One counterintuitive fix? Take plenty of breaks.
Every human mind is prone to wandering, especially when a task is dull or repetitive. Maybe you feel yourself zoning out during a conversation, or drifting away during a long meeting. It’s something we all do, and it’s nothing to feel guilty about. However, it may be worthwhile to learn how to improve your attention span, particularly if you’d like to be more present during every moment of your day.
What Is Your Attention Span—and Why Is It Important?
“Attention span is how long you can stay focused on a task or activity,” says neuropsychologist Rosemarie Manfredi, PsyD. “It involves concentration, as well as the ability to resist distractions.”
According to Manfredi, attention allows us to focus on a task so that we can complete it effectively and efficiently, a goal that many of us have during our days. “It allows us to follow a task through to the end,” Manfredi adds, whatever the end may be."
Manfredi says that everyone struggles with their attention span at times—periods of stress can have an exceptionally negative impact on one’s attention span. “When we have difficulties with our attention span, it can take much longer to complete tasks. We can have many started tasks, but few that have been finished all the way through to completion. So improving attention span can help with [task] efficiency and follow-through.”
And although a “short” attention span is the hallmark symptom of those who have been diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), struggling with attention and focus isn’t limited to only those with this condition.
“Difficulties with attention, concentration, and focus, while core to the diagnosis of ADHD, are also common in many other mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression,” Manfredi points out. “Difficulties with attention are also common in those who have gone through traumatic experiences.”
And of course, those who haven’t been diagnosed with any mental health disorder can also grapple with their attention span. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, attention spans—our ability to concentrate for a period of time—are actually shrinking, especially in this day and age of rapid-fire social media, technological distractions, and information overload. Everything from apps to gadgets are designed to stimulate, distract, and steal our attention away from what we actually need to focus on (doing work, completing chores, being present with loved ones, appreciating the present moment).
Can You Improve Your Attention Span—or Is It Set in Stone?
So are there any ways that we can actually lengthen our attention spans, and improve our attention control and capacity to focus on what we need to?
Manfredi believes that one’s attention span isn’t set in stone—it can absolutely be improved with some helpful strategies and intentional practice.
“Attention is one of our most sensitive brain functions, meaning that it’s vulnerable to impacts from many different areas,” she says. “However, that also means it’s one of the brain functions that’s also most receptive to change in a positive direction.”
What Affects Your Attention Span Most?
The biggest culprit behind shortened attention spans is stress—and lots of it. “When we’re stressed, our attention span shrinks and our concentration is often disrupted by both external stimuli and our own internal thoughts,” Manfredi explains.
She also cites sleep as another factor that can have a significant impact on our attention span. Sleep is elemental to optimal brain health and functioning. “If we’re not getting sufficient sleep, our attention span is greatly reduced,” she says.
Exercise—or lack thereof—is another key habit that affects our ability to focus. “Getting regular exercise can help our bodies to regulate themselves, allowing us to pay attention when needed,” Manfredi explains. Exercise has both short- and long-term brain benefits, from boosting and managing mood to improving memory, learning, and selective attention.
4 Habits and Strategies to Improve Attention Span
You have to start getting enough sleep.
Take any steps you need to make good quality sleep a top priority. Sleep is crucial for attention—or as Manfredi says, it’s a “major strategy” to improve attention span. “Establishing a routine of going to sleep and waking up around the same time each day can go a long way in improving our attention span,” she says.
Figure out how to decrease stress in your life.
Stress management holds a bevy of health and psychological benefits, and one of them is increasing attention span, Manfredi shares. Finding ways to manage and lower stress in your life, whatever that looks like for you, will be hugely important to your mental health and mental capacities. This can mean taking more frequent vacations from work to prevent burnout; setting boundaries and saying no when a person or certain obligations become overly taxing; practicing mindfulness and potentially regular meditation sessions to learn healthy ways to manage thoughts and overwhelm; or doing anything else that aids in stress relief for you.
Force yourself to take regular breaks.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, Manfredi says taking regular breaks is a highly effective way to improve attention span, since everyone’s attention span has a limit.
“Our attention span tends to be longer for things that we’re interested in or enjoy and shorter for things that are boring, tedious, uninteresting, or mundane,” Manfredi says. “The goal here is to work to about 80 percent of your maximum attention span for a specific task and then take a break. By taking a break before you really need one, your brain can get recharged and re-energized to resume the task.”
Manfredi often uses the analogy of a car's gas tank to illustrate this concept.
“If you stop and refuel when your tank is 80 percent empty, you will just need a short break before you can get back on the road,” she says. “But if you run out of gas on the road, you’ll be stuck there for a much longer time until you can get gas. Our attention span works in much the same way. If we take a break before we absolutely need one, the break can be shorter and we can get refocused much faster. But if we work to our limit, we exhaust ourselves and then need much more time and energy to recover and resume the task at hand.”
Commit to limiting distractions.
While this may seem obvious, distractions are something we all struggle with, and they’re a major external factor inhibiting our ability to concentrate. We need to make a conscious effort to limit distractions in order to improve our attention span. Manfredi offers one option of using a timer that’s set to go off at regular intervals.
“When the timer goes off, check whether we are still focused on the task we are supposed to be doing or if we have gotten off track,” she says. “If we have gotten off track, we can use that opportunity to get back on track.”
If you work in a noisy, open office, consider noise-canceling headphones or earbuds; if you have a physical single-personal office, go inside and shut the door when you need to focus on deep work. Manfredi also recommends controlling the distractions on your devices: using apps and browser extensions that block distractions on your devices as effective ways of increasing your attention span. These can block notifications—a huge distractor—for specific periods of time, as well as prevent you from going to websites or apps that are particularly distracting when you’re trying to focus on a specific activity.
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