5 ways to increase your attention span

Focus is like a muscle: It needs exercise

If you guys are anything like the readers of Slate.com, 38 percent of you are already gone. You couldn't stay focused long enough to engage with this post at all.

Is it time to scroll to see more?

Too much effort, too busy, meh, gotta go, HEY LOOK, SOMETHING SHINY!!! — another 5 percent of you just vanished.

Yes, attention spans are that bad. Now I'm wondering if I should have made this post shorter.

Cal Newport, Georgetown professor and expert on expertise, thinks the ability to stay focused will be the superpower of the 21st century.

Those who can sit in a chair, undistracted for hours, mastering subjects, and creating things will rule the world — while the rest of us frantically and futilely try to keep up with texts, tweets, and other incessant interruptions.

How can you improve your attention span? Here are five tips:

1. Stress makes you frazzled and stupid

Reducing stress improves your ability to stay focused.

Drs. Eldar Shafir of Princeton and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard tested the IQs of Indian farmers before and after their harvest times when their finances were maximally depleted and maximally flush, respectively. Before the harvest, as a consequence of being strapped for cash, the farmers were in a general state of worry, and their IQ tests were significantly lower than after the harvest, when the money flowed more freely and the farmers did not have to attend to their financial concerns moment to moment. The implication is that the attentional resources of these farmers — in other words, their ability to focus — were depleted by their financial worries. [Up: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging]

(Here's more on reducing stress.)

2. Give it your best hours

Want to insure you can focus? Give whatever is most important your prime hours, when you have the most energy. As the The Power of Full Engagement says, "Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance."

Night owl or morning lark? Work on important things when you're not depleted.

(Here's more on using your prime hours wisely.)

3. Dedicate time

If it's important, give a project its own exclusive block of time. This gives you permission to work on it and ignore other things.

You stress less about work when you have a plan. Believe it or not, worry affects you less when you schedule a time to worry:

When people with adjustment disorders, burnout, or severe work problems used techniques to confine their worrying to a single, scheduled 30-minute period each day, they were better able to cope with their problems, a new study by researchers in the Netherlands finds. [My Health News Daily]

(Here's more on using time wisely.)

4. One thing at a time

Put aside the distractions and do one thing at a time. Your brain was never designed to multitask well.

To put it bluntly, research shows that we can't multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously. [Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School]

Across the board, multitasking lowers productivity. But if multitasking doesn't work, why do you do it so often?

It makes you more emotionally satisfied as it makes you less productive:

"…they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive — they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work." [Eureka Alert]

(Here's more on productivity.)

5. Meditation is weight lifting for your attention span

Meditation doesn't just chill you out; if your attention span is a muscle, meditation is exercise:

This article shows that a group randomly assigned to five days of meditation practice with the integrative body-mind training method shows significantly better attention and control of stress than a similarly chosen control group given relaxation training.

(Here's more on meditation–including how to do it.)


Congratulations on finishing this post.

(Then again, if you finished it, maybe you're not the type who needed help…)

Still struggling to stay focused? For more tips from focus-master Cal Newport, sign up for my free weekly update via email here.

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