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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

How to Increase Attention Span If You Have a Distracted Mind

How to Increase Attention Span If You Have a Distracted Mind

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.[1]

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.

Wondering how to increase your attention span? Start with these five science-backed tips for heightened productivity, focus and attention.

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.

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Just as importantly, you pay a cognitive “penalty,” wasting time and energy each time you switch modes.[2] 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.

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

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]

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.

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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).[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

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 brain-training activities (like the above 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.[7]

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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[8].

Image result for best music for 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.[9]

    6. Practice Meditation

    Meditation doesn’t only benefit your mental health, but it also helps you learn 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.[10]

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    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.[11]

    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.[12]

    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.

    Final Thoughts

    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.

    More Tips on Increasing Your Attention Span

    Featured photo credit: Muhammad Raufan Yusup via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Aytekin Tank

    Founder and CEO of JotForm, sharing entrepreneurship and productivity tips at Lifehack.

    What Is Block Scheduling? (And How It Boosts Productivity) The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again How to Increase Attention Span If You Have a Distracted Mind 8 Surefire Problem-Solving Strategies That Always Work 9 Weekend Activities To Set You Up For Productivity the New Week

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    Last Updated on April 19, 2021

    What Is Block Scheduling? (And How It Boosts Productivity)

    What Is Block Scheduling? (And How It Boosts Productivity)

    On August 6, 1991, the world changed forever when the internet became publicly available. Less than 30 years later, our lives have been irrevocably transformed. We can now learn, explore, and communicate 24/7, which is both amazing and, as we all know, hazardous to our productivity[1]. This is why the question, “What is block scheduling?” has become important.

    To be clear, the internet isn’t life’s only distraction, and while productivity has become a huge buzzword in recent years, it’s simply a measure of progress: Are you doing what matters most? Actively moving toward your goals?

    Author Neil Pasricha writes in Harvard Business Review[2]:

    “As our world gets busier and our phones get beepier, the scarcest resource for all of us is becoming attention and creative output. And if you’re not taking time to put something new and beautiful out in the world, then your value is diminishing fast.”

    Most entrepreneurs relate deeply to this sentiment. Pasricha solved his own productivity challenges by instituting “untouchable days” that shield him from texts, phone calls, meetings, alerts, or appointments of any kind. He says these focused sessions have enabled him to produce his most creative and rewarding work.

    I love Pasricha’s approach, but it’s not always realistic for me. As the founder and CEO of JotForm, I need to weigh in on a variety of daily decisions, from hiring to product roadmaps to financial planning. I suspect other founders feel the same way. Yet, I do believe in the power of focused work, which is also why I recommend block scheduling.

    What Is Block Scheduling?

    Entrepreneurs often flaunt their multitasking as a badge of honor. After all, starting a business is a tug-of-war between competing priorities.

    However, while multitasking might feel efficient, research shows that shifting between tasks can slash productivity by up to 40%. Task-switching leaves what Dr. Sophie Leroy calls “attention residue,”[3] which means we’re still thinking about a previous activity while we start the next one[4].

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    Here’s where block scheduling can shine. What is block scheduling, exactly?

    We usually become familiar with the concept of block scheduling in high school. You likely received a schedule with a certain number of classes per day, all blocked according to class time, each school year. This is basic block scheduling.

    Also called time blocking, block scheduling is the practice of allocating large chunks of time to related tasks. For example, you might designate Mondays for meetings and Tuesdays for strategy. Teachers often use block scheduling when creating lesson plans. There are many different approaches, which we’ll get to shortly.

    First, here’s why it matters. Business is essentially problem-solving. Creating strategies, writing code, developing products, and all the myriad activities that entrepreneurs tackle demand focus and minimal distractions. They’re also inherently human tasks that won’t easily be replaced by AI, which means your business depends on your ability to go deep.

    Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World, said in a 2017 interview:

    “Focus is now the lifeblood of this economy.”

    Entrepreneurs use their minds to launch ideas and create value, so the ability to concentrate is “almost like a superpower”[5].

    Block scheduling can also help you to produce higher quality work in less time. Parkinson’s Law holds that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,”[6], which is why setting time limits can deflate a ballooning task.

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    How to Use Time Blocking to Boost Productivity

    We all have different rhythms and responsibilities. Personalization is the key to successful time blocking, and it will require some trial and error. Here’s how to get started.

    What is time blocking?

      1. Assess Your Calendar

      Evaluating your current schedule can be surprisingly difficult because few of us can accurately estimate how much time a task requires. If it feels easier, track how you actually spend your time for a full week. Note each activity—even 10 minutes of email and 15 minutes of social media scrolling between meetings.

      Once you know how you’ve been spending your time, it’ll be easier to know what to keep and what to throw out when you begin to make your new schedule.

      2. Look for Patterns

      After you’ve documented a full week, group tasks into categories. For example, you can include the following categories:

      • Administrative
      • Meetings
      • Creative work
      • Email
      • Personal time.

      You can also label tasks based on how you feel while doing them, or how they influence your energy levels on a scale from 1-10. Do whatever makes sense for you.

      3. Arrange Your Time Blocks

      Experiment with different block scheduling patterns. For example, one morning may look like this:

      • 8-9am: Respond to emails
      • 9-10am: Write up marketing proposal
      • 10-11am: Brainstorm and plan for Client A’s project
      • 11am-12pm: Meet with Client A to discuss ideas

      However, you may find that you’re more creative immediately after waking up. In that case, you’d want to move “brainstorming and planning” to an earlier slot. If responding to emails is best for when you’re feeling a little lethargic after lunch, put it there.

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      Read your emotions and abilities throughout the day to tap into what is going to work best for you.

      Ultimately, the goal is to avoid switching mental gears throughout the day, week, and maybe even the month. I realize this isn’t easy, especially for entrepreneurs, but it can be incredibly valuable.

      Spending a full day on projects you dislike, such as administrative work or meetings, might feel daunting, but blocking them into a single day can make the rest of your week infinitely more productive and more enjoyable. You’re free to tackle all the entrepreneurial challenges that get your blood flowing.

      4. Create Day Themes

      If you’re someone who has to focus on many things during a single day or week, you may find it more beneficial to create themes for each day instead of blocking up your day into individual tasks. For example, you can set Mondays as Brainstorming/Planning days, Tuesdays as Administrative days, etc.

      If you take this route, I suggest always scheduling in at least one Family day. It will ensure you make time for the important people in your life and give your brain time to rest.

      Benefits of Block Scheduling

      Once you’ve answered “What is block scheduling?” and know how to use it correctly, you’ll find that you receive many benefits. Here are just a few.

      Battle Procrastination

      If you have your schedule set and know you only have an hour to get a particular task done, it will be significantly easier to avoid procrastinating.

      For more on how to stop procrastinating, check out this article.

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      Create Realistic Time Estimates

      Once you’ve been working with time blocking for a while, you’ll learn which activities take the most/least time. You may have to adjust your schedule during the first month or so to get it right, but be patient. You’ll continue to learn to realistically estimate how much time a particular task will take.

      Develop More Focus and Attention

      When your schedule doesn’t leave much room for scrolling through social media or chatting with coworkers, you’ll find your brain is more devoted to paying attention to the task at hand. You’ll respond to the limits you set for yourself and will focus to get things done.

      Final Thoughts

      Most founders crave freedom. Yet, school schedules, jobs, and social norms condition us to work with a traditional schedule and reactive mindset. Before we know it, we’ve re-created a working schedule that traces back to the 19th century, even in our own companies. Block scheduling is not only a tool to maximize productivity; it’s a way to reclaim your time[7].

      In my 14 years at JotForm, I’ve realized that business growth means doing more of what makes the biggest impact. I don’t always succeed, but I try to focus my time and energy where it matters, and I know that busyness is not synonymous with productivity.

      If you feel the same way, give time blocking a try. Share your experiments in scheduling with colleagues and family members so they understand the changes and can support you.

      Finally, don’t worry about getting it right immediately. You may need to get under the hood of your calendar and tinker around a bit. Find what works for you, then protect your new schedule at all costs.

      More Tips on Time Management

      Featured photo credit: William Iven via unsplash.com

      Reference

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