Brace yourself for the new semester and the herd of classes and assignments stampeding in! College can be a wild ride, but it's even more of a circus when you have trouble focusing in class or on the task at hand. If you're a fidgety daydreamer who wants to improve your attention skills, this blog, full of tips and tricks on how to increase attention span is just for you!
First, you need to understand what a short attention span looks like so that you can have realistic expectations of what you might achieve after following these tips. Of course, you’re not going to gain superpowers like ‘Photographic Memory’ and ‘Multi-Focus’ overnight, but you will certainly have fewer incomplete tasks left on your to-do list at the end of the day! It might be a baby step for you but that’s how you can increase your attention span, bit by bit.
It’s no breaking news that attention spans are shortening and no, technology isn’t the only culprit. Human brains are designed to seek out new information. In fact, your brain rewards you for finding novel information the same way it rewards you for discovering food and water. The reason your brain isn’t the best at following through on tasks is because this information-hunting part dominates the cognitive control - the part that tells you to stick to the task at hand.
Studies also show that focusing on a particular stimulus or task isn’t the only function that the brain spends energy on. Blocking out other stimuli that can be distracting is an active process. Tuning out distractions like noise-cancelling headphones do requires some energy, which increases based on how distracting the environment is.
That being said, if you suffer from a short attention span, it might be a sign of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Discorder (ADHD). Having a short attention span doesn’t mean you lack discipline or motivation, just that your intentions and interests are changing rapidly. You might have a short attention span if you:
- Forget things constantly.
- Have an urge to click off this blog and scroll through social media.
- Find each attempt to read interrupted by an itch drawing you back to your phone.
- Have a hard time watching a long video without checking the time or your phone.
Speaking of videos, "How to Get Your Brain to Focus” by Chris Bailey is an interesting video based on improving your attention span and is just one of several Must Watch Ted Talks for students.
How to Increase Attention Span
Luckily, shortening your attention span doesn’t make this change permanent. There are several ways of improving your attention span but they require consistency and determination. These methods have two aims - limiting your distractions and improving your focus. Let’s take a look at how to increase your attention span.
1. Stop multitasking
So you call yourself the master multitasker? While this might seem like an efficient and productive way of getting your work done, the truth is quite the opposite. Focusing on two different things at the same time isn’t cognitively possible. What you call multitasking is actually your brain rapidly switching back and forth between multiple tasks instead of actually handling both tasks at once. This puts a rapid strain on your brain which can lead to you tiring quicker and doing sloppy work. A chef preparing two extremely difficult dishes might succeed in completing both dishes but won’t achieve the same level of quality as they would focusing on just one dish. That’s why not expending your present attention span is the first thing to keep in mind when working on increasing your attention span. Multitasking might feel like you’re staying ahead of the game but it actually requires more energy and mental resources, increasing the chances of you making errors. So how do you let your brain rest when it gets strained?
2. Take breaks
Adding in short breaks like the Pomodoro technique helps your brain stay focused on one task. After a long day of physical exertion, your body might need to rest in order to recover. Just like your body, your brain too needs rest after extensive exercise so it can regain clarity, focus, and strength. Including regular breaks into your day can help you recover your spent energy and is a great way to increase your attention span. How do you decide when to take breaks? You can schedule your breaks as per the 50-10, which suggests you take a 10-minute break every 50 minutes of working on your task. If you want a more relaxed schedule and your tasks are short, you can instead choose to take a break after each project or task. You might worry that taking breaks might interrupt your flow of work, but the benefits of taking breaks will overpower your doubts.
Exercise, both mental and physical, is a good way to increase your attention span. You're probably wondering how physical exercise can help. Studies show short bouts of physical activity lead to improved cognitive control. Taking a brisk walk of 30 minutes every day should help refresh your mind. This is also a great way of making sure you stay productive while studying online as this is one of the most common issues faced by students, especially when learning online. While we're on the subject of things physical, let's also establish one other crucial factor: getting enough sleep. If you aren't well rested, your body will have a hard time focusing as it won't have enough energy to battle distracting stimuli.
So how do you improve attention span through exercise directly? Meditation is the answer! By training your mind to focus and redirecting distracting thoughts, you are using meditation to improve your attention span. By building this productive habit, you are not only working on increasing your attention span, but also developing other values such as self-discipline and a positive outlook, while also lowering your stress levels. How can you increase your attention span through meditation? By focusing on your breath and pulling your mind back to your breath when it wanders, you can improve your attention span. Train yourself to meditate. Building this habit will take time and might seem a might task. To make it easier, start off small by meditating for a minute a day. It might not be as effective but it will definitely help you build a habit and help you out in the long run. So what’s a way to improve cognitive control as passively as possible?
5. Spend time in nature
Buff those attention muscles through exercise and meditation. Studies show that spending time in nature will help you recharge your attention bar. Even looking at a picture of nature can have enormous revitalising effects and is a great way to increase your attention span instantly.
6. Chew gum
Chewing gum can actually have a positive impact on your performance while also lowering your stress levels. Surprisingly, chewing gum is a great way to increase attention span as well. Although it might not have a long-lasting effect on your ability to focus, chewing gum is certainly a go-to option when you need a quick way to improve your attention span, especially for tasks that require you to exercise your visual and audio memory. Drinking water and staying hydrated is another important way of increasing your attention span.
7. Play the right music
Boom! You can easily get distracted by a noisy environment when focusing, resulting a short attention span. However, organised noise - music - can greatly improve your attention span. A study found that those listening to ambient and classical music were able to focus a lot better than those sitting in silence. A different study discovered that listening to music engages those parts of your brain that are involved in attention and memory. Short breaks between music benefit your brain so try listening to a playlist or radio station to increase your attention span.
8. Use active listening
Training yourself to actively listen will help you better understand what your peers and professors are saying. You can practice active listening by solely concentrating on what someone is saying and not actively trying to form a response, focusing on a single source of information such as a podcast or a blog (wink!) and devoting your entire attention to it. That’s right! No more scrolling through your Instagram feed while listening to podcasts. Why not combine two of the best ways of increasing your attention span by listening to a podcast while taking a walk?
9. Minimize distractions
As we already discussed, your brain actively tones down any distractions in your environment. The noisier and more distracting your surroundings are, the more energy you will require, and the quicker your brain will tire out. So, a good way of increasing your attention span is by reducing the amount of energy you spend muting unnecessary stimuli. You can do this by making sure anything distracting is far away. Even having a phone in the room can be distracting. Social media can cause plenty of distractions on its own so here are a few ways to limit these:
- Schedule tasks that require you to check your phone, such as checking social media, emails, and texts into predesignated batches, so you don’t spend too much time and stray from the task at hand.
- Turn off all your notifications when you don’t require them. These might interfere with your focus, so getting rid of them is certainly an easy way of increasing your attention span.
- Try doing a digital detox, which includes reducing screen time and minimising the use of unproductive apps.
10. Take Notes
By removing all distracting stimuli in your environment, you might find your surroundings quite dull. This can even happen in a boring meeting or lecture. To make sure you stay focused, you can use note-taking to improve your attention span. Not only does this help with your concentration, it also improves memory and trains your brain to recall specific information faster. Taking notes no longer requires a pen and paper. You can simply use a note-taking app to do so. This technique is quite helpful when preparing for an exam.
In conclusion, improving your attention span is like taking your brain to the gym. Just like building physical strength requires consistent effort and practice, sharpening your focus and concentration takes time and commitment. But don't worry, you don't need to be a superhero like Captain America or Wonder Woman to improve your attention span. You just need a few simple techniques, such as minimising distractions, taking breaks, and actively listening. And if you find yourself struggling to stay focused, don't beat yourself up! So let's get to work and start building those mental muscles! With a little bit of discipline and a lot of perseverance, you'll be able to stay focused, crush your goals, and maybe even impress your friends with your newfound Sherlock-like attention superpowers. May the force (of concentration) be with you!