What's Causing Your Short Attention Span — and How to Improve It
My attention span is getting shorter every day. I don't have any hard data to back that up, but I'm 100 percent sure it's true. I can't focus on anything these days.
For example, trying to begin this article while battling my short attention span, has been an absolute odyssey. I started off strong by opening a doc and writing a headline. Naturally, this burst of productivity calls for a break. Let's delete some emails. That doesn't even count as a break, though, so I'll just hop over to Instagram for a second. Oh, look, my sister posted a story. That reminds me that my sister texted me, and I haven't responded to her yet. But wait, a Slack message from a coworker. And the distractions just keep coming.
Some variation on this pattern happens maybe 30 times a day. And even when I supposedly am focused on the task at hand (not peeking at the news or my Slack convos), my thoughts themselves are distracting, and I often find myself daydreaming about or ruminating on whatever is making me anxious that day. The constant internal monologue is exhausting to listen to, and I can only control it for so long before my concentration splinters and I'm sucked into the distraction.
For my own sanity, I wanted to get to the bottom of this. Why is my attention span so short? What is the average attention span, anyway? And how do you increase your attention span? Here's what experts had to say.
Why Do I Have a Short Attention Span?
"There are a variety of underlying reasons that may be contributing to attention span issues," Marcy Caldwell, PsyD, a psychologist at Rittenhouse Psychological Services, tells POPSUGAR. Here are some factors behind why your attention span might feel so short:
- Lack of sleep: Amount of sleep and quality of sleep has a major impact on your attention span. Research shows that sleep deprivation negatively impacts your attentiveness, memory, and vigilance, or your ability to continue working on a task that's long or monotonous, and Caldwell says lack of high-quality sleep is one of the most common reasons people struggle with focus and concentration.
- Too many competing demands: It's hard to maintain your focus when you're juggling multiple roles or tasks once (think: balancing your WFH job with family caretaking or group chat notifications with work emails). When you're pulled in different directions, "it's really hard for our brains to zone in and . . . get that deeper level attention," Caldwell explains.
- Strong emotions: Emotions can be extremely distracting, whether they're positive (you're excited to see a friend tonight or reliving an amazing date) or negative (you feel anxious or sad, or you're in an argument with someone). These strong emotions can easily pull your attention away from the task at hand, says Michelle Hunt, LMHC, NCC, a psychotherapist at Empower Your Mind Therapy.
- Screen dependency: A quick scroll of Twitter, a Google search to satisfy a stray question, or a short YouTube video all hit your brain's "reward centers," Caldwell says. These seemingly trivial distractions are actually giving your brain a small boost of dopamine, which is why procrastinating with a screen can feel so good — your brain is literally pumping out a bit of a pleasure chemical. This dependency makes it even harder to stay away from those distractions and work through the discomfort that comes with concentrating on a less-than-fun task, Caldwell explains.
- Biological or mental health conditions: Underlying issues like depression, anxiety, ADHD, head trauma, PTSD, or learning disabilities might contribute to attention span problems, Caldwell says.
Your efficiency obviously takes a hit when you struggle with your attention span, but that's not the only issue. When you hop from one thing to another, you're not processing your task as deeply, Caldwell explains, "so we're not learning it as well, and we don't remember things as well." This can make it more difficult to study effectively, for example, or prepare for a work presentation.
Plus, getting distracted is easy, but pulling yourself back to your task afterward takes a lot of energy. Even successfully fighting off the impulse to switch tasks "takes a huge amount of willpower," Caldwell says. Struggling with focus drains your time and energy, so you'll feel wiped out at the end of a task that takes longer than it should have, giving you less time to recover before the next thing.
What Is the Average Attention Span?
If you think you're the only one with a short attention span, don't fret. According to the American Psychological Association's podcast, "Speaking of Psychology," the average attention span has shrunk drastically over time. In 2004, it was around two and half minutes. In 2012, it was about 75 seconds. And now, in the last five or six years, the average attention span has been measured to be around 40 seconds, according to Gloria Mark, PhD, is chancellor's professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine who was interviewed on "Speaking of Psychology."
How to Increase Attention Span
It is possible to improve your attention span, and there are actually a lot of ways to do it, Caldwell says. Here are a few:
- Get more sleep. Sleeping more and getting better-quality sleep is "one of the most effective strategies" for improving your attention span, Caldwell says. Try going to bed an hour or half an hour earlier, eliminating distractions before bed, and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, even on the weekends.
- Exercise. Exercise is a great way to replenish your mental energy supply. A consistent workout program will help you improve your attention span in the long term, Caldwell says, but it's also a great solution in the moment. "If you're looking for that quick hit of attention, I go exercise every time," she says, explaining that you'll get a burst of mental energy after the workout that can help you focus on tough tasks.
- Try meditation. Meditation is another long-term solution to help improve your attention span. It helps you notice the urge to jump to a different task and catch yourself before you act on it. While creating a consistent meditation routine can help you retrain your brain over time, you can try a short meditation if you're struggling to focus in the moment.
- Limit external distractions as much as possible. Put your phone on silent if you can, and leave it in another room or stashed away in a bag while you work on your tasks. If you need to use your computer or phone, consider implementing filters that limit your time on certain sites or apps, like social media or news sites. Your brain is perfectly capable of distracting you even without the external "siren calls" of your screens, Caldwell says, but eliminating them "will get rid of a percentage [of those distractions]."
- Eat nutritionally balanced snacks and meals. When it comes to maximizing your mental focus, you want to make sure you're getting a good balance of fats and protein along with your carbs. That's because eating only carbs or sugar will result in blood sugar spikes followed by energy dropoffs, Caldwell explains. These changes prevent your brain from maintaining focus because it simply doesn't have enough energy to do so.
- Take breaks. Hill recommends focusing for as long as you feel connected to your task (whether that's 20 minutes or two hours). Then, take a break to do a quick activity you enjoy, like going for a walk around the block or whipping up a snack. Once your attention and focus has returned, get back to your task. It is like draining a water supply," Hill explains. "It takes time to refill the supply before it can be used.
- Schedule tasks around your energy reserves. Think about when you're most productive and what types of tasks you're best at completing during that time. According to Caldwell, most people excel at doing detail-oriented, deep-focus work in the earlier part of their day, while evening tends to be a time for creativity. "In between that, we have these energy troughs," she says. Notice when your own energy peaks and sputters throughout the day, and try to schedule certain tasks and strategic breaks to make the most of your natural rhythm.
- Talk to a mental health provider. If you think your attention issues might be caused by one of the biological or mental health factors we talked about in the previous section (depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc.), or if none of these strategies are working for you, talk to a doctor or a mental health provider. You might be experiencing an underlying issue that's shortening your attention span.
Note that when you're working on your attention span, it's important to be realistic. "You won't be able to focus for eight hours straight," Caldwell says. "Your brain does need to be refueled and take breaks." But with some key strategies and consistency, you'll be able to feel a difference in your levels of focus and concentration. Who knows — maybe I'll even be able to write an article without taking six social media breaks mixed in.