Focus, or lack thereof, has become a serious concern for millions of people across the globe. We have more information available than every before, but this ironically has damaged our ability to absorb any of it. An insurance study of household accidents, for example, found that the average attention span plummeted from 12 minutes to 5 minutes between 1998 and 2008.
For the insurance company this means more paid out in damages caused by unattended ovens; for the rest of us it means a general sense of helplessness in the face of an overwhelming torrent of media. You can take action to improve your attention, however, with a few simple steps.
Plan (And Debrief) Your Day
According to Joseph Cardillo, author of the book Can I Have Your Attention?, planning and taking note of your routines can have a positive impact on attention span. Dividing your tasks provides you a manageable block of time which better captures your focus than an open-ended task that seems without end.
But you need to do more than just plan your day. Debriefing yourself is just as important. Your attention and energy level ebbs and flows throughout the day based on your natural rhythms, the food you eat, and how much you slept the night before. You should note these factors at the end of the day and question how you felt while performing your assigned tasks. If you find that your attention wanes in the middle of the day, as is true for many people, you’d be wise to assign a less demanding task for those spans of time, like afternoon slumps.
Mood is a factor, too. Anxiousness, irritability and anger can impact your attention span and should also be noted as part of your routine. What you discover may surprise you, and help you hone in on focus-killing problems. Perhaps you become irritable in the early afternoon because you’re hungry; eating a bigger breakfast and a smaller lunch could help.
Take A Real Break
Many people have internalized the myth that productive people work every minute of every day. While that can pay off for a select few blessed with an unbreakable attention span, most need a different strategy. Numerous studies have found that productivity starts to lapse after less than an hour of continuous work, leading to distraction. Indeed, opening Facebook or Twitter is arguably a symptom of this — you need a break, and you look for one in the most convenient distraction available.
That’s a problem, however, because social media isn’t really a break. While there doesn’t seem to be any academic agreement on what makes the perfect break, the research available shows that simply switching your focus doesn’t count. A break should consist of simple, passive activity like taking a walk, stretching, or lying down in a quiet space for a few minutes.
Speaking of lying down, naps can be an effective break. A study by NASA, for example, found that a nap improved the productivity and alertness of astronauts. Napping can also boost focus, memory and mood. The key is to take the right kind of nap. While there’s once again no academic agreement on what makes a perfect nap, most studies suggest you should keep it to less than 30 minutes or more than 90. The REM cycle of deep sleep usually engages after thirty minutes of rest, and interrupting it will make you feel groggy.
Downsize Your Technology
Technology is supposed to help with productivity. Most geeks have multiple devices, multiple monitors and access to multiple cloud storage services. But all of this excess may not, in fact, actually help with productivity.
A study commissioned by monitor maker NEC, for example, found that multiple monitors only helped with productivity when each monitor was particularly small (in effect, they together mimicked a single, larger monitor). The boost was also mostly seen in spreadsheet editing tasks, while other tasks gained less benefit. In addition to this, this was limited to increasing monitor size only up to 27 inches. Going larger still actually decreased productivity.
Studies regarding the correlation, or lack thereof, between computing power and productivity don’t appear to exist yet, but we do known that multi-tasking has a negative impact on focus and attention span. This may mean a more powerful and capable computer actually leads to distraction.
You don’t have to buy a slow PC, however. Instead, consider installing a second operating system (even if it’s the same as the first) which serves as your work environment. Only install what you need to complete the tasks at hand and don’t log in to social media. This will create a barrier between you and the many distractions your PC can produce.
Don’t Listen To Music
Step into an office and you’re likely to see workers with earbuds in; step into a workshop and you’re likely to hear a popular FM station in the background. Music seems to create a pleasing environment, but recent studies suggest it commands more brain activity than previously thought. In practice, this can result in reduced focus, as confirmed by a University of Wales study that tested student’s ability to memorize while a variety of music (or none at all) was played.
The research boils down to a simple and, in retrospect, obvious point. Music commands a portion of your attention and, as such, it makes concentration more difficult. You may drift in and out of focus on a task while music plays in the background without conscious thought.
Whether this means you should never listen to music at work is debatable. Studies on worker’s mood have found they were happier with music in the background. Does this mean workers are happy but less productive? Or does improved mood counter the loss of focus? The verdict isn’t clear, but if you listen to music — and have trouble focusing — give silence a shot.
Play A Game
The blazing pace of action games has tricked many into believing they encourage a lack of focus. Many movies, TV shows and even video games depict a person playing such a game as inattentive to the real world. Some recent research, however, indicates action games are a great way exercise concentration.
A fast, demanding game like Call of Duty demands complete focus from the player. Any momentary distraction can cause your death, so you’re encouraged to pay complete attention to what you’re doing. In particular, these games seem to increase visual attention, which means people who play them often observe changes more quickly than their peers and pick up on details others might miss.
Memory games can also have a positive impact on attention as well as (of course) memory. Playing such a game focuses your complete attention on a single, relatively simple task. You may miss an important detail or forget the answer to a puzzle if you turn your attention towards a distraction.
This doesn’t mean you should give up all your other activities for games, however. The ideal time investment for attention enhancing games is unknown. Games might be a helpful tool, but they shouldn’t replace other activities that require your full attention.
Attention, or lack of it, is an issue that’s not going away. According to some futurists we’re only years away from wearing our technology, which means you’ll literally never need to be distraction free. But, as discussed here, taking some time off can do you good — and will make you more effective when it comes time to do work.