If you find yourself trying to work or study but failing to keep your attention on the task at hand, you’re not the only one. These days it’s becoming more difficult to keep your attention on one thing only for a fixed period. Indeed, a 2019 study has shown that our collective attention span has decreased over the past decades.
No need to worry though, as there are steps you can take to get your attention span back to what it used to be – or even make it better than it was!
In this article we’ll look at the reasons why your attention and focus may be decreasing before looking at exercises and interventions to help with your lack of attention.
A decreasing attention span and focus due to unhealthy uses of technology
One of the main reasons our minds seem to be so scattered these days is the way in which we spend our time on the internet and how we use those devices that are connected to the internet. For example, have you checked your messages since starting to read this article? Or perhaps you already feel the pull of social media to make sure that you didn’t miss anything?
Instead of focusing on one thing at a time, we are so overwhelmed with information throughout the day that it’s no wonder we struggle to navigate our way through it and find the time to focus on only one thing at a time! It doesn’t help that we feel that we must keep up with all the news and trends that are loaded onto social media at a staggering rate.
I, myself, have come to realize that I have seemingly lost some of my attention span and focus over the past year. The first step you can take to rectify this, however, is to stop blaming yourself and start focusing on what you’re going to do to increase your attention span and focus again.
Quick mindfulness exercises to ease your anxiety when you can’t focus
Anxiety is often present when we find that we can’t focus when we need to focus, for example in a meeting or while doing any kind of studying. Here are two exercises that you can do to help bring that anxiety under control. This will already help you to focus better.
These breathing exercises is something you can do anywhere – even in a meeting – as it doesn’t require you to do anything but sit and breathe, basically.
To start the exercise, sit up straight on the chair (or wherever you’re sitting) and take a deep breath through your nose. Hold it for 3 counts – or a bit longer if that’s comfortable for you – and then slowly breath out through your mouth. Repeat 3 to 5 times.
Grounding exercises works by forcing you to focus on the present moment or an object that is around you in that moment. (For example, I use a pen.)
The first exercise is done by pressing your feet “into” the floor while you’re sitting and really focusing on the weight on the soles of your feet. Focus on the different parts of your feet and push all other thoughts aside. If other thoughts break your concentration, push them aside and focus on your feet again.
You can also focus on, say, a green object that’s in your vicinity. (Or keep a pen handy to stare at!) Focus only on that one thing, taking in its shape, texture, etc. and block out any thoughts that are not about the pen. If thoughts do seep in, push them aside and focus again on that one object.
Doing this exercise for about a minute can help a lot to calm your senses and anxiety and get you into a zone as well where you’re ready to keep on focusing on the task at hand.
Exercises to increase your focus and attention span
There are a wide variety of exercises that you can do to help increase your attention span and focus. The exercises below were chosen because they are easy to do wherever you find yourself.
Although doing these exercises only once won’t make any significant change to your attention span, doing these continually for some time will, much like exercise builds muscle, help you to slowly increase the time that you are able to focus and work.
Be still and focus on your breathing
As we saw with the breathing exercise above, focused breathing can help to lessen anxiety, but focusing on your breathing and nothing else for a length of time can help you to increase the length of time that you can focus on a specific task as well.
For this exercise, you will need to sit comfortably and preferably be alone. Then follow these steps:
- Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes as a start.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, clearing your mind of any thought while you do so.
- Now, breathing normally through your nose, focus only on your body as you’re breathing. (You can close your eyes if you want to.)
- Whenever you find other thoughts flitting through your mind, push them away and focus only on your breathing once more.
- You can stop when the timer goes off. Slowly increase the amount of time that you spend at once focusing on your breathing. If you start with five minutes, for example, move the timer to 10 minutes the second week of practice.
When you’re just starting out with this exercise, you’ll most likely find that it’s difficult enough to keep your mind on task without there being anything outside of that to distract you. Through practice, however, you’ll soon be able to do this exercise in a noisier environment as well, for example while working in an open plan office or waiting in a queue.
A daily meditation practice has been shown to improve concentration and focus while working. This daily meditation can be done as follows:
- Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor with your legs crossed.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
- Focus on all your senses and what you’re sensing while you’re breathing.
- If you find that your mind starts to wander or you start to worry, bring your thoughts back to your breathing and refocus.
- Begin by doing five minutes of meditation and slowly increase the time until you can meditate for 20 minutes.
Counting backwards from 100 to one or learning written passages
Counting backwards needs more concentration than simply counting, and you’d be surprised how quickly you lose track of where you are when you just start doing this exercise! If you do find yourself stumbling over some numbers, steer your attention back to focus on counting backwards.
You can also:
- Count backwards from 100 to one by only counting every third number, for example 100, 97, 94, 91, etc.
- Recite the alphabet backwards from Z to A or even skip every other letter while reciting it backwards.
- Learn pi to a specific decimal or the first zero and recite that.
And, as for learning some written passages, you can decide what you would like to be able to recite, be it a passage from a novel, play, some poetry, passages from holy texts or ancient philosophy – the sky’s the limit.
How about starting with this snippet from Wendell Berry:
“Sit and be still
until in the time
of no rain you hear
beneath the dry wind’s
commotion in the trees
the sound of flowing
water among the rocks,
a stream unheard before,
and you are where
breathing is prayer.”
Reading longform articles and books instead of headlines or social media updates
You can also increase your attention span and focus by reading long form articles and essays (as well as non-fiction and fiction books) rather than short articles, listicles or even just headlines and Tweets or other short updates.
That’s not to say you should choose War and Peace or a similar enormous tome when you haven’t read a book in years. You can start by reading longer articles on sites like Medium or various of the newsletters on Substack. Another interesting site is Brain Pickings.
By reading in long form, you basically “re-train” your brain to focus on only one thing at a time and not to jump from one snippet to the next as fast as you can scroll. It may take a while to get to a point where you can immerse yourself in a long piece, so don’t give up!
The pomodoro technique and the 10-minute rule
The pomodoro technique is a studying and working technique in which you work in 25-minute bursts with 5-minute breaks between these bursts. For a great explanation of the technique, some apps you can use, and more, watch this video by Thomas Frank:
The 10-minute rule is almost the same, with the difference that you only work on something for 10 minutes. However, usually when you start on a project, you can keep going past the 10-minute time limit. This is an easy way to get you into the flow state where you can do your best work, or deep work.
Practicing keeping your attention on your task for 25 minutes may be daunting at first – especially when you’re used to picking up or checking your phone every few minutes. However, with continuous practice, you’ll soon master the technique!
Remove the distractions that keep you from focusing
Although it may not seem like an exercise to keep your phone in a drawer or at least on silent while you need to concentrate on a task, you’d be surprised at how difficult it can be at first.
If you find that you keep checking your phone while you’re trying to focus – even when you know no messages have come through – you might need a digital detox.
On the other hand, if you find yourself browsing the internet or scrolling through social media when you’re trying to do research, you may need to use an app that blocks sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube while you’re working – at least at first.
Doing tasks mindfully – yes, even housework
Practicing mindfulness throughout the day doesn’t just mean that you sit and meditate the whole day, but rather that you’re really present in the moment during the day rather than doing everything on autopilot.
When you’re in the moment, you’ll often find that you then think of or worry about other things less and focus on the task in front of you more. Even washing the dishes or sweeping a floor can become a time of meditation and focus that will in turn spill over into your working life and let you concentrate more while doing work or studying.
Other ways you can increase your focus and attention span
The exercises listed above aren’t the only ways in which you can learn to focus better. Other parts of your life can also have an influence on your ability to pay attention to the work you have to do or book you want to read.
- Eating a healthy, brain-friendly diet
- Taking vitamin B-complex and omega fatty acids supplements
- Doing physical exercise
- Getting a healthy amount of sleep
- Listening to music or white noise conducive to work while studying or working
Remember that these exercises are not all that you can do. If you worry that there is something else wrong – or simply need more help – be sure to consult a medical practitioner.
Carin Marais is a fully bilingual language practitioner (English/Afrikaans) and a copy and content writer for a wide variety of digital and print channels. She has worked with both local and international companies on subjects as diverse as health and mindfulness, finance, beauty, décor, pets, food, and agricultural implements.