Focus has never been particularly easy, and in this age of mile-a-minute entertainment and devices that ping 24/7, it’s harder than ever to pay attention to anything for more than a few seconds. After all, it’s so easy to click over to another tab or check your phone when you just don’t feel like thinking about whatever work is in front of you. Over the past fifteen years, the human attention span has decreased from an already-low 12 seconds to 8 seconds — less than that of a goldfish.
The good news is that for many people, the attention span is essentially trainable. You can strengthen it through practice, and if it ever becomes worse than it is now, you’re likely to be able to climb your way back to the ultra-focused (or at least semi-diligent) person you once were. Here’s how to make your attention span longer, and actually make it through more than a few minutes of work without a burning desire to check your Twitter for the tenth time in a row.
1. Time yourself. There are lots of timer systems out there, but most share the same basic premise of training yourself to focus for concentrated bursts of time. Knowing there’s a set end point makes whatever you’re working on feel more manageable and often serves as motivation, because knowing you’re just a certain amount of minutes away from taking a break is a lot easier than staring down a lengthy, open-ended project.
A great method to try is putting yourself on a 20/10 timeline — 20 minutes of work followed by a 10 minute break before repeating the process, all with the help of a timer. It’s been said that something audible like a kitchen timer is most helpful, but depending on your work environment or temperament you may want to use something silent. Either way, make sure it’s able to capture your attention when time runs out so you don’t need to be frequently checking its progress. When it’s work time, don’t check your phone. Don’t open random tabs on the Internet. Don’t give your attention to anything besides the work. This isn’t as hard as it sounds, because you know a break is in sight.
When breaks constitute a whole third of your work time, like they do with this system, it will boost your morale and motivate you to try to up your game by ultimately working longer between breaks. That sense of accomplishment you feel each time you earn another break will build on itself and encourage you to keep going, but be sure not to jump into timeframes that require heavier focus until you’ve mastered this first step. Holding yourself back from diving in all at once is an important part of building solid habits!
2. Take constructive breaks. When you do take a break, try your best to fully disengage from what you’ve been working on so you can refresh your mind. One of the reasons it’s so tough to focus in 2015 is that our minds are often in a half-work, half-play limbo. When we alternate between using the internet to research for a major term paper and using it to scroll through Facebook each time we get bored of working on the assignment, with no real separation between work and downtime, our brains get confused. We rarely experience full-on relaxation or full-on focus, so try to create more clear boundaries by using your break to step away from the computer, take a walk, stretch, pour a cup of coffee, or otherwise demonstrate to yourself that this is not time to work in front of a glowing screen.
3. Find things to love about what you’re working on. This may sound obvious, but when you find enjoyment or fulfillment in what you’re working on, it’s a lot easier to focus. Sometimes we just have to plow through tasks we don’t like, but it’s often very possible to restructure your to-do list to focus on what really matters to you. Try to delegate undesirable projects when you can, and think about whether all those things you “have” to do are truly necessary. If you have to do things you hate (as we all do from time to time), try to find even the tiniest of silver linings that make the activity interesting to you, and emphasize that aspect of it as much as possible. Enjoying what you’re doing inspires a renewed sense of energy to stay on task when your mind is taxed. Keep your goals written down in a place where you can see them regularly as a motivator to push through.
4. Take phone-free walks. We are addicted to the constant rush of a new message or pretty picture flashing across our phones, and that constant stimulus makes it hard to remember how to simply exist. I try my hardest not to linger on my phone when out to eat with friends or in other social settings, and sometimes during those moments I find myself craving the rush and relief of glancing at my phone or spotting a new message. Seriously. I’d venture that most of us can point to moments like this, and we could all do better to remind ourselves that we can survive without that rush at all and retrain our minds not to miss it so much. In fact, doing so makes it a whole lot easier to grow your attention span. It also makes you a much better friend and family member, because you’ll get better at interacting without mindlessly reaching for your phone every ten seconds like a zombie.
Try taking regular short walks without your phone, just taking in what you see along the way with your own two eyes and no filtered phone camera. If walks aren’t your thing, try activities that require the actual use of your hands and your attention, like weaving or painting. Practice in feeling present in the moment serves you both during downtime and when you’re working. If at all possible, adjust your phone settings so you don’t get a pop-up notification each time you receive a new email or Facebook message. That way, you can check your phone on your terms instead of being interrupted in the middle of a productive streak by an email. When you’re on your computer, try to only keep a few Internet tabs open at a time.
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5. Develop positive coping mechanisms. Procrastination usually has more to do with emotional factors than simply not wanting to do a task, and the same can likely be said about a lack of ability to focus, since the two are often intertwined. It’s worth considering, either on your own or with a therapist, whether there’s a big emotional happening in your life that’s making it tough to be present in your work or chores. It may be an obvious factor like a major life transition, or it may be a deeper-rooted issue that could be parsed through with a bit of emotional work.
Many people lose focus or procrastinate when their most prominent stressors are triggered, so know your triggers and seek out more productive or positive coping mechanisms. Maybe you know that a change of scenery helps when you’re feeling distracted, or taking a quick jog around the block stops your momentary moment of stress from turning into a full-on spiral. Know what works for you and use it.
6. Take care of yourself. You’ve probably heard this a thousand times, but treating your mind and body with care gets you further than most anything else. That includes exercise and drinking lots of water, both of which can help increase the strength of your attention span. It also helps to be kind to yourself. Practice building up your focus in small intervals, just like you would if you were learning any other new skill bit by bit. Praise yourself for every accomplishment in the process and for every stretch of time you manage to stay focused, because doing so is a big deal in this day and age. You can do this!
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