few different ones. Then when I get home my roomates have the TV on. The only quiet I get is in the car to and from work, with no radio on. Its my 25 mins 2x a day of quiet time. Is that enough though?

    • Rachel East

      Good question, Steph! I think a lot of us struggle with information that’s outside our control. It’s frustrating! So, if you have a relaxed work environment, I wonder if anyone would care if you started wearing noise-canceling headphones sometimes while you worked? If you’re tired of people interrupting you, are there conference rooms or other spaces you can escape to in order to give yourself some quiet, uninterrupted time? Do you take breaks during the day to go outside or walk around the building, even? As far as emails go, it might be a good idea to have times where you literally don’t check emails. Blocking off a set amount of time to focus solely on emails can be really helpful, rather than letting them distract you constantly. Just a few ideas! Hope they help. 🙂

  • Kelly

    I couldn’t agree more with the insights and suggestions in this blog post! I’ve done a lot of what you suggested like deleting Facebook and unsubscribing and have gotten a lot of relief. It’s freeing and calms your mind. I try to only let things in that I have a genuine interest in or that make me happy! Great post! I’ve also recently been seeing movements encouraging people to “unplug” on certain days. So, we are definitely all feeling it to some degree!

    • Rachel East

      I agree that deleting and unsubscribing is super freeing! And I think we should all have mandatory “unplugged” hours, if you ask me. 😉

  • Matt

    The topic you’ve addressed here has been something I’ve been observing not only in my personal life, but also in my career. I work as an electronics and computer science engineer. I feel confident in claiming that in no other profession has the exponential increase in complexity been more prevalent than in the tech industry. In order to work with current microprocessors it’s common to need to absorb over 1,000 pages of information. And that’s just for one part. Additionally, engineers are expected to become experts on many such devices at once, and not only the devices themselves, but the myriad of standards and technologies that interconnect them. Tech reinvents itself almost daily, so no matter how much you learn, you’re only months away from being behind the curve. I’ve often wondered, at what point will the human mind simply no longer be able to cope with complexity of that ever increasing magnitude. Your observation that the human brain has remained basically the same while the quantity and complexity of information it must process has increased so dramatically in such a short period of time is such an important insight. The laws of nature, economics and virtually any context you can identify all demonstrate that exponential growth is unsustainable. Once the curve goes vertical, it’s just a matter of time until it collapses. I hope that at some point, we can find a humanitarian solution for the current expectation that we are all expected to have limitless capacity for processing ever increasing amounts of information at ever increasing speeds. And somehow, simultaneously, we’re supposed to be able to live mentally healthy, socially healthy, physically healthy well balanced lives? Anyway… Thanks for bringing attention to this very relevant challenge and for suggesting some things that can help.

    • Rachel East

      This is a great comment, Matt! I agree so much with your point that exponential growth is unsustainable, and that we’re fast-approaching a wall. It’s odd that this isn’t something more people are talking about, but I hope that those of us who care about this can start the conversation in our own circles!

  • Reilly

    I love this blog post so much! I really like the connection you made between information overload and health, and I don’t think people are talking about this enough. My efforts to stay off my cell phone and Facebook as much as possible have made me a happier and calmer person. When you’re just scrolling for hours, looking at memes, political posts, and people’s baby pictures, it becomes a huge waste of time and mental energy. It’s so pointless. You’re right- it’s definitely not normal to constantly be exhausted and operating at half-speed, and there are serious health consequences that come from consuming too much information.