The word “attention” in psychology is a catchall referring to any process that influences what information from the world breaks through and affects your thinking. The term “attention span” is the amount of time that you can spend working on a particular task, whether that is writing a report, reading a book or article, or listening to a talk.
Many people feel like their attention span is too short. They can’t stay focused on one thing for too long before they start doing something else. Your attention span can be influenced by internal factors (your own brain leads you to shift from one task to another) or by external factors (something in the outside world calls to you).
Increasing your ability to focus requires dealing with both these internal and external factors.
One of the biggest internal factors that disrupts our ability to focus is a lack of sleep. We are a chronically under-slept society. Most people run a sleep deficit during the week and hope to catch up over the weekend.
The best way to tell whether you need more sleep is to read something difficult in the early afternoon. If you start falling asleep within five minutes of trying to read, then you really need more sleep. You might be tempted to remedy this with caffeine, but while caffeine can make you feel more alert, it won’t help your brain process and store information more effectively.
A second big internal factor is frustration and boredom. After you have been working on a task for a while, particularly if it is going slowly, you start feeling like you should be doing something else. Boredom and frustration are the brain’s way of alerting you that you might be wasting valuable energy on something unproductive.
However, there are many tasks at work that really are difficult or tedious and you need to stick with them despite the frustration or boredom you may feel. If you give in to those feelings, then you learn an association between those negative feelings and stopping a task.
If you find yourself switching to another task when you feel bored or frustrated, decide instead that you will work for five more minutes and then take a break. This strategy has two advantages. First, if you put in an additional five minutes of work, you may actually figure out what is frustrating you and then get more deeply involved in what you’re doing. Even if you are still frustrated or bored after five minutes and you take a break, you have trained your brain that your first response to those feelings is to keep working. This way, you will expand the amount of time you can put in on challenges.
Of course, the modern world is also full of things that draw your attention. In open office environments, there are conversations going on around you, not to mention the random noises from people walking past and papers shuffling. If you’re the kind of person who is distracted by these kinds of noises, a white noise machine or some headphones can be a good investment.
The biggest source of external stimulation, though, comes from your email and phone. We have trained ourselves to check email, social media, and the phone several times an hour, because we have been rewarded for doing so in the past with new information. Your brain learns not only what actions you normally take but also the time frame for taking them. As a result, if you typically check your phone or email a few times an hour, then every 20 minutes or so your brain will interrupt whatever you’re doing to remind you it is time to check again.
One thing that you can do to help minimize the impact of these interruptions is to park your cell phone somewhere out of reach when you are working on something important. Shut off your email program (or close that tab on the browser connected to the server). Make it hard to check the status of email and social media quickly so that you are not tempted to stop whatever you’re doing.
Ultimately, the longer you can go between interruptions, the more likely you will be to get key tasks completed. And each time you get a long stretch of work done, you are also training your brain to repeat that strategy again when working on something that requires sustained effort.