A short attention span is a common problem for many people. It happens to the best of us. You’re sitting in class or in a meeting and you suddenly find yourself daydreaming, losing focus, and not paying attention.
In one study of over 2,000 adults, people reported that their minds weren’t really on the task at hand almost 50% of the time. Perhaps even more importantly, people report feeling less happy when they are distracted.
The ability to pay attention takes effort and is a limited resource. It is also prone to lapses caused by fatigue or boredom. Age-related cognitive declines can also have an effect on your ability to maintain attention.
If attentional problems are having a serious impact on your life and ability to function, it may be a sign of an underlying condition such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Talk to your doctor about your concerns to rule out any potential medical or psychiatric causes.
So what can you do to increase a short attention span, increase your focus, and prevent your mind from wandering? Researchers have discovered a few different things that might help.
Trying to do many different things at once makes it more difficult to concentrate on any one thing. While it might seem like multitasking can help you accomplish more, research has shown that juggling multiple tasks actually reduces both productivity and accuracy. If you want to make the most out of your attentional resources, try focusing on just one task at a time.
Mindfulness involves purposely paying attention to things in a particular way, and new research suggests that practicing mindfulness might actually help improve a short attention span. According to research presented at an annual conference held by the British Psychological Society (BPS), children who took a short training course in mindfulness were better able to concentrate and ignore distractions.
Researchers have found that those experienced in meditation are better at focusing their attention on a single item and ignoring irrelevant items. What about people new to meditation? Can practicing this skill help you better focus your attentional spotlight? Research indicates that the answer is yes. Participants in one study who learned to meditate and practiced for approximately 30 minutes per day were quicker to notice new stimuli, indicating that they had improved their attention.
So why exactly does meditation help? One suggestion is that it decreases the attentional blink that we all experience. Attentional blink is a brief period of time after we focus on one item, about half a second, where we are unreceptive to secondary stimuli. Essentially, focusing on one thing makes us briefly blind to other things. One study demonstrated that participants who received meditation training demonstrated a marked reduction in attentional blink.
Turning Off Technology
From smartphones to video games to online video, it seems like we often spend a huge chunk of our day absorbed by various forms of technology. Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that the constant distraction presented by such technology is actually making it more difficult for young children to focus on activities like reading for an extended period of time. If you want to be able to focus your attention and fully devote yourself to a task, turn off the technology—at least for long enough to let you finish the job.
Studies have shown that exercise can help people who have ADHD improve their attention span and focus. Getting regular exercise has a wide range of benefits, both physical and mental, so try to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day.
Meditation can help you learn to improve your focus, but it takes practice to learn how to bring your bring your attention back to the task at hand. Researcher Wendy Hasenkamp suggests that becoming aware of when your mind has wandered, actively disengaging from the distraction, and bringing your focus back to the task at hand can help make people more mindful of how they utilize their attention. The more you notice that your mind has wandered, and thus the more you actively bring yourself back to a state of attention, the better you will become at maintaining your focus on a single task.
“Understanding the way the brain alternates between focused and distracted states has implications for a wide variety of everyday tasks,” Hasenkamp explains. “For example, when your mind wandered off in that meeting, it might help to know you’re slipping into default mode—and you can deliberately bring yourself back to the moment. That’s an ability that can improve with training.”
The bottom line:
If you’ve ever felt like you had a “short attention span” or if you often catch your mind wandering when you should be focusing on a task, you might be able to benefit from some of these “attention boosting” activities. Eliminating distractions, putting an end to multitasking, meditating, and active practice are just a few of the things that researchers believe can have a beneficial influence on attention. Think of attention as a muscle—the more you work with it, the stronger it will be.
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