How To Increase Attention Span
How to increase attention span. Ever wanted to learn how to keep your attention going? The amount of sensory information people are exposed to is increasing in today’s rapidly advancing world. Many would attest that the attention span of the average person is steadily decreasing. Attention is a thinking process anyone would be wise to develop. The essential cognitive skill enhances the efficiency of daily life. Continue reading to learn how to increase your attention span.
What is Attention?
Attention is a cognitive skill characterized by the ability to selectively respond to environmental stimuli. Daily, you encounter a plethora of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations that the brain must first perceive and then process. Attention plays a critical role because it is how we focus, concentrate, and shift between tasks despite any distractions that may be present.
The capacity to pay attention exists in all of us, yet the success varies from person to person. Some have short attention spans and cannot focus for long time periods, while others are not easily distracted. But with proper training, even the limited cognitive skill of attention can be refined, sharpened, and improved.
Types of Attention
There are 4 types of attention. Different types of attention are categorized by which stimuli are ignored and which are the central focus.
Sustained attention is the ability to focus on a stimulus for an extended period. This type of attention allows us to dedicate ourselves to a task until it is complete regardless of distracting stimuli present. Sustained attention entails vigilance—the process of detecting a stimulus—along with concentration, which is focusing on the detected stimulus to finish an activity.
Alternating attention is directing focus to more than one stimulus simultaneously. Using divided attention, someone can process information from numerous sources. Divided attention is like multi-tasking. However, efficiency decreases with each action and/or stimulus. An example of divided attention is reading a book while watching TV or taking notes while listening to a lecture.
Selective attention is attending to a stimulus while other distracting stimuli are present. Selective attention allows us to only focus on what is important rather than becoming overwhelmed by the sensory information in our environment. This type of attention is divided into visual selective visual attention and selective auditory attention. As the name implies, the former refers to visual stimuli detected by sight and the latter by auditory information that we hear.
Alternating attention is changing focus between multiple stimuli. With the cognitive skill known as alternating attention, the brain shifts back and forth between tasks that require separate cognitive demands. An example of alternating attention is taking notes while listening to a lecture.
Signs of a Short Intention Span
Exhibiting signs of a short attention span is not always a cause for concern. However, it can be associated with disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD). All share the same set of signs which vary in severity.
- Easily distracted—Stimuli like light, sound, smells, certain tastes, etc. prolong accomplishing tasks.
- Disorganization—Those with short attention spans have difficulty keeping their space tidy (i.e. desk, room, house, etc.).
- Procrastination—Waiting until the last minute to complete tasks.
- Difficulty following directions—Poor listening skills is part of short attentiveness. Those with short attention spans appear as if they are not listening.
- Becoming bored quickly—Quickly bored while completing tasks or engaging in activities. For example, they may skip to the end of the chapter when reading a book.
- Daydreaming—A sign of a short attention span is daydreaming.
- Processing information slowly—In comparison to peers, processing information is not as timely in someone with a short attention span.
- Overlooking details—Details at work or school are easily overlooked.
- Poor school performance—Academics can suffer due to poor concentration, a lack of following directions, and rushing through assignments because of boredom.
How To Increase Attention Span: Identify Distractions
While it is impossible to anticipate all distractions, set yourself up for success by identifying and eliminating distractions you are aware of. This may include working in isolation, preparing materials in advance, or finishing other priority tasks so that they will not linger in your mind.
For instance, if you are planning on doing homework, do not do so in the living room where your family is watching a movie. Go to a separate bedroom and sit at a desk. This ensures there are as minimal distracting stimuli present as possible. You will be able to focus with a longer attention span when your brain is not overstimulated by attending to multiple stimuli at once.
How To Increase Attention Span: Brain Games
The mind is a muscle. The brain is no different than the other muscles throughout the body in that it needs exercise to maintain optimal function. Exercising the brain can be as simple as doing a jigsaw puzzle, reading a book, or playing board games. These activities demand active attention—expanding all cognitive skills to build healthy brain pathways. Over time, the efficacy of attention advances.
Online brain games are increasing in popularity. Through the use of technology, they seek to improve cognitive skills like attention, memory, and processing speed. Many brain training games target attention with tasks in a video game-like setup. The benefits carry into the tasks of daily life. The University of Cambridge measured attention in participants with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with improvements in attention. The results were similar to prescribed stimulants approved for ADHD treatment.
How To Increase Attention Span: Physical Activity
Most think of a quiet and still atmosphere when considering the concept of attention. Did you know movement is actually beneficial for attention? Physical activity prevents neurodegeneration, preserves the brain’s vessels, and produces new and stronger cells. The exercise does not have to be rigorous. Any movement will be of benefit—cycling, light yoga, stretching, joining a sports team, swimming, running, dancing, and even walking! The University of Illinois found that 9-year old students scored higher on attention performance tests by walking for only 20 minutes beforehand.
How To Increase Attention Span: Sleep
Attention is a limited resource. The brain becomes fatigued when attempting to sustain attention for a prolonged time. The max limit for attention does vary, but sleep is a major factor in cognitive performance. During sleeping hours, the brain undergoes cellular changes to repair neuronal connections. Multiple studies cite the implications of sleep deprivation on the speed and accuracy—to elements of attention—in cognitive functioning. Sleep deprivation for 24 hours impaired both in the subjects of Wright’s 1991 study. Thus, ensuring a full 8 hours of sleep at night can increase attention span.
How To Increase Attention Span: Healthy Diet
Consuming healthy food is imperative for developing strong cognitive skills including attention. Aside from avoiding unhealthy process foods and soda filled with processed sugars, there are key nutrients to incorporate into your diet that will increase your attention span.
Antioxidants boost the blood flow to the brain. Fruits like berries and pomegranates contain antioxidants, as do green leady vegetables. In addition to antioxidants, greens have folic acid which improves mental functioning.
Omega-3 fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are also essential to brain function. They come from healthy fat sources. Fish, flax and chia seeds, and nuts such as walnuts. Published in the Journal Neuropsychopharmacology, boys aged 8 and 14 both with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) had decreased symptoms of inattention with an additional dose of omega-3 fatty acids daily.
All vitamins and minerals are important. B vitamins, specifically B6, B9, and B12. B vitamins convert nutrients into neurotransmitters, which are essential for brain function and mental clarity. They boost energy levels to increase attention span. Spinach, green beans, potatoes, eggs, almonds, and whole grains like brown rice are rich in B vitamins.
The American Journal Nutrition recommends drinking 8 glasses of water per day—perhaps more if indulging in dehydrating sodas, juices, and coffee that draw water from the body. Attention, mood, and memory are all affected when there is a water loss of at least 2% of body weight. Further studies highlighted that when students were given a drink during school, they were able to spend more time and attention on classroom tasks (Benton & Burgess, 2009).
How To Increase Attention Span: Meditation
Meditation is the process of focusing on the here and now. It entails centering your awareness of personal thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations while ignoring distractions in the environment. To engage in meditation, find a quiet place without distractions. Focus attention on your breath, redirecting attention as your mind begins to wander.
Studies performed at the University of California sent groups to meditation retreats. Group one practiced meditation for five hours daily and later scored higher than the control group on attention-based assessments. Meditation is proven to increase attention span because it builds neural pathways in the brain.
How To Increase Attention Span: Improve Memory
Memory and attention are two sides to the same coin. One inevitably affects another because memory relies on the processing of information, yet the brain has to focus its attention in order to obtain that information. Attention is primarily related to working memory—a component of short term memory that stores and manipulates information to carry out tasks like learning, reasoning, and behavior. An example of working memory is memorizing a phone number to make a phone call.
To increase your attention span, dedicate time daily to memorize something into your working memory. Whether it be a number, a song, poem, or a line from your favorite television show, storing that information leads to increased attention.
How To Increase Attention Span: Break Up Tasks
Those with shortened attention spans are easily bored and restless. An impending long, arduous task is stressful—making it more likely to stop mid-way as the brain becomes overwhelmed from overexertion. To increase attention span, the aim is to avoid taxing the brain by focusing for long durations. Instead, break up tasks into smaller parts with breaks scheduled in between for a greater chance of success. As your attention span eventually improves, the time intervals between tasks will naturally increase.
How To Increase Attention Span: Make Lists
It’s not just those type-a personalities that benefit from making lists. List-making is a positive habit when it comes to increasing attention span. Devise a list of all of the tasks you need to accomplish that day. Having a visual representation of your goals increases your ability to concentrate to accomplish each task. This prevents distractions from interfering with focusing your attention. You are less likely to pause studying to daydream about your exciting plans for the weekend or what chores are waiting for you at home.
How To Increase Attention Span: Practice Listening Skills
Studies claim that 85% of learning comes from listening. We all want to be heard. Occasionally, however, we are absorbed in our thoughts that we disregard the words of others. Active listening is listening by carefully noting the speaker’s body language and behavior. It’s offering your complete attention to the speaker. When we hastily interrupt the speaker to interject our own thoughts, we are not truly processing their message. Active listening increases attention because it allows practicing applying your full concentration. Like any skill, practice makes perfect!
How To Increase Attention Span: Treat Underlying Conditions Impacting Attention
A number of medical conditions have an impact on attention and cognitive functioning. These include but are not limited to the mental, physical, and neurological disorders listed below:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Attention deficit disorder
- Thyroid disease
- Hearing and vision impairments
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Bipolar disorder-
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
Treating any underlying condition contributing to inattentiveness can potentially increase your attention span. Of course, any new diagnoses and treatment plans must be evaluated by a physician.
Alhola, P., & Polo-Kantola, P. (2007). Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 3(5), 553–567.
Benton, D. & Burgess, N. (2009). The effect of the consumption of water on the memory and attention of children. Appetite, 53(1):143-6. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2009.05.00.
Kiefer, D., & Pantuso, T. (2012). Omega-3 fatty acids: An update emphasizing clinical use. Agro food industry hi-tech, 23(4), 10–13.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (2009). Physical Activity May Strengthen Children’s Ability To Pay Attention. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090331183800.htm
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.