The ability to stay focused on your work can be essential for success. So why, then, do so many individuals have difficulty paying attention to the task at hand?
Both biological and societal factors can play a role: for example, our ability to focus may begin to fade as we age. At the same time, a world busy with notifications, endless scrolling, and countless open browser tabs can impede our ability to concentrate. Additionally, shortened TV ads and film shots seem to accommodate our waning attention spans, according to Gloria Mark, Ph.D., a professor and researcher who has studied the subject for over 20 years.
When Mark began her research in 2004, she found individuals could focus on any given screen for an average of 150 seconds. Today, that number is down to 47 seconds – a nearly 69% decrease.
But with self-awareness, discipline, and intentional practice, we can aim to improve our attention span, rewire our brains, and reshape the way we focus.
1. Address Why Your Focus Is Shifting
When your thoughts stray from the task at hand, you can ask why. Are you reaching for your phone because you’re bored? Are you repeatedly checking email because the task you’re working on is challenging? Are external stressors or emotions competing for your attention? Are you daydreaming about your plans for vacation?
For example, if you notice you automatically picked up your phone or suddenly opened a new tab to research “best carry-on bags,” ask if that’s really what you need to be doing in that moment.
The more you get into the habit of confronting your distracted behavior, the more you may be able to mindfully resist the compulsion and redirect your focus. On one hand, you’re giving your rational brain a moment to override the more impulsive parts, thereby helping to interrupt a habit loop a process in which a trigger tells your brain to perform a “rewarding” automatic action. That could be seeing a notification or making a purchase. A pause for self-questioning is also a form of mindfulness, which can help increase our focus.
2. Eliminate Distractions
You can aim to create an environment that actively supports your ability to focus. That can start by decluttering your workspace, for example, to ensure that it’s free from nonessential items that could divert your attention. If you work from home, try to aim to complete household tasks like laundry or dishes before working or try using them as a break during the workday.
It can be useful to ward off digital distractions as well. You can close irrelevant browser tabs or bookmark them for later, hide apps that aren’t immediately necessary, and utilize your device’s focus mode to stay on task. Also, you might consider silencing or turning off nonessential notifications.
With self-awareness, discipline, and intentional practice, we can aim to improve our attention span, rewire our brains, and reshape the way we focus.
3. Focus Your Time
Carefully scheduling your time can help support your ability to stay focused. Simply writing down what you need to do can “unburden” the brain, reduce anxiety, and, ultimately, make you more productive, according to an article in FPM, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Academy of Family Physicians. This “unburdening” can help reduce your cognitive load. When tasks are floating around in our heads, they use cognitive resources. Writing them down can free up mental space that can be used to hone focus.
If a to-do list isn’t sufficient, you can try adopting a stricter scheduling approach. You can allocate specific time blocks for each task that needs to be accomplished. This strategy can help you direct your focus toward what’s most needed, while minimizing decision fatigue. Every decision we make uses mental energy, and the more we make in a given day, the more likely our brain can seek “shortcuts,” which hinders our focus or leads to impulsive choices. Scheduling can eliminate the need to decide what to do and when, reserving more mental energy for sustained focus.
4. Limit Multitasking
The internet is turning us into “chronic scatterbrains,” says author Nicholas Carr in his book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”
Carr highlights how the digital age promotes multitasking and quick skimming at the expense of deep reflection, contemplation, or more in-depth, conceptual thought processes. To develop your ability for deep attention, you can limit multitasking. Try a digital detox: maybe take an entire day during the weekend to avoid all digital devices, or at least set aside some tech-free time in the evenings. You might revert to pen and paper for some tasks – a simple switch that might stimulate your ability to stay focused. Another option is to try to establish specific intervals for checking your email, perhaps once in the morning and once in the afternoon, to limit flitting back and forth between what needs to be done and what your brain thinks needs to be done.
5. Take Breaks
Consistent, sustained focus can be as mentally taxing as lifting weights is to our muscles or sprinting is to our stamina. Just as an athlete requires rest periods to recover and perform optimally, our cognitive faculties can benefit from intervals of rest.
If you find yourself losing focus, you can get up to stretch, walk around the office, or step outside to make a postponed phone call before coming back to the task at hand. Even the act of washing your hands can serve as a momentary mental reset.
You might enjoy a tea break. Several studies attest to the healing power of tea, not only for its calming effect or its memory-boosting properties, but also for making us feel more alert and enhancing cognitive performance.
6. Reward Yourself for Staying Focused
Consider boosting the relevance of the task at hand by creating your own deadline and combining it with a reward. It just might help you increase your ability to stay focused. For example, B.F. Skinner’s work on “operant conditioning” includes the concept of positive reinforcement – namely, that presenting a favorable stimulus after a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior being repeated in the future.
Even self-imposed rewards can increase your ability to achieve the desired behavior. This approach can hold particular value for small-business owners and entrepreneurs who operate without direct oversight. You might set aside a day or half-day to spend with the family in exchange for meeting an important deliverable for a new client.
Constant distractions can condition us to have shorter attention spans, and it can take work to undo it. Fortunately, our brains are adaptable by nature and can be rewired to stay focused. We can minimize multitasking and other distractions to create an environment that actively supports sustained attention. Building a robust attention span isn’t just about continuous focus – but recognizing when to rest can be key.
A version of this article was originally published on December 02, 2013.
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