I have had problems with becoming distracted, focusing, and being inattentive ever since I can remember. Most people that I know, and many of the clients that I have seen also struggle with this reality. When I sat down to write this article, I actually got distracted from the task at hand. Everything else seemed more important I needed to pay bills, make food, fix my website, check my email. I was finally able to refocus after about an hour. Oh, the irony. It seems that sitting down and paying attention is so difficult. What I have noticed is that the more that I multi-task and use my electronic devices, the worse my inattention becomes. Is information overload to blame? Why as a culture have we become so distracted? Why is this one of the things that most adults struggle with in adulthood?
Let’s look at 5 reasons we have become more distracted.
1) The poverty of Attention/ Information Overload
Before the internet, social media and smartphones, we could only be contacted via mail and phone (work and home). Now the average person has at least 7 social media accounts, a cell phone, and an average of 4 messaging apps.  Not to mention we use about 9 apps a day on our phones and then an average of 30 apps in a month.  We are inundated with information and communication with others all day long.
Because we feel pressure to respond and interact with all of these technologies, we have developed a poverty of attention. We have developed a poverty of attention due to the fact that we rarely take breaks from being informed and communicating. When we are “plugged in”, it makes it more difficult for us to focus. We are running a race of connecting, accomplishing, and not missing out. Life can feel like a never-ending to-do list. And we are rarely available to others, which does not allow our mind to rest. When we get information overload it is difficult to feel focused and connected to ourselves. Being in a state of overwhelm creates anxiety and elicits the stress response which makes it difficult to feel calm or connected.
Distracted from distraction by distraction ~T. S. Eliot
2) Multi-tasking makes us more distracted
Because we have so many things to attend to in our lives, we have resorted to multi-tasking. I know that I am guilty of doing this as well. Frequently, I catch myself watching TV and then also playing a game. This makes me not really be present for either thing that I am doing. I am trying to “relax myself” but actually all I am doing is making myself feel more distracted and more anxious.
The Molecular Biologist, John Medina reports that the, “The brain cannot multi-task. Multi-tasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time…To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multi-task. We are biologically incapable of processing information-rich inputs simultaneously…Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”
So how do we stop multi-tasking and be more present? Let’s take a look at how we use our phones and our devices.
3) Our smartphones have a way of distracting us
As a society, we have become a more distracted in the past 10 years with the rise in smartphone use, handheld electronic devices, and technology that vies for our attention. Our devices scream for our attention whenever we hear or feel the vibration, a notification. We check our phones. The average American checks their phone every 12 minutes which is 80 times a day. We have become very dependent on our phones to the point that many of us are addicted and actually have separation anxiety with it. 
Due to the constant notifications and the mindless checking of social media whenever we have “free time,” we have become less productive and more distracted. Frequently when we are trying to complete tasks on our phones like check the weather, make important phone calls or appointments, we get distracted by notifications. Then we forget what we are trying to do.
Tristan Harris, a TED X speaker discusses how that each time that we click a notification that we lose on average 23 minutes. And that our phones are designed to be slot machines. We are addicted to our phones because we want the dopamine that is released when we have a notification. Harris explains, that our smartphones are currently also conditioning us to keep up this ADHD-like behavior: “It actually trains bad habits: the more interruptions we get externally, it’s conditioning and training us to interrupt ourselves. We actually self-interrupt every 3 and a half minutes.“
By being busy and distracted we have learned how to redirect our attention to pleasant novel things like games and social media instead of doing things that may not be as enjoyable.
4) Avoidance from things we don’t want to address
When we zone out by using social media, games, and TV, I find much of the time we are trying to avoid something that is is unpleasant. This includes work that doesn’t seem fun, unpleasant feelings, or boredom. I find people distract themselves, so that they can avoid feeling anxious, sadness, or shame. These uncomfortable feelings usually feel too big to deal with. We avoid so that we don’t have to show up for ourselves and acknowledge that we are having a difficult time. But using avoidance only works so long to keep these feelings at bay and then anxiety makes an appearance. Anxiety can be an important signpost that we are in avoidance of something. That something important needs attention. Be willing to show up for yourself, meet your anxiety with curiosity and kindness.
5) Question the cause of your distraction and lack of focus. Is it something more serious?
Since the use of our phones mimics ADHD behavior and increases anxiety, we have to question ourselves, what is causing my inattention? People frequently think that they have ADHD due to their lack of ability to focus. But there are other mental health conditions that can mimic some of the symptoms of ADHD. Let’s take a look at several conditions: depression, ADHD, PTSD, and anxiety.
People who struggle with depression also have difficulty concentrating, motivating themselves and completing tasks. Many people with whom I have worked have been depressed and have struggled with focus and completing things.
Symptoms of depression:
- Trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
- Pessimism and hopelessness
- Insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or sleeping too much
- Loss of interest in things once pleasurable, including sex
- Overeating, or appetite loss
- Aches, pains, headaches, or cramps that won’t go away
- Digestive problems that don’t get better, even with treatment
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Do you think that you may be depressed? Check out this self-report quiz.
ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) about 5% of adults have it in the US. In people with ADHD, distractions interfere with the completion of vital tasks at home and at work. How it differs from just being distracted is that the people who have ADHD have an inability to focus on what is important.
A person who has ADHD it may have difficulty:
- Following directions
- Remember information
- Organize tasks
- Finish work on time
- Arriving places on time
- Focusing while driving
- Controlling anger
Do you think that you may have ADHD? Check out this self report quiz.
Diagnosable anxiety is actually a cluster of multiple different diagnoses. This includes:
- Panic disorder. You feel terror that strikes at random. During a panic attack, you may also sweat, have chest pain, and feel palpitations(unusually strong or irregular heartbeats). Sometimes you may feel like you’re choking or having a heart attack.
- Social anxiety disorder. Also called social phobia, this is when you feel overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. You fixate about others judging you or on being embarrassed or ridiculed.
- Specific phobias. You feel an intense fear of a specific object or situation, such as heights or flying. The fear goes beyond what’s appropriate and may cause you to avoid ordinary situations.
- Generalized anxiety disorder. You feel excessive, unrealistic worry and tension with little or no reason.
All of them have these symptoms:
- Panic, fear, and uneasiness
- Sleep problems
- Not being able to stay calm and still
- Cold, sweaty, numb or tingling hands or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Tense muscles
- Dizziness 
Do you feel like you may have an anxiety disorder? Check out this self-report psychological distress exam.
Some symptoms of PTSD can also look like ADHD because people with this diagnosis can have difficulty with concentrating because they are in the stress response and are in avoidance of trauma thoughts, sensations, and flashbacks.
The symptoms of PTSD include:
Mental health issues are serious. If you realized that you may have a more serious issue. Please find help. You deserve to live a better life. Check out these resources below for help. Also if you are interested in working with me please reach out, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for exploring with me about being distracted. How do you struggle with attention and distraction? Please comment below!
Have a beautiful week!
1) Messaging Apps: Average Usage Time Around the World ,Joseph Schwartz, 06.30.2016