6 scientifically proven techniques to improve your attention span

Your brain is so powerful that it can store about 1 million gigabytes of memory at any given time [1]. But it can also easily distract you, derail your focus, and sabotage your goals.

Why this two-facedness, brain?

Turns out, this ability to get distracted by the next shiny thing is actually an evolutionary protective mechanism. In this article, I will unpack why we have such poor attention spans and what we can do to improve.

Is technology to blame?

As early as 2013, we have been checking our smartphones at least once every six minutes, totalling up to 150 times a day [2]. Today, with our increased phone usage and dependence on devices, the average screen time has gone up, and people of all ages are getting addicted to their devices.

The smartphone is a marvel of modern technology. Just two decades ago, we didn’t even know what it was and now we practically cannot live without it.

Your smartphone triggers continuous external stimulation with calls, message notifications, sale announcements on shopping apps, social media updates about friends etc. Some of the byproducts of this incessant stimulation include increased anxiety, lower productivity, short attention span, and the inability to stay on course to meet our goals. We no longer have the ability to focus because we’re distracted by notifications.

But, while we must acknowledge the pervasiveness of modern digital technology, that may not be the actual reason for our short attention spans.

Why do we have such short attention spans?

In their book, The Distracted Mind, Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen —a neuroscientist and a psychologist— explain how our ancient brains are trapped in a high-tech world.

Evolutionarily, it served us well to constantly scan the environment for information – a rustle in the bushes warranted our attention immediately so we could ascertain whether there was a lion waiting to pounce (valid threat) or just the breeze (not a threat).

Whatever went on in the environment, we had to be alert at all times because our very lives depended on it. The ability to concentrate was not very relevant in the jungle.

Our brains have a limited capacity to pay attention – so with the torrent of information that we’re exposed to now, we have to rapidly switch attention and quickly decide what’s worth our time and what’s not. 

Gazzley and Rosen call these distractions “interference” that get in the way of our goal-setting.

It is common for people to blame technology for their inability to focus on the things that matter. But in my experience, blaming modern technology is not constructive. Instead, there are things that you can do to improve cognitive control and boost your attention.

We can find ways to engage with technology without letting it consume us and take control of our lives. At the same time, our approach needs to be sustainable. 

It is possible to reclaim our attention by using some practical strategies to fight distraction and change our habitual behaviours.

6 techniques to improve your attention span

As with any habit you try to cultivate, it takes time and sustained effort to see results. Here are six activities for training your mind to improve your focus and attention span.

Make small changes in your daily habits and continue them for a while to see the change.

1. Stop multitasking altogether 

Research indicates that the brain can focus only on one thing at a time. Multitasking happens when you try to perform more than one task at a time, rapidly switching between tasks. Such task switching has a heavy cognitive switching penalty.

In a study [3] conducted by Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell in the 90s, people who continually switched between two tasks slowed down in their task completion.

Multitasking leads to errors and suboptimal outcomes. When you are continually forcing your brain to process new contextual information as you rapidly switch between each task, it leads to a cognitive overload. This, in turn, lowers productivity and quality of output.

Needless to say, the attention span of a person who constantly switches between multiple tasks would be very low.

To increase your attention span, stop multitasking. That one change itself will show huge benefits in your attention span duration (regardless of whether you think you’re an expert multitasker or not).

2. Start practising meditation

Meditation is essentially attention training and is one of the most effective concentration exercises known to mankind.

Ānāpānasati – the practice of mindfulness of breathing – is an excellent way to train your mind to stay focused on the breath. As you get proficient in concentrating on the breath, this skill will translate to other aspects of your life as well. 

Apart from bringing a sense of calm, meditation also builds your concentration muscle. Research [4]  indicates that consistent mediation increases an individual’s capacity for attention control, self awareness, and emotion regulation.

It is advisable to build up to at least 20-30 minutes of meditation practice daily. To get started, you can meditate as little as five minutes in the morning when you wake up or any other time that’s suitable.

HabitStrong’s Become A Morning Person bootcamp trains you in starting your day with a morning routine that includes meditation. Check it out if you’re interested in building a sustainable mindfulness meditation practice.

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3. Exercise daily

Engaging in some form of physical activity every day has tremendous positive effects on attention and focus. An intense bout of exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function [5].

Exercise improves attentional control even in those suffering from ADHD [6].

Get into a daily routine of exercising. Find some way to move your body. Pick any physical activity you like – sports, running, or going to the gym.

As long as the exercise is moderate to intense, you will start experiencing the positive effects in your focus and attention span levels.

4. Get enough sleep

Compromised levels of sleep can lead to fuzzy thinking, reduced attention spans, and higher stress [7].

On the other hand, 6 to 8 hours of sleep at a fixed time restores clarity of thought and builds capacity for longer attention spans when completing a task.

In the long term, getting the minimum amount of sleep is crucial for your mental and physical health.

Do the following to get good sleep naturally:

  • Stick to a fixed sleep schedule
  • Follow a relaxing wind-down routine before bed
  • Limit naps during the day
  • Reduce blue light exposure in the evening
  • Do not consume caffeine late in the day

5. Spend time outdoors

Spending time in nature can restore your fatigued attention muscle. 

The Japanese have coined a beautiful term for their practice of spending time in nature — Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). This activity involves a slow, mindful walk in nature, paying close attention to surroundings using all five senses.

Time in nature is known to have positive effects on one’s mood and attention because you are completely disconnected from all other distractions [8]. 

 Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Therapy also reinforces that mental fatigue can be relieved and concentration improved by spending time in nature [9].

You don’t necessarily need a forest for this activity. You can sit or walk in a park, or even in your own garden. What matters is that you soak in the serenity and beauty of nature through all your senses.

6. Manage your environment

Now, how can you improve your attention span at work and home? One approach is to reduce interference in goal-setting (mentioned in the beginning of this article) by managing your physical environment.

  • Identify sources of distraction such as your smartphone, messaging apps, email, and social media notifications etc. It could even be family members or colleagues who drop in for chit-chat and knowingly or unknowingly disturb you during working hours.
  • Take away any sources of distraction from the room (like your smartphone), when you’re focusing. Switch it off, or keep it away in another room.
  • Tell your family members and colleagues that you’re going to be focusing on some important task for a couple of hours, so they don’t drop in and break your flow.
  • Batch process emails and checking social media so you are not constantly “on” and responding to notifications. Gradually increase the time between each batch process to build your attention muscle.

Deaddiction from smartphone and social media can positively impact your ability to pay attention. HabitStrong’s  Undistractable — Digital Detox bootcamp will help you if digital devices are your main source of distraction and reason for poor attention.

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Take baby steps. As you slowly control and reduce interference, your attention muscle will grow stronger.  

In conclusion

Your ability to pay attention for long periods has many positive effects in your life. You will find yourself listening actively, enjoying your own company, bringing excellence to every task, feeling less stressed and anxious, and increasing your ability to meet your goals.

Think of your journey to improving your attention span not as a sprint but as a marathon, and you will soon start experiencing the results of your efforts. 



[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/342522494_The_capacity_of_human_memory_Is_there_any_limit_to_human_memory

[2] https://www.firstpost.com/tech/news-analysis/smartphone-users-check-their-devices-150-times-a-day-says-study-2-3619465.html

[3] https://www.apa.org/topics/research/multitasking

[4] https://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3916

[5] https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-020-09484-w

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3724411/


[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19568835/

[9] https://www.ecehh.org/research/attention-restoration-theory-a-systematic-review/#:~:text=Attention%20Restoration%20Theory%20(ART)%20(,in%20’directed%20attention%20fatigue’.


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