Driven to distraction: Have we lost the ability to focus on a single task?

Daniel Goleman thinks so. Here, the bestselling science writer argues that we've become a species crippled by distraction and looks at new techniques to help wean children – and adults - off their phones and consoles

The little girl's head only came up to her mother's waist as she hugged her mum, and held on fiercely as they rode a ferry to a holiday island. The mother, though, didn't respond to her, or even seem to notice: she was absorbed in her iPad all the while.

There was a reprise a few minutes later, as I was getting into a shared taxi van with nine female students who that night were journeying to a weekend getaway. Within a minute of taking their seats in the dark van, dim lights flicked on as every one of the women checked an iPhone or tablet. Desultory conversations sputtered along while they texted or scrolled through Facebook. But mostly there was silence.

The indifference of that mother, and the silence among the students, are symptoms of how technology captures our attention and disrupts our connections. In 2006, the word 'pizzled' entered our lexicon; a combination of puzzled and pissed, it captured the feeling people had when the person they were with whipped out their BlackBerry and started talking to someone else. Back then people felt hurt and indignant in such moments.

Today it's the norm. Teens, the vanguard of our future, are the epicentre. In the early years of this decade their text message monthly count soared to 3,417, double the number just a few years earlier. Meanwhile their time on the phone dropped. The average American teen gets and sends more than a hundred texts a day, about 10 every waking hour. I've seen a kid texting while he rode his bike.

A friend reports, "I visited some cousins in New Jersey recently and their kids had every electronic gadget known to man. All I ever saw were the tops of their heads. They were constantly checking their iPhones for who had texted them, what had updated on Facebook, or they were lost in some video game. They're totally unaware of what's happening around them and clueless how to interact with someone for any length of time."

Today's children are growing up in a new reality, one where they are attuning more to machines and less to people than has ever been true in human history. That's troubling for several reasons. For one, the social and emotional circuitry of a child's brain learns from contact and conversation with everyone it encounters over the course of a day. These interactions mould brain circuitry; the fewer hours spent with people – and the more staring at a digitised screen – portends deficits.

Digital engagement comes at a cost in face time with real people – the medium where we learn to 'read' non-verbals. The new crop of natives in this digital world may be adroit at the keyboard, but they can be all thumbs when it comes to reading behaviour face-to-face, in real time – particularly in sensing the dismay of others when they stop to read a text in the middle of talking with them.

A college student observes the loneliness and isolation that goes along with living in a virtual world of tweets, status updates and "posting pictures of my dinner". He notes that his classmates are losing their ability for conversation, let alone the soul-searching discussions that can enrich the college years. And, he says, "no birthday, concert, hang-out session, or party can be enjoyed without taking the time to distance yourself from what you are doing" to make sure that those in your digital world know instantly how much fun you are having.

Then there are the basics of attention, the cognitive muscle that lets us follow a story, see a task through to the end, learn, or create.

In some ways, as we'll see, the endless hours young people spend staring at electronic gadgets may help them acquire specific cognitive skills. But there are concerns and questions about how those same hours may lead to deficits in core mental skills.

An eighth-grade teacher tells me that for many years she has had successive classes of students read the same book, Edith Hamilton's Mythology. Her students have loved it – until five years or so ago. "I started to see kids not so excited – even high-achieving groups could not get engaged with it," she told me. "They say the reading is too hard; the sentences are too complicated; it takes a long time to read a page."

She wonders if perhaps her students' ability to read has been somehow compromised by the short, choppy messages they get in texts. One student confessed he'd spent two thousand hours in the past year playing video games. She adds, "It's hard to teach comma rules when you are competing with World of WarCraft."

At the extremes, Taiwan, Korea, and other Asian countries see internet addiction – to gaming, social media, virtual realities – among the youth as a national health crisis, isolating the young. Around 8 per cent of American gamers between ages eight and 18 seem to meet psychiatry's diagnostic criteria for addiction; brain studies reveal changes in their neural reward system while they game that are akin to those found in alcoholics and drug abusers.

Occasional horror stories tell of addicted gamers who sleep all day and game all night, rarely stop to eat or clean themselves, and even get violent when family members try to stop them.

Rapport demands joint attention – mutual focus. Our need to make an effort to have such human moments has never been greater, given the ocean of distractions we all navigate daily.

Then there are the costs of attention decline among adults. In Mexico, an advertising rep for a large radio network complains, "A few years ago you could make a five-minute video for your presentation at an ad agency. Today you have to keep it to a minute and a half. If you don't grab them by then, everyone starts checking for messages."

A college professor who teaches film tells me he's reading a biography of one of his heroes, the legendary French director François Truffaut. But, he finds, "I can't read more than two pages at a stretch. I get this overwhelming urge to go online and see if I have a new email. I think I'm losing my ability to sustain concentration on anything serious."

The inability to resist checking email or Facebook rather than focus on the person talking to us leads to what the sociologist Erving Goffman, a masterful observer of social interaction, called an 'away', a gesture that tells another person "I'm not interested" in what's going on here and now.

At the third All Things D(igital) conference back in 2005, the hosts unplugged the Wi-Fi in the main ballroom because of the glow from laptop screens, indicating that those in the audience were not glued to the action onstage. They were away, in a state, as one participant put it, of "continuous partial attention", a mental blurriness induced by an overload of information inputs from the speakers, the other people in the room, and what they were doing on their laptops. To battle such partial focus today, some Silicon Valley workplaces have banned laptops, mobile phones, and other digital tools during meetings.

After not checking her mobile for a while, a publishing executive confesses she gets "a jangly feeling. You miss that hit you get when there's a text. You know it's not right to check your phone when you're with someone, but it's addictive." So she and her husband have a pact: "When we get home from work we put our phones in a drawer. If it's in front of me I get anxious; I've just got to check it. But now we try to be more present for each other. We talk."

Our focus continually fights distractions, both inner and outer. The question is, what are our distractors costing us? An executive at a financial firm tells me, "When I notice that my mind has been somewhere else during a meeting, I wonder what opportunities I've been missing right here."

Patients are telling a doctor I know that they are "self-medicating" with drugs for attention deficit disorder or narcolepsy to keep up with their work. A lawyer tells him, "If I didn't take this, I couldn't read contracts". Once patients needed a diagnosis for such prescriptions; now, for many, those medications have become routine performance enhancers.

Growing numbers of teenagers are faking symptoms of attention deficit to get prescriptions for stimulants, a chemical route to attentiveness. And Tony Schwartz, a consultant who coaches leaders on how to best manage their energy, tells me, "We get people to become more aware of how they use attention – which is always poorly. Attention is now the number-one issue on the minds of our clients."

The onslaught of incoming data leads to sloppy short-cuts, like triaging email by heading, skipping much of voicemails, skimming messages and memos. It's not just that we've developed habits of attention that make us less effective, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what they really mean. All of this was foreseen way back in 1977 by the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon. Writing about the coming information-rich world, he warned that what information consumes is "the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention."

Simon says 'pay attention': How kids can be taught to focus

The pink pigs won out over the purple donkeys, white tigers and yellow doggies among the second-graders in room 302, the day I visited PS 112, an early elementary school huddled next to the FDR Expressway in New York City's Spanish Harlem. With their favourite little stuffed animal in hand, each child found a place to lie down, and placed the animal on their belly. Then they listened to a taped voice leading them through some relaxing stretches and deep belly breathing while they counted "one, two, three" to themselves on each inhalation and exhalation.

The daily session, one of the classroom's co-teachers Emily Hoaldridge told me, makes the children more focused and calm through the rest of the school day. I found that all the more remarkable when I learnt that half these second-graders had special needs ranging from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to the autism spectrum. The fragility of that calm clarity was brought home once, when scheduling glitches led to them skipping the session. "They couldn't sit still – they were all over the place," she told me.

Special problems aside, the young (like just about everyone else) seem ever-more distracted from the people around them and from their schoolwork by the enticements of technology, as their ability to pay attention faces a barrage of texts, updates, Instagrams and the like. That onslaught impacts the brain's prefrontal circuitry for managing attention, neuronal networks that develop from birth onward into the twenties.

The more time kids spend sustaining attention and resisting distraction, the more connected and extensive those circuits grow. By the same token, the more often they give in to the temptations of their tech toys – or other distractions – the less so.

The benefits of a healthy attention circuitry were highlighted in a 2011 study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, of children in New Zealand who were rigorously tested during their elementary school year for 'cognitive control' – the technical name for being able to ignore that enticing text or video game and do your homework first. When the 1,037 students (every child born in the city of Dunedin over a 12-month stretch) were tracked down in their early thirties, their childhood level of cognitive control predicted their adult financial success and their health better than did their IQ or the wealth of their family of origin.

In August of this year, a Stanford study of American students reported the same effect. Thousands of eighth-grade boys were evaluated by their teachers on proxies for a lack of cognitive control, like being disruptive in class, inattention, and not finishing their homework. The fewer such problems, the higher was their income in their mid- twenties. Against expectation, the eighth grader's achievement test scores did not correlate with their later financial status (the one exception was for the small sub-group that earnt a graduate degree).

The good news from the New Zealand data: those children whose cognitive control improved during their childhood years fared as well as children who had high levels all along. This argues for more efforts to help kids build their brain's attention muscle.

The daily dose of breathing buddies at PS 112 represents one way to do that. Brain studies of exercises like this simple reminder to bring attention back to a single, chosen focus show that the more this mental movement gets repeated, the stronger the circuitry for cognitive control becomes. This not only makes children better able to focus attention, but also more adept at calming down, key facets of 'learning readiness' that share space in the prefrontal cortex.

Then there's another approach, modelling a desired behaviour, a gambit favoured on the Sesame Street show that works powerfully for toddlers. Take a clip where Cookie Monster learns to nibble. Alan starts a cookie connoisseur club in his store on Sesame Street, and of course Cookie Monster wants to eat all the cookies immediately. He can't restrain his urge to gobble, and fails to follow club rules to check a cookie for imperfections and smell it before taking just a nibble.

Only when Alan teaches him to remember that if he doesn't gobble the cookie on the spot he will get to eat more of them later does Cookie Monster gain the requisite self-control. That mental stratagem was suggested to the writers of Sesame Street by none other than Walter Mischel, the Columbia University psychologist who four decades ago developed the near-legendary 'Marshmallow test', an assessment of cognitive control in which four year olds are given a choice between one marshmallow now or two if they can hold out and wait several minutes.

Finally, let's not give up on video games; after all, kids can focus on them for hours on end. To be sure, researchers find the present state of the art, like the Tomb Raider genre, yields a mix of effects good and bad. Youngsters who spend endless hours engrossed in virtual combat enhance the brain skill of vigilance needed in, say, air traffic controllers – but also instantly assume the kid who bumped into them in the hallway bears a grudge against them.

But a team of scientists and game designers at the University of Wisconsin are building video games that enhance the better lessons. Tenacity, in its beta version at present, is a video game where tweens and teens build concentration by tapping an iPad screen every time they breathe out, and twice on the fifth breath, for a visual reward like flowers blooming in a desert – and it gets progressively harder as they get better. It may sound a bit tame, but when my grandchildren, ages seven to 14, tried it, they wanted to play it again. The scientists behind the game know from their research on attention that the more hours spent playing Tenacity, the bigger the boost in the circuitry for focus and cognitive control.

Then there are low-tech, high-touch methods like the game Simon Says, which you can play with your favourite pre-schooler. In case you don't remember, in Simon Says children imitate a movement made by the leader – but are supposed to squelch their impulse to move if the leader fails to say "Simon Says" as she makes the motion. It's yet another workout for the prefrontal cortex.

The New Zealand research team concluded that teaching school children ways to boost their cognitive control would have several kinds of pay-back for society: less crime, a more healthy populace, and an upward shift in a nation's economy.

James Heckman, the Nobel-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has been marshalling such evidence for years, arguing that how well children can manage themselves, as displayed by persistence toward their goals and other such non-academic skills, predicts their life outcome apart from their IQ. And since, unlike IQ, these life skills can be enhanced by the right education, we would benefit from teaching our children well. Simon Says...

'Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence' by Daniel Goleman is out now (£18.99, Bloomsbury). To order a copy for the special price of £14.99, visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk.

Driven to distraction: Dismayed by his own wandering attention span, Archie Bland took Daniel Goleman's advice on how to keep on task

My idea for how to start this piece was to use Twitter as an index of just how easily distracted I am. So I found a website that told me when my first tweet was, with the intention of dividing my total number of messages by the number of days I've been a user, and establishing just how many times a day I'm breaking off from whatever I should be concentrating on to craft an almost certainly insignificant message of 140 characters or less.

That was the idea, anyway. But then when this website showed me my earliest tweets I found myself mildly aghast and fascinated by the tone I struck four years ago, and how it differs from the way I sound today. I scrolled through a few of these messages, my initial purpose bustled off my mind's tiny stage, and clicked on a link to a trivial but faintly amusing exchange I'd been having with a former colleague back in 2009.

I'm fond of that colleague but haven't seen him in a while, so I clicked on his username to see what he's up to today. Then I saw a link to something interesting in his feed and clicked on that, opening it in a new browser tab, my ninth of the day at 11 minutes past nine in the morning. I thought of someone else who might find the same thing interesting and put it in an email to her. In doing so I came across two unopened emails that needed dealing with, and sent quick replies to each of them. And then I realised I had failed to note the date of that first tweet.

That whole process only took three minutes, and now that I'm back with my mind on the task at hand, it doesn't seem like that big a deal. I would normally barely notice it as a setback. But to catalogue it thus – and this without the myriad tiny mental flares that go off in all directions between each of those tentpole distractions – is deeply sobering. I would say shaming, even, if I didn't know that an awful lot of other people do exactly the same thing. (My computer just made a sound, by the way, to alert me to a message that I've just been sent in Gmail Chat. Ordinarily, I would flip to that window right away and see what it said. But in the circumstances, I'm going to ignore it.)

Some aspect of this will (God, I hope it will, anyway) ring a bell with most people who spend their working days flipping between different tasks, nominally because they need to keep all the balls in the air, but probably in truth because the day seems to pass more quickly with a series of built-in excuses for focus to wander. Daniel Goleman, the author of Focus, is clear about the folly of this approach, pointing out that it can take as much as 10 or 15 minutes to regain proper concentration on each of those pieces of work. The problem, it seems indisputable, has been terribly exacerbated by the internet age.

Goleman quotes Martin Heidegger, warning presciently in the 1950s against a "tide of technological revolution" that might "so captivate, bewitch, dazzle and beguile man that calculative thinking may some day come to be ... the only way of thinking." Goleman elaborates on this warning about the threat to "meditative thinking": "the more distracted we are, the more shallow our reflections," he writes. "Likewise, the shorter our reflections, the more trivial they are likely to be. Heidegger, were he alive today, would be horrified if asked to tweet."

I recognise all of this, and the cost to my own efficiency and the quality of my work, not Heidegger-like at the best of times. Accordingly, I downloaded a set of audio exercises narrated by Goleman. They have an efficient, business-like title, 'Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence', but the recordings are, essentially, meditations. I am not one of life's natural meditators, but I gave it a go all the same.

There are five exercises. Each one is designed to increase 'mindfulness': the ability to quickly detect when your thoughts are wandering, arrest the process, and bring your attention back to the task at hand. You might do this by concentrating intently on how you breathe, or – rather more elliptically, it must be said – by imagining your heart filling with love, and then sending that love out into the world.

I found the effect most striking when Goleman's soothing, gravelly voice asked me to pay close attention to each of my senses in turn – and, in particular, to try to concentrate not on my mental reactions to a particular sound, but to the process of hearing that sound in itself. It's incredibly difficult, this, when our environment trains us by necessity to make the connection from sensory experience to interpretative meaning at lightning speed, and I didn't have much luck, expending too much energy on thinking about not thinking.

But even trying it a few times, and fumbling occasionally towards a moment of true mental rest, I could see how powerful a technique it could be if you trained yourself in it for months or years – and how effectively it could translate to your day-to-day life, providing you with a helpful elasticated tether to bring you away from distraction and back to what matters. I bet Zen masters never miss a deadline.

Did even such minimal practice make a difference to my efficiency in writing this piece? Actually, I think it might have, though I would also give some of the credit to my initial Twitter lapse and the small explosion of self-loathing that it produced: I made a pact with myself to record in the piece any further such lapses, and the prospect of public shame has kept them to a minimum. (In two hours I wrote three quick emails, answered the phone once, and in a moment of total mental absence watched a video of a child in a Halloween costume that made him look like a stick man. I know that doesn't sound great, but honestly, by my standards it's positively monkish.)

If you want to get better at this, even the simple mental habit of consciously hauling your attention back any time you notice it wandering is a powerful tool. I will certainly try to do so. I did eventually work it out, by the way, and I tweet a truly horrifying average of 11 times a day; if that comes down a bit, you will know I have succeeded.

Visit morethansound.net for a selection of Daniel Goleman's exercises

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