If you don’t have enough focus and willpower (or time) to read the next few paragraphs, just skip to the list.
How many times this week have you felt completely absorbed in a task? You know the feeling. You’re working on a presentation at work and miss the notification for your next meeting because you’re in deep focus mode. Or, you are intensely eyeing the volleyball, waiting for it to soar over the net so you can position your wrists perfectly in order to pop it up into the air for your teammates. Pop!
That deep level of focus is called concentrated focus and it helps us use our skills at their peak. You want to have concentrated focus in the workplace so you can perform to the best of your ability. You want the same kind of focus in your relationships so you can listen intently without distraction. You might be thinking to yourself, “I already do this most of the time.” If so, I applaud you.
However, there is a downside to being in deep focus mode. You will eventually exhaust glucose, your brain’s fuel. Remember all the times you told yourself to “push through” a task? Sorry, but forcing yourself to “push through” when your brain is exhausted isn’t going to unlock a secret, sparkly store of glucose that gives you just the perfect amount of extra oomph to finish your task. When you’ve used up your fuel, it’s time to rest your brain. Otherwise, you’ll start making mistakes left and right. Not sure if your brain is running on empty? Signs include distractedness, irritability and fatigue. So remember, you need to rest.
CONGRATULATIONS! If you’ve read this article in its entirety (no distractions) up to this point, you have focused for about 30 seconds.
Our attention spans are changing
A recent study from the Technical University of Denmark suggests the collective global attention span is narrowing due an increase in the amount of information that is presented to us. We now have more things to focus on so we end up focusing for shorter periods of time. That means there’s less time for depth of focus because there’s so much other content begging for our attention. Content publishers (basically, everyone) are getting really good at figuring out how to capture our attention with targeted ads and content. If you work in marketing, you know exactly what I mean… number of minutes spent on a page may be more important to you than the number of page views.
Here’s something interesting: this Vox article claims that while our brains become more scattered, that they are also becoming more uniform. Uniform!? Yeah, we tend to join the bandwagon and give our attention to trending topics, like Avengers: Endgame or the coffee cup in Game of Thrones. The bandwagon is fun but it doesn’t stay parked in one spot for long because our collective attention span is pretty short. We hop from trending topic to trending topic, as seen on Twitter, Reddit, and Google Search. Can that be good for our attention spans? Probably not.
So what can we do to improve our ability to focus deeply and spend our brain fuel on things worthy of our time?
9 Ways to Improve Your Attention Span
- Read a book slowly. According to research from the Pew Research Center, reading of online content has increased nearly 40%. Yet 26% of Americans didn’t read a single book last year. This is something I’ve been doing because I scan lots of short-form content all the time, but I rarely read a book. So lately, I’ve chosen to read about history. I love reading it slowly and trying to commit everything to memory — which is hard for me to do when reading about wars. It takes a lot of concentration. What’s the last book you read slowly?
- Try meditating. I had a professor in college who guided us in meditation at the start of each class. It was the first time I ever really meditated and it was awesome. We would lie down on the floor and he would guide us. The way he would direct our minds to focus on relaxing our bodies from our heads to our toes was so relaxing. (By the way, it was a coding class and we were given the task of giving ourselves a final grade). If you want to meditate, I suggest downloading the Calm app.
- Create a not-to-do list. Apparently it takes up to 25 minutes to regain your focus after being distracted. Instead of switching tasks, write down those thoughts that pop into your head, so you can focus on them later.
- Exercise. Working out isn’t just good for your body but for your mind, too. Researchers have found that students who engaged in moderate physical exercise before taking a test that measured attention spans performed better than students who didn’t exercise. Personally, I think when you tire your body out you become less fidgety and your mind can relax a little more. But hey, I’m no scientist.
- Do this mindfulness exercise from Harvard Business Review: Put your focus on a chosen target, like your breath. When it wanders away (and it will), notice that your mind has wandered. This requires mindfulness, the ability to observe our thoughts without getting caught up in them. Then bring your attention back to your breath. That’s the mental equivalent of a weightlifting rep. Researchers at Emory University report that this simple exercise actually strengthens connectivity in the circuits for focus.
- Set timers for tasks. This helps me get things done because it gives me a finite amount of time for a task. Of course if I need more time, I can spend more time on the task but time boxing myself lets me deeply focus without distraction. Then I can rest. It’s the work-rest-work-rest cycle.
- Play this online game: Dual n-back. The game requires you to simultaneously remember letters (spoken aloud by the computer) and locations of squares on a tic-tac-toe style grid. It’s one of the better known attention building games. I just tried it… I need to keep trying.
- Notice more. Look at your surroundings and take in the little things. You can start with something as simple as staring at your own hand as it rests on your keyboard at work. Notice the tiny lines, the veins and where they lead, the change in color in different areas, how your hand moves as you type. The more you can see in life, the more benefit to you! Everything is more interesting to more you really observe.
- Set goals using 1-3-5. Not to be confused with the 5-3-1 method for weightlifting, this is a method for creating your daily to-do list. At the top of your sheet of paper, you list 1 big goal you want to achieve for the day, below it you list 3 medium things, and then 5 small things to do. This helps you prioritize and if your mind drifts off, you can go back to your list and focus on the goals you’ve set for the day.
What would you add to this list?
Sources I used: