10 Smart Ways to Improve Your Attention Span

published Feb 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Kim Lucian)

Staying focused isn’t always easy. Whether you’re at work, home, or school, being able to keep your concentration when you really need it (especially after a long weekend or holiday break) can be seriously tricky. That’s why it’s important to know what kinds of things you can do to regain focus and grow your attention span when your mind starts to wander.

We called on productivity coach and ADD/ADHD strategist Susan Lasky for advice on staying focused when you start to lose your grip. From taking a short walk outside to simply turning off your phone, here are 10 strategies you can practice to help you improve your attention span.

1. Don’t panic!

“We often lose our focus when we need it the most,” Lasky says. “We become anxious about making a deadline, fearful we can’t do it ‘right,’ or even bored with working so intensely. Panic that we’re losing it intensifies and reinforces our concerns, worsening our distraction. So step back and accept that distraction is just part of the process. When you are prepared for getting off track, it’s easier to get back on.”

2. Take a brief nature break.

“Studies show that spending even five minutes outside can reset our brains and help clear the mental fog,” says Lasky.

3. Switch it up.

“Instead of staying with a task when you’ve become distracted (the law of diminishing returns) take a break to recharge.” Lasky explains: “Shift to another work task (one you enjoy), phone a friend, or spend 15 minutes on social media surfing for a brief mental break.”

(Image credit: Morgan Schemel)

4. Write it down.

“When you have clearly written goals,” Lasky says, “you’re less likely to go off task, and if you do, it’s easier to get back on it. So use an index card or sticky note to keep your purpose clearly visible.”

5. Practice self-care.

When staying concentrated gets tough, Lasky says to do something healthy for yourself to refocus your energy. “Focus on your breathing. Take a walk. Stretch. Get your blood pumping with five minutes of calisthenics. Hydrate with water. Snack on an apple (natural sugar). Take a short power nap,” she says.

6. Start with a productive environment.

According to Lasky, your work environment can make or break your ability to focus. “Clear your desk of projects you aren’t working on so there’s less chance of feeling overwhelmed by being reminded of everything you have yet to accomplish. Have good lighting, preferably not flourescent. Use a fan, the A/C, or a heater to maintain a comfortable temperature. Use a chair that’s comfortable, supportive and the right height,” she explains.

7. Put on your blinders.

“There is always so much to do, whether at home or at work,” Lasky explains. “Thinking about the stuff you have to do is an invitation to overwhelm yourself (and that feeling leads to avoidance). So just focus on one task at a time and ignore the rest.”

(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

8. Use a timer.

“When you allot a set amount of time to work on something, it doesn’t seem like forever, and so you’re more likely to stay focused because there’s a set end time,” says Lasky. “Consider a rotary count-down timer, like the TimeTimer, where a colored band gets smaller as time passes so you actually see the amount of remaining time diminish.”

9. Minimize distractions.

“Turn off notifications on your phone and computer (both sound and pop-ups). While background music can be soothing and help maintain focus, don’t listen to talk radio. Set aside time to focus on your task and post a sign that tells your co-workers (or your family) when you’ll be available. Reinforce your time commitment with a message on both your phone and email that you are unavailable until a specific time,” says Lasky.

10. Remember that less is sometimes more.

When all else fails, Lasky says to do your best to simplify the task that you’re having trouble focusing on. “The smaller the task, the easier it is to stay focused long enough to complete it,” she says.