Ask LH: How Can I Improve My Short Attention Span?

Dear Lifehacker, I find myself getting bored with even simple things. Sitting in a meeting or class, going to the movies and sitting in one place for three hours, even going to a concert -- they all sound like fun, but I hate the idea of doing one single thing for hours on end. I'm usually OK once I'm actually doing any of them though! How can I improve my fragmented attention span so getting into these things isn't so difficult? Sincerely, Look Over There

Dear Look Over There, Don't feel bad: Many of us have had our attention spans all but crushed under the heel of always-on smartphones, a compulsory need to stay on top of what others are doing online, a fast-paced world that doesn't stop for us to enjoy a movie, and access to all of those things at our fingertips anytime, at home or on the go.

Still, it's not the tools to blame for the way we use them, and not all is lost! The world will get along just fine while you see a movie or give your friend your full attention at dinner. Here are some tips to help you reassure yourself of that fact and make the process a little less painful.

Embrace Singletasking Whenever Possible

Mastering any skill requires practice and patience, and boosting your attention span is no different. The absolute best thing you can do is embrace singletasking whenever you can and work hard to stay focused. We're not just saying "focus harder" here either. Think about the things you do at home and at work that really do require singular focus, and make those projects first on your to-do list. Your mind may wander, or you may start to reach for your phone or think about doing something else, but try to resist those thoughts and stick to the task at hand. If you do get distracted, don't admonish yourself, just catch it and renew your focus.

For example, If you're playing video games on the couch, leave your phone on a charger somewhere away from you so you're not tempted to check Twitter or Facebook while you play. If you're cleaning the house, turn on some music and work on a whole room or complete a whole task. Don't clean one countertop and then take a break. Give yourself the benefit of being fully immersed in whatever it is you choose to do.

Of course, this doesn't work for everything -- you may only have a few minutes to clean, for example, or you might want your phone handy to look up walkthroughs for your game. Those things are fine, but make an occasion out of singletasking, whether it's at home on your own time, or at work while you hammer out a report or work on a project. Don't forget to reward yourself for singletasking too. After all, reward is part of the habit loop, and we're trying to make singletasking and singular focus a habit whenever we can.

Push Yourself into Fun Situations that Also Require Focus

Here's a secret: I hate the idea of going to the movies. I love movies, mind you, but the thought of going to the theatre unnerves me. Sitting in an uncomfortable seat with lots of people for two to three hours, only doing one thing -- watching the movie -- unnerves me. At home I can fire up a movie and play with my phone or tablet to take the edge off doing one thing for three hours. Knowing this about myself is why I force myself to go to the movies sometimes. I know I'll have a great time once I'm there (so it's not like I'm forcing myself to do something I hate), and that voice in my head that tells me to stay home -- whether it's the movies or a social event -- is almost always wrong. Every time I go, I feel better for having done it, even if I did just singletask and focus on one thing for three hours.

You can do the same thing. Just make sure you're pushing yourself into things you know you'll actually enjoy but are only put off by because of their requirement of your full attention. Whether it's a hobby or pet project, a class you've always wanted to take, a social event or the movies, kick yourself into doing those things that require singular attention, and then commit yourself to them. It definitely beats forcing yourself to turn your phone off in meetings to try and build your attention span. This way, you don't feel like you're punishing yourself. If you know you'll enjoy them once you're there, it's a great way to practise singletasking in a safe, fun situation.

Try Meditation

Meditating is another task that requires singular focus and concentration, and taking the time out to meditate can be a very effective way to help boost your attention span and help you remember to be here and present in whatever it is you're doing without letting your mind wander too far from it. We've talked about how to get started, even if you think you're too busy.

The benefits of regular meditation have been proven time and time again, and there are even apps and websites to help you. If you can carve out two to five minutes, you can start meditating and go from there. The benefits will take a while to show themselves, like any type of training or exercise, but you'll see them with practice and a little time.

Use Technology to Help You

Speaking of using apps and websites to help strengthen your attention span, back in 2010 Clay Johnson shared some tips to rebuild your attention span right here at Lifehacker. He explained in detail how neuroplasticity works, and how you can apply an understanding of it to boost your focus. Most of his tips involved restricting yourself in some way to make sure you're only focusing on one thing, like only using one monitor, turning off the mouse when he knows he should be writing or coding, and limiting the number of tabs he could have open. Those are great tips, but they don't work for everyone. Instead, we'd suggest taking a different approach:

Ditch the Distractions

If you're working on that project or writing code, give yourself room to work. Use a distraction-free writing application or just make your windows full-screen. Shut down your Twitter client or email client (if you can), along with any other apps you're not currently using. Try tools like StayFocused and Productivity Owl to limit your time on distracting websites. They will all be there after you get some work done.

Embrace a Productivity Method that Helps You Focus

The Pomodoro Technique is the perfect example of a prodcutivity method that encourages you to dive in and focus entirely on your work for short bursts and then come up for air in between work sessions. You don't have to strictly use Pomodoro, but try something similar that rewards singletasking with a break and time to soothe any fear you may have of missing something while you're heads-down. To get started, try a timer like previously mentioned Eggscellent (Mac), Tomighty (for all platforms), Pomodroido for Android, or PomodoroPro for the iPhone.

Don't Forget to Take Breaks

You can't (and shouldn't) work all the time. Taking breaks is good for you, not to mention essential to rebuilding your attention span. Give your brain an opportunity to wander, be creative and brainstorm, and you won't find your mind wandering when you're trying to keep it focused. We've talked about a number of tools to help you remember to take breaks, and if you're using one of the timers we mentioned above, they'll tell you when to break. If you're not interested in a single productivity method and just need a reminder to get up and walk around, grab some water or go linger by the window for a few minutes, try Breaker for Windows, Rest for Mac or WorkRave for any platform.

There's definitely a place for turning off all of your notifications and shutting down your email client while you try to focus. You'll definitely have better success training yourself to singletask if you block out as many distractions as possible, but if you're not in a position to just turn everything off, here are less intrusive ways to help you get in the zone and remember to come up for air.

The most important thing, regardless of the tools you use or the techniques you adopt, is to give yourself the room to single task when you can, encourage yourself to focus when you know it'll benefit you anyway, and take time out to train yourself every day. Even if it's a little bit, over the long haul, you'll find your attention span and focus improving.

We should note that we've been working under the assumption that your attention span is just fractured because you're busy or just can't put your phone down for a bit. If you think you may be suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, these tips may help a bit, but your best bet would be to seek professional guidance from our doctor and/or a mental health specialist, especially if you've tried tips like these and they just don't help you. Whatever you do, good luck!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    What a load of drivel... Boo Hoo I can't sit still for a couple hours to watch a movie of play a video game and I hate the thought of taking the time to go and watch a movie at the theater.... Don't bloody go!! I can't sit still and pay attention to the task at hand, like listening to friend..?? I feel the need to play with my phone whilst doing something important...!! Jesus Christ man... Grow up, you live in the real world but it doesn't revolve around you....

      Congratulations: You're an insensitive internet troll who doesn't comprehend psychological or physiological causes for people's problems, and think everyone who can't fit into the mould should 'grow up' or 'toughen up', as if they were simply choosing to have whatever problem they have.

      Go try telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up, see how far that gets you. Or better, go back to 1990, where people like you were okay.

        Oh Boo Hoo... Go tell 'yer mum
        That's if you can stay focused long enough to remember next time you see her...

        Last edited 30/07/13 1:03 pm

    D'oh, ignore this comment...

    Last edited 30/07/13 10:19 am

    I think we shouldn't be too quick to brush off the problem of the overstimulation in our surroundings and environment in this day and age. This shortens our attention span, makes us impatient, reduces our cognitive skills, destroys creativity and productivity.
    I suffer from a terrible affliction of VERY SHORT ATTENTION SPAN and probably adult ADHD. Can't sit still, can't do more than one thing at once AND that too very easily bored, distracted and fidgety.

    Add to the mix an extremely theory and reading dense university course and a part time job that requires long hours desk bound and constantly being forced to combine frequent social interaction and focus-heavy autonomy-based tasks (they require me to switch channels at will and I find that difficult as I am fairly introverted and take time to get into the "social" mask people prefer, understandably, to interact with).

    Don't get me wrong, I find what I do and study very interesting but just really hard to concentrate on any one thing.

    I find myself procrastinating like crazy - everything seems more interesting, the toilet bowl seems to need a scrub down, the dishes need washing - the place has to be spick and span before I am forced to confront the focus-heavy task I end up with.
    I find I am forced to consciously stop myself from wandering off (or wondering off) to do something else (facebook, news, lifehacker, etc). Ironically me commenting here is a result of my procrastination as I'm supposed to be reading several chapters of a few textbooks and compile notes to prepare for my next class.

      Know that feeling. Try a few of the things suggested in the article, like meditation, or forced single-tasking on actually fun things (games/films/cleaning/whatever) and see if it helps. Can't hurt to try, right? ^^

    Sorry, didn't make it past the title. Oh, what's that over there....

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