The human brain is the most amazing thing in the universe. It got us to the moon, built the pyramids, cured smallpox … And it also can’t seem to go 6 minutes without checking Facebook.
How long can college students focus without switching to something fun like social media or texting?
5 minutes. Tops.
Regardless of age, students were able to stay focused and attend to that important work only for a short period of time — three to five minutes — before most students self-interrupted their studying to switch to another task.
And that was under lab conditions when they were specifically instructed to focus as long as they could on something they were told was important. Yikes.
Our attention spans are evaporating. Focus is a lost art. Research shows we check our phones up to 150 times a day — about every six to seven minutes that we’re awake. In fact, we’re so distracted we’re walking into things.
According to one report in Scientific American, data from a sample of 100 US hospitals found that while in 2004 an estimated nationwide 559 people had hurt themselves by walking into a stationary object while texting, by 2010 that number topped 1,500, and estimates by the study authors predicted the number of injuries would double between 2010 and 2015.
Still with me? Good. (Sorry — after those stats, I really do need to ask.) So how do we steal back our attention spans? Luckily, some experts have answers …
Adam Gazzaley is a neuroscientist and a professor in neurology, physiology and psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco. Larry Rosen is professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Their book is The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.
Okay, grab your Ritalin. Let’s get to it …
First off, stop blaming technology. It’s not your phone’s fault; it’s your brain’s fault. Tech just makes it worse. Our brains are designed to always be seeking new information.
In fact, the same system in your grey matter that keeps you on the lookout for food and water actually rewards you for discovering novel information.
The role of the dopamine system has actually been shown to relate directly to information-seeking behavior in primates. Macaque monkeys, for example, respond to receiving information similarly to the way they respond to primitive rewards such as food or water. Moreover, “single dopamine neurons process both primitive and cognitive rewards, and suggest that current theories of reward-seeking must be revised to include information-seeking.”
Okay, fine — but if your brain is so good at seeking out new info, why is it so terrible at follow through?
Because the information-seeking part is way stronger than the “cognitive control” part that allows you to complete tasks.
From an evolutionary standpoint, realizing there was a lion behind you was far more important than sticking to whatever task you were busy with before Simba showed up.
Our cognitive control abilities that are necessary for the enactment of our goals have not evolved to the same degree as the executive functions required for goal setting. Indeed, the fundamental limitations in our cognitive control abilities do not differ greatly from those observed in other primates, with whom we shared common ancestors tens of millions of years ago …
And focusing isn’t the only activity that taxes our grey matter. fMRI studies of the brain show ignoring irrelevant stimuli is not a passive process.
Just like noise-canceling headphones need batteries, your brain has to expend precious resources in order to filter distractions around you. So doing the same task is harder in environments with more tempting or annoying stimuli.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Alright, you know a little more about how your brain works. So how do you go about increasing your attention span? First step: don’t waste what little you have …
Juggling multiple activities not only divides your attention among the tasks — but you also pay a cognitive “penalty” on top of that to manage the switching.
This results in more errors and makes things take longer than they would have if you had done them each separately.
… if the two goals both require cognitive control to enact them, such as holding the details of a complex scene in mind (working memory) at the same time as searching the ground for a rock (selective attention), then they will certainly compete for limited prefrontal cortex resources … The process of neural network switching is associated with a decrease in accuracy, often for both tasks, and a time delay compared to doing one task at a time.
Oh, but some folks are still going to fight me on this one: But you don’t understand, I’m really good at multitasking!
Oh, really? If you think that, you’re actually the worst at it.
… it has been shown that people who believe that they are good at multitasking actually tend to be those who do the worst on laboratory tests of multitasking, leading the study authors to conclude that “participants’ perceptions of their multi-tasking ability were poorly grounded in reality.
Yes, you probably feel good when you multitask. But feeling good and efficiency are not the same thing. Multitasking meets your emotional need to do something new and exciting … while also slowing your brain down and increasing errors.
… the reason behind the constant task switching is a desire to feed emotional needs — often by switching from school work to entertainment or social communication — rather than cognitive or intellectual needs.
You wouldn’t even try to lift 5000 pounds. You know your body can’t do it. So stop thinking you can efficiently multitask. You now know your brain can’t do it.
(To learn how to stop checking your phone, click here.)
Okay, so what’s the single most powerful way to actually increase your attention span?
Strengthen your body and you strengthen your brain. In fact, cognitive control is measurably better after just a single exercise session.
Boosts in cognitive control abilities occur even after engagement in a single bout of physical exertion, as assessed in healthy children and those diagnosed with ADHD, with benefits extending to academic achievement. Interestingly, it seems that the impact on the brain is greater if an exercise program is also cognitively engaging. Similar training benefits of acute and chronic exercise on cognitive control have been shown in both young adults and middle-age adults. There is also a very large body of research on the cognitive benefits of physical exercise in older adults.
And while we’re discussing things physical, let me confirm what should be obvious: get your sleep. While just one exercise session boosts cognitive control, just one bad night’s sleep reduces it.
… even a single bad night’s sleep can impair cognitive control and how ongoing sleep deprivation can have severe and long-term consequences.
(To learn how to best use exercise to strengthen your brain, click here.)
Exercise makes you brain healthier and that sharpens cognitive control. But what’s the most direct way to improve your attention span?
Focus on your breath and when your mind wanders, return your attention to your breath. That’s meditation in a nutshell. Guess what else that is?
Results indicated that participants exhibited improvements in selective attention compared to those in a control group who did not train over the same time period. This study was consistent with findings from previous research that showed expert meditators excelled on selective attention tasks compared to nonmeditators. Over the years more evidence has accrued that meditation techniques improve cognitive control, including sustained attention, speed of processing, and working memory capacity.
Start with a minute a day. Will you see enormous effects from that? Nope. But it sure will stop you from telling me “I don’t have time to meditate.”
Eventually build up to a habit of 20 minutes a day and you’ll start to see why everyone keeps yakking about how great it is.
(To learn more about how to meditate, click here.)
I know, I know: exercise is hard. And, frankly, meditation is harder. So what’s a way to improve cognitive control as passively as possible?
Exercise and meditation both strengthen your attention muscles. Spending time in nature recharges those muscles when they’ve been exhausted.
The effect is so powerful that merely looking at a picture of nature had restorative effects.
A 2008 paper described a significant improvement in their working memory performance after the nature walk, but not after the urban walk. Similar beneficial effects of nature exposure have been shown to occur in children with ADHD and young adults with depression, and amazingly even in response to just viewing nature pictures.
Ever get to the end of a day and think, “I don’t want to make any more decisions”? Treat yourself to a Google Image search for “nature.” Yes, it’s that simple.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
You’ve strengthened your attention with exercise and meditation. You’ve given your cognitive control a recharge with nature. What’s another angle for boosting focus?
You can improve your ability to focus by changing your brain or changing your behavior. And it’s best if you do both. We talked about changing your brain. And the best way to change your behavior is to make sure that anything which might distract you is far away.
Simply put, make your environment as boring as possible when trying to focus. Research shows even having a phone in the room can be distracting.
A recent study by Professor Bill Thornton and his colleagues at the University of Southern Maine demonstrated that when performing complex tasks that require our full attention even the mere presence of the experimenter’s phone (not the participant’s phone) led to distraction and worse performance. In the same study, the presence of a student’s silenced phone in a classroom had an equally negative impact on attention.
If at all possible, “batch” all email checking, texting and social media into three pre-designated times. Then turn off all notifications.
Results indicated that when participants — a mixture of college students and community adults — checked only three times a day they reported less stress, which predicted better overall well-being on a range of psychological and physical dimensions.
And taking breaks is not only okay, but beneficial. Try gradually extending the amount of time between breaks to further build those attention muscles, Hercules.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn how to pay more attention when it matters most — in your relationships …
This is how to increase your attention span:
Having your phone out doesn’t just distract you from work — it also reduces empathy and harms your relationships.
… the mere presence of any phone reduces closeness, connection, and conversation quality as well as reducing the extent to which individuals feel empathy and understanding from their partners, all of which negatively affects our relationships with others.
So what can we do to improve the amount of attention we pay to those we care about — and how much attention they give us in return? Try a game of “cellphone stack.”
At the beginning of your next meal out with friends, everyone stacks their phones at the end of the table. If someone grabs their device before the check arrives, they pay the entire bill. You’ll be much more focused on your friends — or it’ll be the most expensive text message you’ve ever sent.
So stop multitasking, start exercising and meditating, get out in nature and reduce distractions. It’ll boost your attention span, sharpen your work, and reduce stress. And I guarantee it’ll improve your relationships. Your friends will love all the attention you’re showing them …
Or they’ll love that you keep buying them dinner.