Improve Your Attention Span

Real Simple Magazine, October 2008 Issue

To read the full article on the “Real Simple” website, click here


Why You Focus
It's no accident that you concentrate best when you're really engaging in something, like watching a good movie, or doing something challenging, like learning a new card game. Concentration occurs when the brain's prefrontal cortex, which controls high-level cognitive tasks, is awash with the right cocktail of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other body chemicals, particularly the “pleasure chemical” dopamine (you get a jolt of this when you eat delicious food, have sex, or encounter something new and exciting). “When dopamine levels rise, you subconsciously want more of the good feeling it gives you, so you're driven to concentrate on whatever you're doing to keep getting it,” says Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., a psychologist and the author of Find Your Focus Zone (Free Press, $25, www.amazon.com). But when your attention starts to falter, your dopamine levels drop and you start looking for a new, pleasurable distraction to replace that dopamine hit.

Need one now? This mental exercise improves focus by challenging your brainpower. Take a piece of paper and two pens and sit at a table. Draw a circle with one hand and, at the same time, draw two squares with the other while tracing a circle on the floor with one foot. Not so easy — but are you feeling more focused? Read on.

Why You Lose Focus
It's not only online shopping that keeps you from getting your bills paid. All of us can feel distracted when we're at the mercy of internal factors, like fatigue, stress, and anger, and external factors, like television and e-mail. Here are the most common attention zappers. Identify yours and learn how to regain your focus.

1. Lack of Sleep
When you're tired, you're deprived of oxygen, which is necessary for the production of chemicals, such as dopamine and adrenaline, in the prefrontal cortex. Even one night of tossing and turning can “give you symptoms that resemble ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder), such as forgetfulness and difficulty maintaining concentration,” says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D., director of the Chesapeake ADHD Center of Maryland, in Annapolis.

How to Regain Your Focus

  • Get a good night's sleep. “A good night's sleep is like pushing the reset button in your brain,” says Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of CrazyBusy (Ballantine, $16, www.amazon.com). You should try to get the amount of sleep required for you to wake up without an alarm.
  • Have a snack. If you're running on fumes and about to head into a marathon meeting, drink a glass of water and eat a snack with a balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein, like an apple and a piece of cheese, recommends Hallowell. “This hydrates you and keeps your blood sugar levels even, both of which aid focus,” he says. And try to skip the double espresso. “Caffeine raises your adrenaline, giving you a quick burst of focus,” says Hallowell. “But if you overdo it, you'll get the jitters, diminishing your concentration.”

Drifting off? Read the next section aloud. According to Judith Greenbaum, Ph.D., a coach for people with ADHD and a coauthor of Finding Your Focus (McGraw-Hill, $17, www.amazon.com), using more than one sense (for example, seeing and hearing words) sharpens concentration.

2. Stress and Anger
When you're tense, you get a rush of brain chemicals, like norepinephrine and cortisol, that cause you to hyperfocus “like a deer in the headlights,” says psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino. Thousands of years ago, this was a survival aid — your anxiety-induced focus helped you steer clear of potential predators. But today — when stress might feel life-threatening but usually isn't — this only means that you have a harder time focusing on work when your mind is on your visiting in-laws or a speech you have to give. Anger has the same effect. When you're irritated by something, your stress hormones rise and your concentration levels decrease.

How to Regain Your Focus

  • Start moving. A quick burst of aerobic exercise relieves stress and improves concentration by flooding the brain with oxygen and activating brain chemicals such as dopamine.
    Recent studies have shown that people who engage in aerobic exercise — anything from ice-skating to taking a brisk walk — at least two days a week have better concentratievels than do nonexercisers. If you've been stuck at your desk all day and a quick walk around the block isn't an option, just stand up. This simple act tells your brain it's time to be awake and act alert, says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D.
  • Think happy thoughts. “Thinking of things that promote warmth, connection, and happiness reduces the hormones associated with stress, fear, and anger that can impede concentration,” says author Edward Hallowell.

3. Age and Genetics
Age and genetics, in addition to lifestyle, can influence brain functioning. “While symptoms of ADHD have been found to increase with age, there is no evidence that a normal attention span decreases with age,” says Nadeau. And while many aspects of the brain are influenced by genetics, which means you may be predisposed to a problem with attention, you can have a huge effect on your brain's functioning through how you live your daily life. It is well-known that people can literally grow areas of the brain through repetitive, effortful practice, says Nadeau.

How to Regain Your Focus

  • Exercise your brain. Exercising your mental “muscles” will help preserve your ability to concentrate. Do crossword and sudoku puzzles, read challenging novels, or log on to HAPPYneuron, a website where you can play games specifically developed to improve brain functioning. A study of the 32 games on HAPPYneuron, funded by the Centers for Disease Control, showed that people who played the games three times a week showed significant improvement in cognitive function.

Helloooo! Welcome back. Try this exercise to regain focus. Put your elbows on a table with your forearms pointing up. On the count of one, squeeze your right hand into a fist and bnd your left hand at the wrist so that it's pointing toward your right hand. On the count of two, switch hands: The left hand squeezes into a fist; the right hand points toward the left. Count to 20, increasing the speed of the movements as you go.

4. Modern Distractions
There was a time when people had longer attention spans. Back in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, audiences routinely listened to speeches lasting two hours or more. So when Lincoln concluded after just two minutes, no one even applauded. Nowadays we're so accustomed to focusing for shorter periods of time that we aren't phased when the typical TV show runs from just one to eight minutes before a commercial. The Internet, with its one-click system of gratification, has also conditioned us to focus for shorter periods of time, says Kathleen Nadeau, Ph.D.

At the office, e-mail is one of the biggest attention zappers. A joint study by the University of Illinois and Microsoft reported that we're interrupted by an average of four e-mail alerts an hour. When you stop what you're doing to answer an e-mail, it takes an average of 15 minutes to return to the first task and 10 minutes more to get back to the concentration level you had before the interruption.

The modern habit of multitasking further divides focus. “Multitasking is really a misnomer, since your brain is unable to focus on two tasks at once,” says Nadeau. When you try, “a kind of bottleneck occurs,” says professor Rene Marois, and you become less efficient than if you were to finish one task before starting another.

How to Regain Your Focus

  • Limit multitasking. Since multitasking and inefficiency tend to go hand in hand, the technique should be used only if the tasks involved require little mental effort, says Marois. In other words, it's OK to talk on the phone while ironing, but it's not OK to do it while driving.
  • Take breaks. Our attention naturally falters after we've been doing something for a while, so taking breaks helps us recharge. Aim for a 10-minute breather every hour, says psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino. “When I take a work break, I stay on task by jotting down the time I have to return to my computer,” she says.
  • Alternate high-stimulation and low-stimulation tasks. When you're doing something that requires a lot of mental effort, like filling out your tax return, rekindle your brainpower with something rote and mindless, such as vacuuming. You'll return to the first task with a greater level of concentration.
  • Find your optimal time to work. Hallowell suggests identifying the time of day when you feel most focused or alert. For most people that's the morning — when the day hasn't tired you out yet — but it could be the afternoon or the night. Then use that time to tackle your most challenging projects.
  • Visualize what you want to achieve. When you're interrupted, get back on track with this focusing trick used by athletes in competition: Close your eyes for a few moments and imagine successfully completing the task, whether it's handing a finished report to your boss or shutting the door of a clean, organized closet.

Hey! Still with us? If you're reading this article while listening to music and occasionally belting out some favorite lyrics, it might be time to switch to something instrumental. According to Rene Marois, Ph.D., an associate professor of neuroscience and psychology at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, whose laboratory is devoted to the study of attention, listening to music with lyrics can be distracting. The lyric-less version will keep you upbeat without steering you off course.


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