8 Quick Ways To Improve Your Attention Span

We spend half of our waking hours with wandering minds. Here are eight easy things you can do to regain your focus.

8 Quick Ways To Improve Your Attention Span
[Photo: Flickr user Hernán Piñera]

If your mind tends to wander, you’re not alone. Turns out, human brains are in the moment for just over half of our waking hours–a sad 53%–according to a study from Harvard University. The other 47% of the time we’re zoned out, thinking of something else. Unfortunately, mind wandering can happen at the wrong moment–like when your boss is giving a presentation and asks you a question.


If you’d like to increase your attention span and focus for more than half of your day, there are eight easy things you can do:

1. Meditate

Meditation is one of the best ways to improve your focus, as it is the mental training of your attention. Similar to the effect weight lifting has on your muscles, meditation trains your brain stay at attention for longer periods of time. In a study done at the University of California at Santa Barbara, undergraduate students who took a mindfulness class and meditated for 10 to 20 minutes four times a week for two weeks scored higher on memory tests and exercises requiring attention than students who changed their nutrition and focused on healthy eating as a way to boost brain power.

2. Exercise

Exercise doesn’t just improve your physical fitness; it increases your focus, and a short brisk walk will do. A study from the University of Illinois found that physical activity increases cognitive control. Students with ADHD who participated in 20 minutes of moderate exercise were able to pay attention longer and scored better on academic achievement tests, especially in the area of reading comprehension.

Related: What Happens To Our Brains When We Exercise And How It Makes Us Happier

3. Stay Hydrated

Being dehydrated isn’t just bad for your body; it’s bad for your attention span. A study done at the University of Barcelona, found that mild dehydration-–as little as 2%–can negatively impact your ability to concentrate. In fact, a 2% drop in dehydration isn’t enough to trigger thirst. So before you go into a situation where you need to focus, make sure you bring along plenty of water.


4. Ask Questions

Meetings are one place where it can be hard to pay attention. In fact, nearly half of employees consider too many meetings the biggest waste of time in their workday, according to the National Statistics Council. Stay alert by planning to ask at least one good question, suggests Jon Acuff, author of Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work and Never Get Stuck.

Asking questions not only keeps you engaged; it allows you to contribute to the conversation and learn something new: “Good questions give you information that helps you improve your job performance,” says Acuff. “Bad questions are those where you already know the answer or just want to look smart.”

5. Listen To Music

Break out the Beethoven; classical music helps you pay attention. A study done at Stanford University School of Medicine found that listening to short symphonies engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions, and updating the event in memory. While the music is helpful, it’s the short period of silence between musical movements that peak brain activities.

“In a concert setting, for example, different individuals listen to a piece of music with wandering attention, but at the transition point between movements, their attention is arrested,” writes Vinod Menon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior author of the study.

6. Drink Tea

Coffee might make you alert, but tea can help you pay attention. Black tea contains an amino acid called L-theanine, which has been shown to directly affect areas of the brain that control attention. In a study done in the Netherlands, tea drinkers were able to pay attention and perform tasks better than those who were given a placebo to drink.


7. Take Notes By Hand

If you’re trying to pay attention in a meeting or at a conference, leave your laptop at home and take notes via pen and paper. Researchers at Princeton and UCLA found that when students took notes by hand, they listened more actively and were able to identify important concepts. Laptops also provide an easy distraction, such as checking email or logging on to social media. Taking notes on a laptop also leads to mindless transcription.

Related: How Typing Is Destroying Your Memory

“It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes,” writes Pam Mueller, coauthor of the study.

8. Chew gum

While you want to skip bubble gum and go for something minty, a study done at Cardiff University in the U.K. found that chewing gum can increase your alertness and improve your attention. Chewing itself is arousing because it tells the body that nutrients are on their way to the brain, and gum can reduce hunger pangs. So grab a stick of Doublemint and improve your breath and focus.