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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

How to Increase Attention Span If You Have a Distracted Mind

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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.

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    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.

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    Last Updated on October 20, 2021

    How to Deal with Digital Distraction to Improve Your Focus

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    How to Deal with Digital Distraction to Improve Your Focus

    We live in a time where we have access to nearly anything and everything we could ever ask for. But we need to ask ourselves: Is this a good thing? If you’re planning a honeymoon, looking for ways to build your next business, or searching to improve your physical fitness, having an endless portal of information is worth its weight in gold. But if you’re like most individuals throughout the world, the internet has become a source of ongoing anxiety, stress, and fear-mongering—a digital distraction that can have devastating effects on our mental and emotional well-being.

    With social media, we see what people want us to see, not what they truly are at all hours during the day. We see what news outlets want us to see with our newsfeed, especially if it’s skewed to connect with your views through a brilliantly designed algorithm. With our information, we confirm our biases through articles, podcast episodes, and reading forums that perfectly reinforce what we already know. Yet, we have to wonder: is this good for us, for our brains, and our long-term growth?

    Even with the recent advancements in technology over the last few decades, our brains haven’t changed much. The latest estimates suggest that our modern-day brains haven’t changed in over 40,000 years, which is a blink of an eye on our trajectory of life on our planet as we know it.[1] As a result of this lack of change, our brains haven’t been able to adapt to digital distractions—this rapidly changing technology and fast-paced lifestyle—which was created to hijack our brain’s neural circuitry by creating continuous stressors that have devastating effects on our overall health.

    In his infamous book Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky documents how stress affects both animals and humans, essentially making the analogy that stress isn’t bad in small quantities, but repeated and chronic stressors over days, weeks, months, and even years can have detrimental effects on our health. And these stressors don’t even have to be real!

    Perceived stress from anxiety, judgment, fear of missing out, and feelings of being inferior to others based on comparisons and social media profiles can have similar effects on our health because the brain cannot truly tell the difference between a real or perceived threat. Technological advancements rarely come without a hidden cost to the people using them.

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    While this talk may all sound grim and pessimistic, it doesn’t have to be. The advent of the internet and social media has allowed individuals to express themselves, find their tribe, and connect with others around the world without having to leave their homes. And companies are being built at the kitchen counter of an apartment because of how impactful the internet has become.

    To change our current mental health and addiction trajectory, we must understand how to take back control and use these platforms to our advantage. Here are a few tips on how to deal with digital distractions and improve your focus.

    1. Kiss Your Notifications Good-Bye

    In his hallmark book, Indistractible, Nir Eyal goes into great detail about how social media companies ingeniously created “alerts” to seduce the mind into spending more time on a platform, thus increasing viewing times, creating greater revenue generation, and creating a dependency on updated information. Much like casinos, these tactics heavily involve similar reward pathways within the brain, causing the user to become a dopamine-addicted fiend by using likes, clicks, and alerts to fuel an archaic positive-feedback system that keeps them coming back for more.[2]

    Do you actually need to know when someone liked a friend’s page? In the grand scheme of things, how impactful is it to see that you got 20 likes on your post from yesterday? And is it going to change your career trajectory if your friend posted a cat video on their TikTok page?

    Let’s be honest, our lives would be much easier if we weren’t inundated with these quick little digital distractions, which is exactly what they are. They’re designed to keep you as a user, which is why you need to take control of your content and filter your settings for alerts.

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    Alerts are nothing more than simple distractions to take you away from the task at hand, so why not just get rid of them? Odds are, you are most likely checking your social media page a few times a day anyway. So since you’re already heading to the page, hold off on the distractions while you get your work done.

    And this brings us to our next point.

    2. Structure Provides Freedom of Choice

    Planning your day can be one of the most efficient uses of your time because it sets up the structure needed to accomplish your tasks. This structure inherently allows you greater freedom of choice down the road, as it will allow you to have more free time after you get your work done and finish up deadlines. It will also reinforce that freedom isn’t the lack of boundaries. It is the foundation to allow you to have greater freedom of choice later.

    Saving money may not be the most glorious habit. Still, those small habits of saving can compound into significant personal and financial freedoms later in life, essentially allowing you the freedom to retire from work and still have the financial flexibility to continue on with life.

    The same is true with using social media and digital platforms for enjoyment. Planning the times and duration for using these platforms can be one of the most efficient uses of your time because it creates boundaries. Influencers on social media platforms don’t have enough time in the day to be scrolling and creating content, but they make you feel like they do. This principle is also true for you, especially those who use digital platforms to promote your brand, business, or company.

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    Use your time wisely because we all have a limited and finite amount of it no matter how wealthy you are.

    3. Use Digital Platforms to Grow, Not to Show

    Who you choose to follow on social media will dictate how productive you are when you’re not actively scrolling. Why? Because your newsfeed will influence the emotions, feelings, and reactions to drive you closer or further away from achieving your goals.

    When digital distractions become rampant, they take you away from the tasks at hand and can cause you to feel guilty because of how they make you feel. Just because you aren’t a 27-year-old YouTube channel sensation doesn’t mean you won’t ever achieve the status of being an influential entrepreneur. You can’t compare your chapter 2 to someone else’s chapter 10.

    Your choice in following accounts and individuals who will empower you to overcome stressors, hurdles, and personal life choices could give you enough motivation to push through the struggles and face your greatest fears. And if you haven’t taken the time to clean up who you follow on social media, it’s time to make it happen.

    Humans are social animals and can be easily influenced by our surroundings. Case in point: Dr. Stanley Milgram performed multiple studies in the 1960s where participants were asked to induce a graded electric shock to an “unknowingly” willing participant in a separate room. Over time, the participants were asked to turn up the intensity of the shocks, reaching a point of lethal shock intensity. Even at lethal shock levels, the participants kept inducing shocks to the individual in the closed room per suggestions from the accompanying individual in the room guiding them through the exercise. Why? Because when people have authority, we inherently obey their orders to feel connected and socially accepted, even if those orders involve drastic actions and near-fatal outcomes.[3]

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    Luckily, there were no individuals harmed during these experiments because the participants in the closed room were actors hired to play the part of being shocked. But the information is enough to show just how impactful outside sources of influence—especially authoritative forces like social media influencers and people with high follower counts—can be on changing our behaviors.

    Your time spent online should pick you up and help guide you towards your intended goals, not push you down and make you feel inferior to the rest of the world. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we already had a mental health crisis on our hands.[4] Let’s do what we can to reverse it.

    4. When You Choose To Focus, Your Life Will Come Into Focus

    If you’ve ever been looking for a new car, you know how impactful intentional focus can be on accomplishing a task. It is at this moment when you realize that every other person on the road is driving the same car that you’ve been looking to buy. How is this possible?

    The amount of cars on the road hasn’t changed. Your perceptions have. It’s always been that way, but once your brain starts to focus on a specific detail, you start seeing more of it manifest throughout your environment. This happens regardless of whether or not you’re looking for the good, the bad, or the ugly. What you hope to see is what you will eventually get.

    When you focus your time and energy on accomplishing your end task, your brain will find things to reinforce this pattern, thus creating an inevitable positive feedback cycle that will take you and your game to the next level. This concept of “The Law of Attraction” can be dated back centuries to many historical figures throughout the world.[5]

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    So, the next time you find yourself fazed by digital distractions and lost in the realms of our current digital age, take some time to sit back, lose yourself in your thoughts, and put your phone away. It’s the only way you will make it out alive.

    More Tips on Dealing With Distractions

    Featured photo credit: Maxim Ilyahov via unsplash.com

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