As technology changes the way we work, learn, and relax, more and more people are looking for ways to remedy their short attention spans. With instant information and instant entertainment, we rarely need to exercise much patience or concentration on anything. If a video takes too long to load, we change our minds and close out. If we don't get an interactive whiteboard or flashy PowerPoint slides to watch during a presentation, we zone out.
Some argue that our attention spans are not getting shorter, they're just changing. We're just more selective about how we use our brain waves. However, sometimes we don't get the luxury of choosing. In many manual industries, a second's distraction could become fatal.
Take transportation, for example:
According to a 2017 study by the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, "of the 172,000 traffic deaths researchers analyzed over the past five years, they found one in 10 were victims of distracted driving" (Jalopnik).
Regardless of what industry you work in or how exciting your job is, chances are your mind, focus, and attention span could really benefit from a little cognitive work-out.
So, here are 10 tips to increase your attention span and productivity:
1. Set small goals:
If it were your first day at the gym, you probably wouldn’t start off by flipping 900lbs tires in circles or bench pressing the combined weight of all your friends. Maybe you’d do a light jog, some calf raises, a few wrist circles, crack your neck, and go stretch it out.
Likewise, when building brain power, it’s important to set small and realistic goals to avoid getting discouraged. If you have a particularly short attention span and find it difficult to focus for long periods of time, try the Pomodoro method. It’s the Kayla Itsines/HIIT of brain workouts. You identify a task, set a timer for 5 minutes (more or less depending on your attention span), get it done, and then take a break. Add another 5 minutes to the timer each day to push your brain to focus for longer.
photo by: Microsoft Partner Network
2. Use sticky notes and make to-do lists.
photo by: Kentlabs.com
In this age of instant information, the second a random thought like the gestation period of llamas crosses your mind, you get to google it. (11 months)
Each time you indulge in one of these thoughts and go online to research it, each time you check your phone and see a news notification that Justin Bieber got married, it will take you an average of 25 minutes to refocus on your task. Shifting our attention from llamas to Justin Bieber to the weather tomorrow and then back to work will also drain its strength.
To refocus more quickly, keep your list of tasks for the day visible. Put bright sticky notes on your computer or on the wall. If you really must know more about how llamas live their lives, make a separate note of that and read about it after work or on a break.
3. Become more self-disciplined.
Easier said than done. Self-discipline is just like any other skill that we must work on and build gradually. Some days, we just cannot bring ourselves to focus and get work done. Motivation plays a big role in self-discipline so constantly remind yourself why you’re doing what you do. If your job itself isn’t motivating enough, add your own motivation by rewarding yourself with a coffee break, a new candle that smells like the Redwood Forest, or a hamburger. Push yourself, but not too hard. If you simply cannot focus or fail at your goal, dwelling on it will discourage you. Allow yourself a failure every now and then, set a new exciting goal, identify a new reward, and then get back to it.
You don’t have to be a monk, shop at Lululemon, or even criss-cross applesauce in order to meditate. It’s simply a time to clear your mind, focus on the present moment, and detach yourself from daily distractions and stress.
- Jeff Weiner, former Yahoo executive, CEO of LinkedIn
- Arianna Huffington, founder of Huffington Post
- Padmasree Warrior, Chief Technology and Strategy Officer of Cicso Systems, one of the top 100 most powerful women in the world by Forbes
- Jerry Seinfeld, worth over $800 million, one of the most successful entertainers in the world
- Ray Dalio, founder of the world's largest hedge fund
- Bob Stiller, founder of Green Mountain Coffee
- Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam records
- Joe Rogan, UFC and Joe Rogan Show host
- Marc Benioff, CEO and founder of Salesforce
- Andrew Chert, CEO of Panda Express
- Bob Shapiro, former Monsanto CEO and venture capitalist
Oprah Winfrey, you know who she is
Besides meditating, you can also practice being mindful throughout your day. This means taking a few minutes to slow down, focus completely on what you’re doing, and feel all the physical and emotional sensations you are experiencing.
For example, if you’re eating a strawberry: Slow down your chewing, explore how the strawberry tastes on different parts of your tongue, roll the little seeds around in your mouth, and then swallow. Observe the rat:
By incorporating mindfulness throughout the day, you can learn to block out distractions, strengthen your attention span, and build your ability to focus even when you’re not eating strawberries but just doing plain old work. So, make another sticky note now to practice mindfulness until it becomes a habit and a way of life.
The integration of mental and physical health has long been studied and backed by science.
In one study, researchers found that students who were physically active before taking a test on attention spans performed better than students who were inactive. According to Dr. John Ratey, author of "Spark - The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain", “exercise improves your brain in the short-term by raising your focus for two to three hours afterwards” (Forbes) . This mind-body connection may be attributed to the release of endorphins which help your brain prioritize, or to the practice of self-discipline learned through physical endurance.
Schools rarely have children memorize poems or recite anything from memory anymore. However, the science stands that memorization and brain training games can have a big impact on concentration, working and short-term memory, and problem-solving skills.
So, impress a special someone and memorize a poem. Or just fill out a crossword puzzle.
These days, everyone seems to have a blog. (Oops.)
Everywhere you look, people are trying to get you to read something. We adapt by learning to skim quickly for points that interest us and then discard the rest. Instead of clicking to open and read a news article, many just read the headline and call it good. According to Chartbeart, only 5% of people who open an article finish reading it. 38% only read the first few paragraphs. We can’t blame them, there’s just too much information everywhere so we are a lot more selective and use our attention sparingly.
But it’s not just the internet. Many Americans aren’t reading books anymore either.
Our habit of skimming, scrolling, and clicking on the internet make it difficult for our brains to focus on anything for a long period of time. Flipping the page of a book is simply not enough interactivity anymore. If a book has a slow intro, few of us have the willpower to get through it.
The only remedy is to acknowledge that this is a problem and work the brain back to its full power again. So, pick up a book. If you have the concentration, mindfulness, and self-discipline to get through it, you’ll be able to take those skills and apply them to get better at your job, too.
9. Keep learning.
Seek ways to discover more about the world. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Learn new ways to do things. Find new ways to become better at what you do.
Our brains love learning so don’t deny them this pleasure. With a mind open to new knowledge, our brains can remain active, stimulated, and powerful enough to read an article from start to finish.
It makes sense that people who are used to skimming for useful information on the internet will also apply this technique when people are talking. Try not to zone out at your next meeting. Listen to a kid narrate an entire movie to you, no matter how excruciating it may be. Let your elderly neighbor talk to you about their garden. If not for their sake, do it to build self-discipline and concentration power in your brain.
Try one or all of these methods. But remember that your head is part of your body, no matter how far off into daydreams it may float sometimes. The foundation of a healthy mind is a healthy body--exercise, sleep, and eat well.
If you're serious about gaining control over your own mind and tracking your cognitive prowess or if you work in an industry where focus and attention are critical, check out how Alertmeter can help.