Paying attention is hard, especially when what we need to be paying attention to is boring (Yes, I'm talking about that meeting you're forced to attend).
Your attention span is how long you can stay focused on a task without getting distracted. You could say that the goldfish has a better attention span than most of us (but that's not completely true, more about that in a moment).
Fortunately, just like any other skill, you can improve your attention span.
Our Attention Spans Are Decreasing
You've probably heard that as of 2013, the average attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish.
But the truth is you can't put a number on how long someone can focus because it really depends on the task at hand. You'll pay more attention to a YouTube video than a lecture on a topic you hate.
There are people claiming that our attention spans are 8 seconds while a goldfish has an attention span of 9 minutes. Those claims have no accurate studies to back them up.
What we do know is that we spend almost half of our day mindwandering. A Harvard study shows that we spend 47% of our waking hours daydreaming AKA not paying attention to the task at hand.
Why Should You Pay Attention?
The ability to pay attention is a valuable skill. Students with better attention spans do better in school. One study showed that 4-year-olds with longer attention spans ended up doing better in math and reading when they were 21. They were also 49% more likely to have graduated from college by the age of 25.
At work, not paying attention and missing details can negatively affect your performance.
It's as Winifred Gallagher said in her book, Rapt: Attention and The Focused Life:
"Far more than you may realize, your experience, your world, and even your self are the creations of what you focus on."
What you pay attention to determines your experiences. You pay attention to a few things in your environment while the rest becomes a blur. Paying attention to more things and paying attention for longer can make your experience a better one.
How to Increase Attention Span
There are things that you can start doing today that will increase your attention span.
Meditation has many benefits: it makes you smart, increases memory, and improves concentration.
A study by the Italian neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni shows that meditation alters your brain patterns leading to higher stability in your ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC). The vPMC is responsible for all those random thoughts and mindwandering going on in your head.
2. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
You know how hard it is to focus after you just pulled an all-nighter. Someone will ask you "How are you?" and you'll reply with "Good, and how is me?"
Sleep deprivation impairs your executive function. Your executive functions are mental skills that help you stay organized and get things done.
These mental skills include the ability to:
- Manage Time
- Remember things
- Plan Ahead
- Pay Attention
We know you have a lot to do, but a good night's sleep will boost your concentration and focus the next day. It's worth it.
Get your heart pumping and immediately improve your attention.
Exercise increases the blood flow to your brain, making you more alert and concentrated while helping your brain ignore distractions.
Students who exercised for 20 minutes before taking an attention span test scored higher than those who didn't exercise.
Any moderate exercise that gets your heart pumping will suffice to improve your focus.
4. Drink Tea or Coffee
If you don't already drink a cup of coffee or tea every morning, this is a good reason to pick up the habit.
Coffee contains caffeine which improves concentration and focus by eliminating distractors.
Black tea strengthens your focus throughout the day. In one study, participants were given either black tea or placebo tea (hot water with flavors and color). The group who received black tea had better attention spans than those who drank the placebo.
5. Practice Mindfulness
What better way to pay attention than to constantly remind yourself to pay attention?
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of where you are and what you’re doing. You focus on the present without getting carried away in your thoughts.
To practice mindfulness, just slow down, focus on what you’re doing, and bring your mind back to the task whenever you catch yourself wandering off.
You can make time to practice mindfulness every day, or try to stay mindful all the time.
Start out by being mindful next time you eat. Try to feel the food in your mouth, taste its flavors, notice how it smells, and actively chew it.
6. Find Your Sweet Spot
If you are trying to learn something and need to pay attention, it can help to find your sweet spot.
According to the region of proximal learning model, every person has a learning sweet spot. It is where the material being studied is not too easy, but also not too hard. It is the optimal difficulty for that individual.
When you are learning material that is difficult enough to give you a challenge, but not difficult enough to make you frustrated, you are less likely to zone out and mindwander.
7. Use the Podomoro Technique
Attention is a limited resource. The more you pay attention on one task, the less you'll have to pay on the next.
Try using the Podomoro Technique to refresh your attention.
The Podomoro Technique is a productivity technique developed by Francesco Cirillo.
The method is simple: you choose a task, work on that task for 25 minutes, and then take a five-minute break. After you've taken 4 breaks, you get a longer break, which is 15-20 minutes long.
This method works well because you work in short, productive bursts. Then you have a break to refresh your mind and avoid wearing your attention and concentration.
8. Listen to Music
No, I'm not going to tell you to listen to classical music. You get to listen to whatever music you like.
Music can help improve your focus, concentration, and attention span, but it has to be music you like, according to a study published in scientific reports.
However, classical music does have its own benefits. A study done at Stanford University of School of Medicine showed that short symphonies engaged the areas of the brain that are involved in paying attention and making predictions. They also revealed that the music techniques used by composers 200 years ago help the brain organize information that it's receiving.
9. Stay Away From Distractions
Did you really think it'd be easy pay to attention with your phone beeping every two minutes?
In order to pay attention, you need to stay away from things that distract you from the task at hand.
As Daniel Goleman explained in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, there are two types of distractions: sensory distractions and emotional distractions.
Sensory distractions are things around you, while emotional distractions are things within, such as your inner dialogue and your thoughts about things happening in your life.
For most of us, our main sensory distraction is our smartphones, but your email at work, Facebook, or the TV playing in the background are also distractions.
When you need to pay attention, do your best to eliminate anything that can take your mind off of whatever is it you're doing.
It’s really not that hard to do:
First, turn your phone off and sit in a quiet room and face away from windows. Then, identify anything else that distracts you and start eliminating all other distractions one by one.
As for emotional distractions, set aside half an hour a day to think about your life, worries, and other distractions. Any time these thoughts pop up, write them on a paper and come back to them during your thinking time.
10. Avoid Multitasking
Multitasking is the worst thing you can do for your attention, learning, and productivity.
Brains can only pay attention to 2 or 3 things at a time. If you try to focus on four things at once, you will lose your concentration on the other three things and this fourth thing will become the only thing you are paying attention to.
A few people may be able to concentrate on 7 things at once, but once they try for 8, the same applies; they lose focus on the first seven.
But just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
There are two different types of multitasking:
- Divided attention
- Rapid attention
Divided attention is when you are paying attention to two things simultaneously. You are processing two different stimuli at the same time.
Yet, rapid attention is when you rapidly switch your attention from one task to another.
Both types of multitasking significantly reduce the amount and quality of information you process from each stimuli.
11. Drink More Water
Did you know that drinking water during a test can improve your grades by up to 5%?
Water isn't just important for your body, your brain needs it, too. Mild dehydration -even if it's only 2%- negatively affects your attention and ability to concentrate, according to a study by the University of Barcelona.
Keep a water bottle with you and stay hydrated whenever you need to pay attention.
These are all simple things you can start doing today to improve your attention span and concentration. What do you do when you need to focus? Share it with us in the comments below.
You may have heard the popular story saying our attention spans have decreased recently, and that the average attention span is less than a goldfish's. Although there are no scientific studies backing that up, our attention spans have diminished. Fortunately, like any skill, there are thins you can do to increase your attention span.
This article covers:
- Our Attention Spans are Decreasing
- Why Should You Pay Attention?
- How to Increase Attention Span
- Get a Good Night's Sleep
- Drink Tea or Coffee
- Practice Mindfulness
- Find Your Sweet Spot
- Use the Pomodoro Technique
- Listen to Music
- Stay Away from Distractions
- Avoid Multitasking
- Drink More Water