With so many distractors competing for our attention, and with attention being so vital for completing the tasks consistent with our goals and desires, we find ourselves in a historically unique predicament. Of course, while there wasn’t Facebook to check or text messages to respond to in the past, distraction was always a part of life. For example, one of our oldest ancestors might have been foraging for food when suddenly there was a rustle in the trees signaling a nearby predator. This would trigger a shift in focus away from the original goal (finding food) to a more pressing need for survival (escaping the predator). Illustrated in this example is that distractibility can actually be adaptive, which is precisely the reason it evolved. It is therefore important to remember that the key to optimal attention is not to avoid or somehow rid of distractibility, but to modulate our focus in the best way.
Authors Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen emphasize this in their book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. They present a wealth of interesting research regarding the brain, its cognitive feats and limitations when it comes to attention, our behaviors as they relate to focus and distractibility, and the impact of constantly shifting our attention as technology beckons. Finally, they suggest ways to take control and maximize your productivity and general well-being in the face of so much technological buzzing.
We appreciate and recommend this book, not just as professionals who work with many students struggling with attention, but as imperfect, self-reflective people who are always looking to understand ourselves better and improve the allocation of our own attentional resources. Perhaps you can challenge yourself to put the smartphone down and give it a read!