5 techniques to improve your attention span

Modern life is full of distractions. If you’re having trouble sustaining your attention for long periods of time, you’re not the only one. 

In this article, we’ll explain what attention span is, go over the signs and causes of short attention span, and share 5 techniques you can use to improve it.

Do you suspect that dyscalculia may be the cause of your short attention span? Try this effective brain training for adults with dyscalculia. It will help you strengthen your cognitive abilities and reduce math-related difficulties.

What is human attention span?

To pay attention is the process of concentrating exclusively on a certain aspect of information.

Attention span is the amount of time a person can concentrate on a single task, without giving in to a distraction and switching to focus on something else. When you check your phone during a tv show, or drift off while a friend is talking, your attention span has reached its limit.

Children develop the ability to focus with age. For a 2 year old, the normal attention span is around 6 minutes, and it increases to 15 minutes by age 6. (1)

A child’s attention span can have a major impact on how well they perform at school. A study found a correlation between attention span length in children as young as 4, and their subsequent academic performance by the time they reached the age of 25. (2)

What’s the average attention span?

According to a survey by Microsoft, the average human attention span is now just 8 seconds, and supposedly less than that of a goldfish. (3)

However, scientists dispute this research, along with the comparison to goldfish. For example, Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, said in a BBC interview that an “average attention span” is a meaningless concept.

Furthermore, she claimed that attention span varies depending on the demand and importance of the task. For example, someone is much more likely to be distracted while browsing articles on the internet than when driving a car. (4)

average attention span

Has technology shortened our attention span?

Thanks to our smartphones we have an abundance of information at our fingertips. The downside is that we also get non-stop notifications that interrupt our days.

A survey from research company Dscout, cited in Business Insider, found that people touch their phones 2,617 times a day, checking them an average of six to seven times an hour, or once every 10 minutes. (5)

What sort of impact does this have on our attention spans? Some studies support the claim that screen time has a negative impact on attention, especially in children. (6) However, according to a study from Harvard University, it might not be that simple. The problem may be the way our brains are wired.

The researchers found that we spend 47% of our waking moments with our minds wandering, and that people spend almost as much time thinking about what is not happening as what is.

Furthermore, although mind wandering enables us to plan and dream about the future, the constant distraction and divided attention can have an emotional cost, and can actually make us unhappy. (7)

Why is my attention span so short?

Research suggests that distraction may be the brain’s standard mode of operation.

The neuroscientist Jean-Phillippe Lachaux calls our constant struggle with distraction and difficulty maintaining focus as a “war in the brain”.

In a TED talk entitled “Attention, distraction and the war in our brain”, he discussed 3 competing areas in the brain which play a role in our ability to focus. (8)

The parietal lobe contains neurons which are responsible for mapping our surroundings and suggesting familiar activities. For instance, seeing a glass of water may trigger an action, like picking it up and drinking.

The executing system is a stabilising force that helps you filter out proposed actions depending on your priorities and goals. 

Lastly, the reward system is highly reactive to suggestions, and constantly seeks novelty, new information and actions associated with immediate pleasure and stimulation.

Lachaux goes on to suggest that when someone is used to a highly stimulating environment, such as playing a video game, they will find it harder to concentrate in a more stable environment.

They will quickly get bored, and the reward system will encourage them to look for novelty in the form of external or internal distractions.

Much of his research into attention and focus has been on figuring out how best to work with these 3 competing systems.

When does short attention span indicate an underlying problem?

If you notice that your mind often wanders, the chances are, it’s nothing to worry about.

However, in some cases it could be a sign of a more serious problem.

You may want to consult a doctor if you notice that your short attention span is causing you to:

  • Fall behind at school or work
  • Struggle to carry out simple daily tasks
  • Have relationship problems with family or friends

The following are some examples of conditions that can result in a short attention span.

ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is estimated to affect around 2.2% of children and adolescents worldwide. (9)

Commonly diagnosed in children, it can carry on into adulthood. As well as a short attention span, other symptoms may include periods of hyperfocus, poor impulse control and anxiety.

Depression

Suffering from depression can negatively impact many cognitive functions, including attention span. (10)

The extent of the impact can increase with the severity of the depression.(11)

Head trauma

A head injury can cause many cognitive problems, including a decreased attention span.

Research found that children who suffer brain injuries are likely to develop many behavioural problems, the most common being difficulty paying attention.

Roughly 30 to 50% of children who suffered a trauma to the head were reported to develop symptoms of ADHD shortly after. (12)

Learning disabilities

In children, a below-average attention span can indicate a learning disability. Other signs are poor memory and trouble with reading, writing, maths and hand-eye coordination.

Learning disabilities include conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and dyscalculia.

Dyscalculia is a less well-known learning disability that makes it difficult to process maths and numbers. If you have dyscalculia, this online brain training can help you to improve your number processing skills.

Autism

People with autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, often experience difficulties communicating, understanding emotions and navigating social interactions.

They struggle to relate with others and express their feelings and needs, and may also have deficits in executive function, which is the area of the brain responsible for focus. (13)

average child care, dyscalculia

5 ways to increase a short attention span

If you suspect one of the above conditions may be causing a short attention span, a doctor will be able to recommend the best way to help you.

However, there are some simple tactics that can help both children and adults improve their ability to focus.

1. Exercise

Many studies show that exercise is highly beneficial in increasing the ability to focus. It can also help improve attention span in people with ADHD. You don’t have to do highly strenuous exercise – even a brisk walk outside can help you maintain your focus. (14)

Regular exercise may even help children reduce the chances of carrying ADHD into adulthood. (15)

2. Meditate

Meditation is a method of training your mind to focus, and achieve a clearer, calmer mental state. Practicing meditation regularly is a great way to improve your attention span.

A study found that a 2-week mindfulness and meditation training significantly improved working memory and reduced mind-wandering. (16)

Another study found that meditation can help improve attention span in adolescents and adults with ADHD, and regular practice regularly can result in sustained improvement. (17)

3. Listen to music

Music may help the brain pay attention. One study found that music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and updating memory. (18)

The results may depend on what kind of music you listen to. Another study showed that happy music was more likely to reduce mind-wandering and increase focus, while sad music had the opposite effect.

4. Take handwritten notes

If you are struggling to focus and take in information during classes or meetings, try making notes with pen and paper.

A study found that students who took notes on a laptop retained less information than those who had used a notebook. Researchers believe this may be because the students who wrote handwritten notes had to reframe ideas in their own words, rather than simply copying word for word. (19)

5. Try cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a style of therapy that can be used to treat many mental health conditions.

If you think your short attention span is negatively affecting your life, seeking CBT from a medical professional can help. CBT has been shown to be very effective in treating problems related to paying attention. (20)

Conclusion

It’s normal to feel distracted, and for your mind to wander off every once in a while. By trying some of the techniques mentioned above, you’ll see an improvement in your ability to pay attention for long periods.

Short attention span becomes a problem when it interferes with your quality of life, making everyday tasks highly challenging. 

It’s worth consulting a doctor if you think you may have an underlying condition. There are lots of treatments like CBT available that can help you manage the problem.

References

(1) Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): How to Help Your Child. Summit Medical Group. Retrieved on 26 May 2020 from https://www.summitmedicalgroup.com/library/pediatric_health/pa-hhgbeh_attention/

(2) McClelland MM, Acock AC, Piccinin A, Rhea SA, Stallings MC. Relations between Preschool Attention Span-Persistence and Age 25 Educational Outcomes. Early Child Res Q. 2013;28(2):314‐324. doi:10.1016/j.ecresq.2012.07.008

(3) Kevin McSpadden: You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish. Time Magazine, May 2015. Retrieved on 26 May 2020 from https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/

(4) Simon Maybin: Busting the attention span myth. BBC World Service, 10 March 2017. Retrieved on 26 May 2020 from https://www.bbc.com/news/health-38896790

(5) Michael Winnick: Putting a Finger on Our Phone Obsession. DScout blog day 16 June 2016. Retrieved on 26 May 2020 from https://blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches

(6) Zivan M, Bar S, Jing X, Hutton J, Farah R, Horowitz-Kraus T. Screen-exposure and altered brain activation related to attention in preschool children: An EEG study. Trends Neurosci Educ. 2019;17:100117. doi:10.1016/j.tine.2019.100117

(7) Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science. 2010;330(6006):932. doi:10.1126/science.1192439

(8) Jean-Philippe Lachaux at TEDxEMLYON: Attention, distraction and the war in our brain, December 2013. Retrieved on 26 May 2020 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNbR_nbfK9c&t=900s

(9) ADHD Epidemiology. ADHD Institute. Retrieved on 26 May 2020 from https://adhd-institute.com/burden-of-adhd/epidemiology/ 

(10) Yvonne Paelecke-Habermann, Johannes Pohl, Bernd Leplow, Attention and executive functions in remitted major depression patients, Journal of Affective Disorders,Volume 89, Issues 1–3,2005,Pages 125-135,ISSN 0165-0327, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2005.09.006.

(11) Ravnkilde, B., Videbech, P., Clemmensen, K., Egander, A., Rasmussen, N.A. and Rosenberg, R. (2002), Cognitive deficits in major depression. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 43: 239-251. doi:10.1111/1467-9450.00292

(12) LI, L. and LIU, J. (2013), The effect of pediatric traumatic brain injury on behavioral outcomes: a systematic review. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 55: 37-45. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8749.2012.04414.x

(13) Francesca Happé, Rhonda Booth, Rebecca Charlton, Claire Hughes, Executive function deficits in autism spectrum disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Examining profiles across domains and ages, Brain and Cognition, Volume 61, Issue 1, 2006, Pages 25-39, ISSN 0278-2626, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2006.03.004.

(14) Berwid, O. G., & Halperin, J. M. (2012). Emerging support for a role of exercise in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder intervention planning. Current psychiatry reports, 14(5), 543–551. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-012-0297-4

(15) Christiansen, L., Beck, M. M., Bilenberg, N., Wienecke, J., Astrup, A., & Lundbye-Jensen, J. (2019). Effects of Exercise on Cognitive Performance in Children and Adolescents with ADHD: Potential Mechanisms and Evidence-based Recommendations. Journal of clinical medicine, 8(6), 841. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8060841

(16) Mrazek MD, Franklin MS, Phillips DT, Baird B, Schooler JW. Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychol Sci. 2013;24(5):776‐781. doi:10.1177/0956797612459659

(17) Zylowska L, Ackerman DL, Yang MH, et al. Mindfulness meditation training in adults and adolescents with ADHD: a feasibility study. J Atten Disord. 2008;11(6):737‐746. doi:10.1177/1087054707308502

(18) Sridharan D, Levitin DJ, Chafe CH, Berger J, Menon V. Neural dynamics of event segmentation in music: converging evidence for dissociable ventral and dorsal networks. Neuron. 2007;55(3):521‐532. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2007.07.003

(19) Mueller PA, Oppenheimer DM. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: advantages of longhand over laptop note taking [published correction appears in Psychol Sci. 2018 Sep;29(9):1565-1568]. Psychol Sci. 2014;25(6):1159‐1168. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581

(20) Knouse, L. E., & Safren, S. A. (2010). Current status of cognitive behavioral therapy for adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The Psychiatric clinics of North America, 33(3), 497–509. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psc.2010.04.001