CJ Goulding is the Lead Organizer at Natural Leaders Network, building leaders and connections in and between humans. Read full profile
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Your attention span is the length of time you can concentrate on a task without becoming easily distracted. Most educators and psychologists agree that the ability to focus attention on a task is crucial for the achievement of one’s goals.
Maintaining focused attention has become more difficult over the past decade with the increase in external stimulation. However, it is very task-dependent, according to most psychologists  . The way we apply our attention depends on the importance of the task, how interested we are, what stimuli we have around us, etc. Some of you have likely already lost focus while reading this article and have begun scrolling through Facebook, checking messages, or answering a question your kids are asking.
For those of you who continue reading, you will find seven tips to help you improve your focus and attention span, hopefully becoming a more efficient and productive individual at home and at work.
1. Get Some Exercise
Physical activity can help improve your attention span and focus, as it releases chemicals in the brain that affect learning and memory. Even better than a cup of coffee, just 30 minutes of exercise can provide a short-term boost to your mental and cognitive performance, making you smarter and making it easier to focus.
One article points out that “The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells”  .
Beyond improving focus and short attention spans, exercise can improve your memory, prevent depression, and help you avoid cognitive decline that can lead to dementia or other similar diseases.
2. Drink More Fluids
Studies have shown that if you’re struggling to focus, you may be mildly dehydrated. One particular review of 33 studies discovered that dehydration “impairs cognitive performance, particularly for tasks involving attention, executive function, and motor coordination when water deficits exceed 2% BML”  .
Fortunately, our bodies are good at telling us when to drink water. When you begin to feel even slightly thirsty, it’s time to go grab a glass of water. Keep in mind that drinking small amounts of water throughout the day will help your body continuously absorb the fluids compared to quickly chugging a glass.
3. Take Stock of the Important Things in Life
Take some time to think about which tasks cause you the most worry and stress. These are likely the most important things in your life and the things you need to give more attention to in order to improve your mental health.
Once you do this and determine where you will dedicate your focus, you can break these important things down into smaller tasks, which are easier to accomplish and will add up, moving you forward to the larger overall objective.
4. Get Rid of Obvious Distractions
Today’s society is built on a foundation of technology and the ability to be connected to everyone all of the time, which can get in the way of maintaining a high attention span. However, that saturation with “connection” is one of the root causes of inattention and lack of focus.
One survey found that, on average, people reported spending 352 minutes (about five hours and 52 minutes) on their emails each day  . So, when sitting down to focus on a task, you can close all irrelevant tabs, stay away from checking email, and settle into a quiet environment. If you are constantly getting text messages and social media notifications, set your phone aside for predetermined periods of time.
5. Work on One Objective at a Time
Multitasking is the enemy of focus. While most people will profess to have the ability to do multiple things at once, the scientific truth is that when attempting to accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously, none of the attempted tasks are completed at the highest level. Constant switching between tasks takes away from getting the other done.
A recent UC Irvine study showed that it takes up to 23 minutes to recover from a distraction–so it’s no wonder that work environments full of social busybodies and rich in shiny objects can drive down productivity.
People are inundated with stimulation and requests for their attention, leaving them with little to no uninterrupted time to focus on their work. In fact many company are now eschewing the open office in favor of less noisy and more focused work environments.
The likelihood of being distracted is directly related to the amount of pull something is having on your attention and indirectly related to the interest you have in your task. When you’re completely engrossed in what you’re doing, you’ll shut out everything around you.
The professional basketball player at the free throw line, for example, can completely shut out the thousands of screaming fans. However, when you are only marginally interested in what you’re doing, then you might turn your attention at the slightest prompt. Increasing your ability to focus will come from balancing those two types of interest level.
It’s also important to know your triggers. For instance, I know I’m highly visual. I can be intensely focused on a task and not hear a sound, but if there’s a television display in my field of vision, I can’t help but look. Other people I know can have a wall of screens in front of them and not blink, but someone talking behind them can cause them to use earplugs.
If you’re stuck in a distraction-rich environment, here are 18 things you can do to reduce the chance that your attention will get pulled away from the work at hand:
Wear headphones, but don’t actually play any music. Headphones both cut down the noise and also serve as a deterrent from people bothering you. The bigger headphones, the better.
Put a sign on your door or on your desk saying “busy” or “I’m focusing” or “Do not interrupt” to let people know you shouldn’t be bothered right now.
Hang a signup sheet on your door or next to your desk with your calendar including empty slots indicating when you’re free to meet with them.
Use a white noise system to provide background noise or music without lyrics to drown out other people’s conversations and keyboard noises.
Schedule your day so that you’re working on projects that require the greatest amount of focus during naturally distraction-less times. If you have flexible hours, consider coming in an hour early to get some quiet time before everyone else arrives.
Use pomodoros to create a natural rhythm to you work and increase your mental capacity for focus.
Exercise or take a walk before sitting down to do important and difficult work. This practice increases your focus and energy level.
Try using deep breathing and meditation techniques to calm your mind before engaging in focus time.
If your mind is swimming with ideas or things to remember, try a mind sweep to get them on paper and free up your thinking space to focus on the important task at hand.
Breakdown big or difficult task into smaller and easier first steps to kick start your engagement and focus.
Find a partner and do a productivity challenge to see who can get more done in an hour or ninety minutes.
Go to a coffee shop or a co-working space where nobody can find you to get a few hours of distraction-free time outside of the office.
Get more sleep so you have the mental capacity and focus to stay alert and to focus on your work.
Redefine your goals and tasks to be more compelling and motivating so that you’re more engaged in the work.
Set mini goals and rewards for completing focused work sessions throughout the day. Use completion targets to challenge yourself. See how much you can get done by a certain time.
Eat foods that will increase your mental focus and give you the energy you need to stay productive for longer periods of time.
While we can’t always avoid every distraction, we can often greatly reduce our exposure to things that pull our attention away from our work. Knowing our weakness and putting in systems and devices to cut them off at the source is the key.