It seems that the world collectively suffers from a short attention span. Movies and songs are getting shorter, and headlines are the most important part of an article. We are more discerning than ever when deciding what is worthy of our concentration, and even then, it’s hard to keep.
But, there are still signs that your attention span is shrinking from what it once was (say, when you could study for eight hours in your college library). A short attention span is characterized as an inability to stay focused on one thing without becoming distracted by another thing.
Many of us have been working from home, so let’s start there. How often are you taking a break from work to look at your phone? Is it hard to complete one task at a time? Do you find yourself completely exhausted after completing a morning of work? Are you easily distracted by other things in your home, like pets, children, or TV?
These could all be signs of a short attention span and may be especially prevalent during the pandemic. When boundaries between work and home life are blurred, it makes it harder and harder to stay focused for very long.
The good news is that once your attention span gets lost, it’s not gone forever. As Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, a neurologist, says, instead of trying to force yourself to work harder, you can take action “to promote improvements in the specific brain functions that drive concentration and awareness.”
Here are 6 ways to improve your attention span
1. Cut out whatever is distracting you
Let’s start with the most obvious but potentially most effective step to take. Pay attention to where your mind or energy goes when you get distracted from the task at hand. Is it always Instagram? The news? Your Zillow app? A group text message?
Whatever it is, take note. Make a dedicated effort to avoid that thing during work hours. Allow yourself 30 minutes on your lunch break or after work to focus on that distraction.
If you know you don’t have this kind of vigilance and worry you’re still be tempted, delete the app from your devices, or put your phone in a room across the house. Tell your friends you’re not available and may be slow to respond. Take every step you can to remove the distraction while you’re trying to focus.
2. Take care of your body and mind
Next, think about how you prioritize wellness. When you get enough sleep, eat well, and exercise, your focus will probably improve significantly. Beware of some diets that can actually cause you to lose focus. Dr. Schwartzbard points out that “low-fat diets can ruin focus because the brain needs certain essential fatty acids. But not getting enough protein is bad too.”
It’s all about balance. Eat healthily but make sure you have enough protein, carbs, and vegetables. More processed foods or those high in sugar can give you a boost but will quickly lead to a crash. Always make sure to drink lots of water throughout the day to stay hydrated.
The right exercise routine doesn’t have to be intense to improve your wellness. Going for a walk, stretching, doing yoga, or going for a run can all have beneficial impacts on your health. And taking the time to show your body some love will help you stay focused when the time comes to sit down and work.
Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, offers advice to boost memory, concentration, and mental sharpness: “When you exercise and move around, you are using more brain cells,” which in turn make more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (DBNF) that supports brain health. Exercising regularly (30 minutes a day, ideally five days a week) is key to get all these brain benefits.
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3. Improve your work environment
If you find yourself overly distracted or impatient, try improving your physical space. Clean up your desk and office. Organize those stacks of forms that have been sitting around for months. Move your paper files to an online format to minimize clutter.
You also may need to consider the noise in your environment. Can you always hear your neighbors fighting or playing music? Is construction loud next door? What about the heating and cooling systems in your home? Is there always a cat scratching at your door?
Pay attention to sounds that distract you throughout the day. Consider wearing noise-canceling headphones or playing relaxing music or ambient noise while you work. A noisy, messy workspace will usually impact your attention span for the worse.
4. Reexamine your work life
Sometimes your attention span dwindles because you’re simply not engaged by the work you’re doing. We all get bored sometimes, and that’s normal. But if you’re consistently disengaged, unhappy, and unmotivated with your job, this could be why your attention span is so poor.
You may feel lucky to have the job you have, especially during the pandemic. But consider looking for work elsewhere if you can find something more exciting or challenging. Or, you may be able to talk to your manager about taking on new tasks so that you have something new to focus on.
Sometimes the reason you can’t focus is that you need a change.
5. Understand potential psychological and medical causes
It’s also important to recognize that there may be medical reasons why you can’t focus. Hormonal changes during pregnancy or menopause can impact concentration, Dr. Schwartzbard says, as well as excessive stress.
Underlying conditions like ADHD, depression, anxiety, sleep apnea, and others can all impact your attention span. If you take steps to improve your concentration but are still struggling, it may be worth discussing your issue with your doctor in case there’s something else going on that should be addressed.
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6. Practice grace and acceptance
Finally, try to show yourself grace. Recognize when you’re having trouble focusing, and tell yourself it’s okay, that it won’t last forever. Get up and move around, go for a walk, or do another task. Come back to work when you feel more relaxed. When you’re already feeling impatient, forcing yourself to focus may actually make things worse.
Be kind to yourself, especially when you’re making these changes or going through a transition. With the right information and the right lifestyle alterations, you’ll be able to manage your concentration and get things done.
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