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Can’t Stay Focused? What To Do (& Not Do), From A Neuroscientist

Whether you find yourself daydreaming at work or mindlessly checking your phone while watching TV, it can feel near impossible to maintain focus on a single task for an extended period of time–and according to a 2018 Neuron article, that isn’t your fault: After studying both humans and monkeys, researchers from Princeton University and the University of California, Berkley discovered that attention pulses in and out four times per second1, which means you’re facing an uphill battle of distraction during even a few minutes of focused concentration.

Scientists hypothesize that shorter attention spans gave early humans the evolutionary advantage of being able to monitor their surroundings for danger. Today, we face far fewer threats than our ancestors; instead, digital devices specifically designed to steal our attention have infiltrated our everyday lives. Automatic notifications prompt engagement with technology at random intervals throughout the day, priming you for a dopamine hit of bright lights or social reinforcement.

This constant multitasking wears on our ability to filter out irrelevant information. Inevitably, these factors wear down on our ability to focus throughout the day, exhausting our limited attention spans and willpower.

Fear not: This isn’t a call to throw your phone in the ocean and build a new life off the grid. Rather, it’s an urge to be more mindful of where your attention is being pulled, so you can counteract the evolutionary instinct of distraction and intentionally focus on the task at hand.

What exactly is an attention span?

Defined as ‘the length of time for which a person is able to concentrate mentally on a particular activity,’ attention refers to where we direct our thoughts (and, for how long).

“Attention is the sort of overarching, colloquially used term, but it can mean many, many things,” says Elizabeth Ricker, neuroscientist and author ofSmarter Tomorrow: How 15 Minutes of Neurohacking A Day Can Help You Work Better, Think Faster, and Get More Done. “When we talk about executive function (the more formal term for what attention can often fall under), it’s composed of working memory (your ability to move from one idea to the next) and inhibition (the ability to inhibit unwanted thoughts or behaviors).”

There are an infinite number of things happening around us at all times, but the brain can only process so much. To illustrate how our brains decide what to pay attention to, psychologists use the classic example of a cocktail party.

At this cocktail party, you could focus on any number of stimuli in a room: the music playing, the sound of glasses clinking, the person walking by, or the conversation happening behind you. Thanks to the brain’s filtering processes, you’ll usually tune in the person in front of you, with surrounding sights and sounds blurring into mere background noise. But say someone walks by and says your name. Even though you weren’t previously paying attention to their conversation, it now comes into focus as the person in front of you fades into the background.

Of course, for someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this process can be more difficult. Both conditions present challenges with executive functioning2, which includes attention and focus. This can be compounded by overly sensitive sensory systems3, which make it easier to focus on certain sounds and stimuli in the environment and harder to tune other ones out. (You can read more about how ASD and ADHD affect women specifically in our 2023 wellness trend.)

How technology disrupts our attention.

The most obvious example of how technology grabs our attention is through push notifications. Pings and pop-ups divert us from the task at hand and into our feeds or inboxes. After a while, the habit becomes so ingrained that we don’t need these reminders to reach for our devices.

In a 2015 study published by Computers in Human Behaviors, half of survey respondents4 reported experiencing ‘phantom phone signals’ (i.e., when you think you heard or felt your phone but didn’t) at least weekly, while up to 63% experienced them monthly.

Researchers theorized that this was due to the brain’s use of schemas, or frameworks for interpreting complex information. The brain relies on past examples to interpret new information. So, if you’re regularly hearing and seeing notifications from your phone, the brain may incorrectly attribute another kind of input (say, the sound of a neighbor’s television) to your phone. The study also found that with more phone usage came more phantom phone signals.

In a 2019 review from the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, researchers found that even the healthiest brain can miss major differences between two images when interrupted with a flash of light. They hypothesize that similar distractions (say, a pop-up alert or other digital notification) also have the ability to completely derail your attention5.

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How to improve your attention span.

It’s clear that our society has a serious problem with attention. The inability to focus can decrease your productivity at work, make it more difficult to complete personal chores, and even impact your relationships (if you’ve ever zoned out in the middle of your friend’s story or reached for your phone during dinner with your partner, you know the result is less than desirable).

Thankfully, recent research indicates there are scientifically proven ways to stay more present and focused.

1.

Limit how often you switch tasks.

A study from the Harvard Business Review found the average worker switches tasks 1,200 times per day. This persistent bouncing from one thing to the next can have detrimental effects on our focus and performance.

Case in point: A 2005 observational study found that office workers spent an average of only 11 minutes working on one project before switching to another. Once interrupted, participants took an average of 25 minutes and 26 seconds to resume their work, only after switching their focus to an average of 2.2 other tasks.

This consistent switching between tasks has been shown to significantly reduce the quality and efficiency of your work6, in what researchers call the ‘switch cost effect.’

Some of this is unavoidable and built into the nature of a job. In a Frontiers In Psychology7 article, researchers note that “This digitalization of work now tethers [workers’] ability to perform largely to their ability to intensely focus in small chunks, and then “hyper-jump” that focus to another task without traversing the cognitive cool downs or warm ups required to reconfigure their train of thought from one task to another.”

While there’s little research on popular strategies like time blocking, one study published in Neuropsychology found that pausing between two tasks8 reduces both the time it takes to get into the second task and the number of mistakes made. So, if you must ping between tasks, consider stopping to take a breath between each one–it may save you time and improve your accuracy in the long run

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2.

Don’t multitask.

We’ve long known that multitasking doesn’t work, but research shows that for those who multitask often, the downsides are long-lasting (and can affect performance even when they’re not multitasking).

In a 2009 Psychological and Cognitive Sciences study evaluating over 200 college students, heavy multitaskers were shown to be more distracted by irrelevant information on the screen, less capable of filtering out irrelevant memories of past experiments and examples, slower to respond when distracting information was present, and slower to respond when asked to switch tasks–something to remember the next time you open TikTok or Twitter while watching TV.

3.

Meditate.

Meditation can alter your brain chemistry and has a slew of worthwhile benefits: including an improved attention. While keeping a regular meditation practice is ideal, a 2019 Frontiers in Human Neuroscience review found even just one ten-minute guided meditation can improve your ability to pay attention for longer9.

Not sure where to start? Check out our favorite meditation apps (there are options for every budget and experience level).

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4.

Eat brain-supporting foods.

While there’s no magic pill that will get you in the zone, there is research that links certain foods to improved attention and cognitive function. Here are a few:

A literature review10 published in the Journal of the European Behavioural Pharmacology Society found that caffeine improves attention on both simple and complex tasks. Another review11 from The Journals of Gerontology found some evidence that blueberries can improve executive functioning in older adults, but more research is needed. Even chocolate was linked to improved cognitive function (independent of other dietary habits) in healthy adults in a large 2016 Appetite study.
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If you’re looking for a quick way to work these brain-supporting nutrients into your daily routine, consider a targeted focus supplement. (Hint: These are our favorites.)

5.

Assess yourself.

“When we’re trying to pay attention, we’re using a much more recently evolved part of our brain: the prefrontal cortex,” Rickers explains. Glucose, a simple sugar, is the brain’s main source of energy12. It serves as the raw materials the brain uses to create ATP, which provides energy for many metabolic processes. “[When paying attention], we’re using particular networks that tend to be a lot more expensive in terms of glucose than other parts of our brain,” she says.

While some functions (e.g., running away from danger) are preprogrammed and easy to access, the ability to focus for long periods of time is highly complex. With this complexity comes variability–i.e., attention is highly variable, changes throughout the day, and depends on your mood and overall health. “When we’re tired or feeling emotionally distracted, these are some of the networks that ended up working a little less well.”

To better understand your own attention span, Ricker recommends keeping a work log. Set aside a specific amount of time to get work done and set a timer. Once the time is up, rate yourself on whether you completed the task, how focused you were, and whether you were in a state of flow.

Over time, you’ll begin to recognize patterns in your successes–such as whether you’re more productive at a certain time of day or in a particular environment. Plus, the log of your good days can be motivating.

The takeaway.

Maintaining focus can feel like an increasingly uphill battle. On the bright side, there are expert-backed practices we can implement to preserve our attention.

Limiting multitasking, deepening your meditation practice, and figuring out which times and in which environments you work best can all help. For additional support, consider taking a targeted focus supplement.

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