Trouble focusing? Try these tips to build attention span.

by Kaiser Permanente |

If you’ve been struggling to focus, you’re not alone. Human attention spans are getting shorter* — and it’s not hard to see why.

“We live in a 24/7 news cycle, in a world full of snippets and information,” says Ashley Zucker, MD, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente. “So, our brains are being retrained to only focus for short periods of time.”

The type of content you consume matters too. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and tragic world events, the news has been stressful lately — and stress can affect your body. “That really impacts our ability to maintain our own well-being and mental health,” says Zucker. “And focus is a huge part of that.”

Fortunately, there are ways to build your attention span — which in turn can improve your mindfulness, relationships, and even work. Here are some of Zucker’s tips for recognizing and fixing a short attention span.

Signs of a short attention span

You can’t expect perfect focus all the time. But there are some signs that a short attention span is impacting your life.

  • Difficulty starting or completing tasks
  • Making careless mistakes
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty reading for long periods

You might also notice personal problems. Patients often report to Zucker that their short attention span harms their relationships. For example, partners or family members might complain that it feels like you aren’t listening.

How to improve your focus

The good news is that there are things you can do to rebuild your attention span. Here are some of Zucker’s recommendations.

  1. Take several mini-breaks throughout the day to either walk around or stretch. “Sometimes we think if we just keep going, that will help. But it actually can be more effective to take breaks,” says Zucker.
  2. Limit distractions. Try adjusting the settings on your phone so you get fewer notifications every day. Or, you can turn them off entirely.
  3. Working from home? Pretend you’re not. “Re-create your workday as though you were going to the office,” says Zucker. Try sticking to a consistent schedule and wearing professional clothing. Also, sit down at a desk to work instead of on your bed or at the kitchen table.
  4. Practice mindfulness. Zucker recommends doing a body scan: Focus on each part of the body. Notice the sensations you feel. Note how the chair feels against your legs or how the carpet feels against your feet. Ask yourself what you’re hearing, feeling, and even tasting. “Recognizing what’s happening in the moment can be a great exercise to be more mindful and present,” she says.

Sometimes, there’s an underlying condition

Short attention span is a common symptom of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). But unless you’ve had symptoms for a long time, ADHD probably isn’t the cause, says Zucker.

“Many attention issues related to something like ADHD have occurred since childhood,” she says. “If your symptoms are new, it’s unlikely to be from ADHD.”

In some cases, short attention span may be a sign of other underlying conditions, like:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Thyroid problems

If your attention span is impacting your everyday life, consider seeing your doctor.

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* “Accelerating Dynamics of Collective Attention,” Nature Communications, April 15, 2019.