For many of us, it’s not natural or easy to pay attention to one thing for a long period. Thanks to technology, exciting information has never been more available—and with more of us working from home than ever, it’s not hard to find a (sometimes welcome) distraction. That’s why it can be so difficult to learn how to increase attention span over time.
Even if you feel focused, your brain isn’t engaged with the present task all the time. According to a Harvard study, people spend 47% of their waking hours zoned out or distracted.
While a wandering mind can boost your creativity, it’s not all that helpful for focus. When you can’t pay attention, you’ll end up with a growing to-do list and more mistakes on the work you do manage to get done.
Fortunately, with a bit of strategy, you can rebuild your attention span for increased productivity and effectiveness in work and life.
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What Science Says About Slipping Attention Spans
A 2015 study found that the human attention span had decreased from 12 to 8 seconds in less than two decades, thanks to the digitalized lifestyle. And we are now less attentive than a goldfish!
This incredible finding has been reported in the Time magazine, the Telegraph and the New York Times.
If it sounds ridiculous, it’s because it is. The “goldfish myth” was subsequently debunked by the BBC and the Wall Street Journal:
the metrics scientists do track haven’t changed in generations. “I’ve been measuring college students for the past 20 years,” said Edward Vogel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “It’s been remarkably stable across decades.”We are as attentive — or as inattentive — as humans have always been.
But surely, brain-training games based on modern neuroscience should give us an edge over our predecessors. And scientifically engineered brain supplements should make our thinking sharper, faster and immune to distractions, shouldn’t they?
Why Has Our Attention Span Decreased?
Maintaining focused attention has become more difficult over the past decade with the increase in external stimulation. However, it is very task-dependent, according to most psychologists. The way we apply our attention depends on the importance of the task, how interested we are, what stimuli we have around us, etc. Some of you have likely already lost focus while reading this article and have begun scrolling through Facebook, checking messages, or answering a question your kids are asking.
A short attention span is your body’s response to stress or stimulation. But if your short attention span has become a permanent problem, it may be caused by the following:
- Sensory processing disorder
- Learning disorders such as dyslexia
If this is the case, you may need behavioral therapy to improve.
How Long Is the Average Attention Span?
According to Dr. Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, the idea of an average attention span is meaningless. She said:
“It’s very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.”
This is true especially considering how many times people switch through different social media apps in just 30 minutes, how employees can continue checking email for only 15 minutes at a time, and how people can sit through a two-hour-long movie without losing their focus.
With this in mind, don’t stress too much about the average attention span because the concept is unfounded. The truth is, everyone loses focus, and it’s up to you to make a conscious effort to regain it.
Can You Improve Your Attention?
In October 2014, a group of 70 scientists published an open letter claiming that brain training games as a whole lacked a scientific foundation. This letter was quickly rebutted by another group of scientists. But even this second group agreed that “claims promoting brain games are frequently exaggerated, and are often misleading.”
Then, in 2016 the brain-training app Lumosity made headlines when the Federal Trade Commission fined it $2 Million for deceptive advertising:
“Lumosity preyed on consumers’ fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads.”
A similar story emerges with brain supplements.
Dr. Gad Marshall, specializing in dementia at Harvard Medical Schoo,l says to “invest more in doing aerobic exercise and following a plant-based diet. These can help with memory and brain health in the long term more than any supplement.”
Even when it comes to sports performance, Dr. Dan Bernadot, a co-director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University, writes in his book Nutrition for Serious Athletes:
In most cases, the claims for performance enhancement attributed to ergogenic aids [nutritional supplements] exceed reality.
He argues at length that adequate food, hydration, and rest will make a greater difference than any supplements, even for most professional athletes.
The people who are good at paying attention are doing it the old-fashioned way.
How To Increase Your Attention Span
Wondering how to increase your attention span? Start with these 12 science-backed tips on how to increase attention span.
1. Stop Multitasking
Avoiding the desire to multitask can be difficult for anyone. Whether you’re switching between email and drafting a presentation or reading a work-related article with your Zoom tab open, you’re neither fully “here” nor “there.”
Unfortunately, while you may feel you’re accomplishing more when you furiously pivot activities, you’re risking getting less done. This is because toggling tasks divides your attention, so you’re contributing less to each task. You’re also more likely to commit errors when you’re not fully focused on one thing at a time.
Just as importantly, you pay a cognitive “penalty,” wasting time and energy each time you switch modes.  Think of your cognitive energy—your thinking mind—as a resource. Each time you shift your focus, you deplete the resource, which means you’re paying less attention to your projects and tasks in both the short- and long-term.
So, if you’re struggling to learn how to increase your attention span, close all unnecessary tabs—whether on your browser or in your brain—while you focus on just one task. Your work and mind will be better for it.
That singular task should be your sole focus until the work you have planned is completed. You will find yourself making more significant progress and feeling less stressed.
When you are committed to one activity instead of allowing other things you cloud your mind, you will be able to focus more on it. Arnold Schwarzenegger recalls:
When I went to the gym I got rid of every alien thought in my mind…I would concentrate on procedure and results until my everyday problems went floating away. I knew that if I went in there concerned about bills or girls and let myself think about those things while doing bench presses, I’d make only marginal progress.
If you really want to stop multitasking and start to get things done, grab the free guidebook 4-Step Guide to Creating More Time Out of a Busy Schedule. It will guide you to start to plan and prioritize your work and do more in less time. Get your free guide here!
2. Remove Distractions
In the book, Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products , marketer Nir Eyal shared the story of an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Yale School of Management who got addicted to her pedometer. On one occasion, she spent a grueling two hours walking up her staircase to get more points from the app.
This may be surprising but even highly intelligent people are not immune to distractions.
Your environment affects your attention span more than you think. Therefore, if you’re struggling to hunker down and pay attention to what’s in front of you, try removing whatever’s distracting you. You’ll not only be able to focus more on the task at hand, but you’ll also be less likely to multitask when you don’t have the option to.
That could mean putting on headphones while you work to drown out other noise or committing to keep your email browser closed until the job is complete. It might also mean deleting social media apps and turning off notifications on your phone while you’re attempting to get something important done. Better yet, put your phone in another room altogether; studies show having a phone nearby in the same room can be distracting. 
3. Take Care of Your Body
Have you ever noticed it’s far tougher to pay attention to something for a long time when you physically aren’t at your peak? Personally, during busy or intense times at work, I aim to prioritize a good night’s sleep, regular exercise, meditation, and nutrition. I’ve found all these things make my brain feel sharper, which in turn allows me to pay better attention to people, tasks, and projects.
One of the best tips on how to increase your attention span is to take care of your body. There’s plenty of scientific evidence that taking care of our bodies directly impacts our brains. For example, one study shows even short bursts of moderate exercise and physical activity can improve cognitive control (in other words, one’s ability to concentrate). 
A restful night of sleep also makes a huge difference. Scientists have found that sleep deprivation can impact an individual’s memory, ability to perform simple daily tasks, and yes, their attention span. 
Moral of the story: If your mind doesn’t seem on par, start by nurturing your body. You’ll not only feel better, but you’ll also work better.
4. Play a Game
You can also have a bit of fun building up your “brain muscles” to increase your attention span over time. Evidence shows games that work your memory and require focus, such as Sudoku, jigsaw puzzles, word searches, or memory games, can improve concentration skills.
As with exercise, you can reap the benefits of concentrating on a game in a short period of time. The study suggests simply spending 15 minutes a day, five days a week on training your mind through games is enough to make a difference. Plus, you’ll gain problem-solving skills along the way, which will also serve you at work.
And good news for video gamers: One 2018 study found evidence that an hour of gaming can help people pay attention to specific tasks while ignoring distractions. 
5. Play the Right Music
Sometimes, noise can be distracting when you’re trying to do deep work, which can result in a short attention span. However, the right noise—specifically, certain types of music—can pack a big punch in your ability to improve attention to the things that matter.
One study found that both classical and ambient music were notably better than silence at improving the ability to focus.
A second study at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that listening to short symphonies engages parts of the brain involved with paying attention and memory. Interestingly, your brain benefits most from the short breaks between music, so try to listen to a playlist or radio station on your favorite streaming app to build your attention span. 
6. Practice Meditation
doesn’t only benefit your mental health, but it also does wonders in how to increase attention span. As you meditate on something, you’re training your focus, and, over time, it will expand. Think of meditation like weight training for your brain. The more you do, the more you’ll be able to focus!
One study showed that while healthy practices like a nutritious diet may help improve focus, meditation has even more power to increase attention span. In the study, students at the University of California-Santa Barbara who practiced mindfulness and meditation for just 10 to 20 minutes, four times a week, ended up scoring higher on memory tests and activities requiring attention. 
If you’re not used to meditation, try downloading an app like Headspace or Calm to build meditation and brain exercise into your routine. Just make sure to keep your phone out of sight when you’re working.
7. Restructure Your Work Day
I’ve found that the longer and more boring my work day is, the more tempted I am to veer off into another headspace (or, honestly, log onto social media). That’s why I’m intentional about breaking up my work time into smaller chunks. When I have breaks to look forward to, I can give my undivided attention to whatever it is I need to do.
The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Studies are showing that if you want to improve your ability to pay attention, you should divide your workday into less intimidating, more manageable chunks while taking regular breaks. 
There seems to be a sweet spot for productivity. According to one study, the top 10 percent of workers focused intensely on average for 52 minutes before taking a 17-minute break. So, if you’re having a difficult time paying attention, try working for 45-60 minutes at a time, then building in a 15-20 minute break between each work slot. 
As you minimize distractions and get into a routine that keeps you focused, you’ll not only accomplish more (and better) work—chances are, you’ll also find yourself enjoying what you do.
8. Get Some Exercise
Physical activity can help improve your attention span and focus, as it releases chemicals in the brain that affect learning and memory. Even better than a cup of coffee, just 30 minutes of exercise can provide a short-term boost to your mental and cognitive performance, making you smarter and making it easier to focus.
Beyond improving focus and short attention spans, exercise can improve your memory, prevent depression, and help you avoid cognitive decline that can lead to dementia or other similar diseases.
9. Drink More Fluids
If you’re struggling with a short attention span, you may be mildly dehydrated. One particular review of 33 studies discovered that dehydration “impairs cognitive performance, particularly for tasks involving attention, executive function, and motor coordination when water deficits exceed 2% BML.”
According to Dr. Dan Bernadot, a co-director of the Laboratory for Elite Athlete Performance at Georgia State University:
“In most cases, the claims for performance enhancement attributed to ergogenic aids [nutritional supplements] exceed reality.”
Considering this, food and hydration will help you more than any supplement.
Fortunately, our bodies are good at telling us when to drink water. When you begin to feel even slightly thirsty, it’s time to go grab a glass of water. Keep in mind that drinking small amounts of water throughout the day will help your body continuously absorb the fluids compared to quickly chugging a glass.
10. Take Stock of the Important Things in Life
If you want to stay focused, take some time to think about which tasks cause you the most worry and stress. These are likely the most important things in your life and the things you need to give more attention to improve your mental health.
Once you do this and determine where you will dedicate your focus, you can break these important things down into smaller tasks, which are easier to accomplish and will add up, moving you forward to the larger overall objective.
11. Take Many Small Steps
Large tasks cannot be accomplished without the completion of several smaller steps. In any instance when you feel like your attention span is waning and your focus is slipping away, determine what small steps you can take to move towards that overall goal.
Accomplishing each step on this list, no matter how small, brings you closer to completing your overall objective. Making this type of thinking a habit will improve your focus in the future.
12. Focus and Re-Focus
The key to improving your attention span is what you do when you reach your limit. Sustained attention is the level of attention that produces consistent results on a task over time.
Most people are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 40 minutes at a time. However, those who have great focus realize when they get off track and choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same task.
Learning how to increase attention span requires great effort at first, especially since you’re already struggling to pay attention in the first place. However, with the right mindset and discipline, and by following these 7 steps, you will improve and eventually master your focus and improve your attention span.
Featured photo credit: Muhammad Raufan Yusup via unsplash.com