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.

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.((The Harvard Gazette: Wandering mind not a happy mind))

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 focus and productivity.

1. Stop Multitasking

If you’re anything like me, then it’s hard not to multitask. 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.”

And unfortunately, while you may feel you’re accomplishing more when you furiously pivot activities, you’re risking getting less done. Here’s why: 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.((The Week: 5 ways to boost your attention span)) Think of your cognitive energy—your thinking mind—as a resource. Each time you change 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 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.

2. Remove Distractions

Your environment affects your attention span more than you think. So, 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. Or better yet, put your phone in another room altogether. Studies show having a phone nearby in the same room can be distracting.((The Week: 5 ways to boost your attention span))

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.

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 can improve cognitive control (in other words, one’s ability to focus).((University of California at Santa Barbara: Exercise may improve kid’s attention span))

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.((Society for Neuroscience: Scientists Find Brain Areas Affected By Lack Of Sleep))

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.((National Library of Medicine: Enhancing Cognitive Abilities with Comprehensive Training: A Large, Online, Randomized, Active-Controlled Trial))

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.((Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: Rapid Improvement in Visual Selective Attention Related to Action Video Gaming Experience))

5. Play the Right Music

Sometimes, noise can be distracting when you’re trying to do deep work. But the right noise — specifically, music — can pack a big punch in your ability to pay attention to the things that matter. Prime example: classical symphonies.

One 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.((Stanford Medicine: Music moves brain to pay attention, Stanford study finds))

6. Practice Meditation

Meditation doesn’t only benefit your mental health, but it also helps to improve your focus. As you meditate on something, you’re training your attention span 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.((Psychological Science: Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering))

Not used to meditation? I wasn’t either until recently. 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 workday 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. It’s like telling my brain “Just thirty more minutes.”

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.((Inc.: Science Says These 7 Attention Exercises Will Instantly Make You More Focused))

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. ((DeskTime: The secret of the 10% most productive people? Breaking!))

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 your 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 increase your attention span.

More Tips on Incrasing Your Attention Span

  • How to Focus Better and Increase Your Attention Span
  • How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)
  • How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain


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