How To Improve Your Attention Span
Seven things that help me focus.
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
The other night, I stayed up too late crawling through Google, looking at beds. My search began for good reasons: I have a small studio with not enough space for a full sized bed, but I'm an adult who doesn't want to sleep on a twin, so I was researching alternative options (there are none). Currently, I sleep on a sofa bed futon thing from Ikea, which I'm not even sure qualifies as a bed. At some point, I abandoned rationality and found myself staring at a large, circular bed. Intriguing. One click led to another. I found diamond encrusted beds. Water beds, beds that hang from ceilings, beds with elaborate canopies, beds specifically designed to rest on the floor (floor beds?), beds for moody couples, hospital beds, a bed that rocks you to sleep, a levitating bed, beds that make themselves, a huge hammock bed. The bed options are endless, and I stayed up too late.
My therapist once wrote me a prescription for Adderall. My high degree of distractibility was not exactly helped by this, because I don't think I have ADHD, and if I do, it's not severe. I just get bored easily, and then I get moody and restless and then I spend hours googling beds.
But, despite my sideways brain, I manage to do stuff. I complete my work, and sometimes excel. I can write things that are halfway entertaining and make some sense. I can read a book front to back if it's interesting enough. And I have no reason, so far, to stop my ceaseless brain wanders. But there are some things I do to help myself concentrate, especially when a task is painfully boring.
Thank me later.
Numerous studies have shown that exercise improves attention and focus. Anecdotally, I notice that I'm better able to focus if I run or workout before sitting down to do work. If I feel a midday slump coming, I take a walk or do some pullups. A study from the University of Illinois found that physical activity increases cognitive control. The study found that 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.
Dehydration isn't just bad for your body, it's bad for you brain. A study done at the University of Barcelona found that mild dehydration–as little as 2%–can negatively impact your ability to concentrate but isn't enough to trigger thirst. Try Liquid IV if you haven't already.
3. Have Caffeine in Moderation
Coffee might make you alert, but too much (for me) has the opposite effect. If I drink too much coffee, I become jittery and my focus dwindles. Black tea might be better, because it 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.
4. Take Notes By Hand
When I'm trying to pay attention in a meeting or at a conference, I take notes via pen and paper. If I have nothing to write down, I doodle, which also helps me focus on what the speaker is saying. 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.
5. Listen to Classical Music
Having some background noise definitely helps me concentrate, but I can't listen to music with lyrics I know. So, I listen to classical music, which (unbeknownst to me) has been shown to increase attention. A study done at Stanford University School of Medicine found that listening to short symphonies engages the areas of the brain involved with attention and making predictions. Vinod Menon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and senior author of the study writes, “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."
6. Eliminate Easy Distractions
If I really need to get something done, I turn off my phone or throw it across my very organized apartment/room. If I need to write something, I'll disconnect my wifi. Eliminating easy distractions like social media is enormously helpful because I often reach for my phone without thinking. If I'm in a noisy environment, I'll put my headphones in and completely tune out. Creating a space free of distraction is easier now that I'm working from home.
Everyone loves to talk about meditation, but I'm convinced that nobody actually likes to meditate. Meditation involves training your mind to focus and redirecting your thoughts. It combines deep breathing with deep thinking, and it's deeply infuriating. But, even a few minutes of mediation every day can improve focus. 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.
P.S. Try the Headspace app, Four Sigmatic mushroom coffee, or Athletic Greens. Watch this video from MindTools about concentrating better, or read this very comprehensive guide to focusing by James Clear.
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