The world around us is constantly competing for our attention. Think about how many distractions you meet in one day—personal and professional emails, text messages, breaking news alerts, requests from children, friends, managers, and coworkers, back pain, a headache, a sunny day, a sudden urge to browse Amazon, and more. Every element of the day can impact your attention span, and your brain is purposely designed this way.
Research by scientists from Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that our brains are constantly scanning the environment, sampling information around them in frequent cycles. Humans are not designed to do extended periods of deep focus, but small bursts of focus that alternate with information gathering. We are made to be information-seeking creatures.
So, if you feel like it’s impossible to stick to a task because of a low attention span, you are not alone—you’re human.
While it’s perfectly normal to lose focus, especially when doing deep work, there’s evidence that the average adult’s attention span is shrinking. In Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, Dr. Gloria Mark explains that there’s been a noticeable reduction in attention span. Her research shows that in 2004, the average attention on a screen was 2.5 minutes. Years later, it declined to 75 seconds and today, adults pay attention to one screen for only 47 seconds. Additionally, Mark found that when people lose focus on a work task or project, it takes them 25 minutes to refocus and get back on track.
In this article, you’ll learn how the human brain is meant to be distracted, why this is impacting our attention span, and how you can improve your ability to focus.
- The average adult has an attention span of about 10 minutes when listening to a lecture and 47 seconds when working on a screen.
- 47% of adults believe that “deep thinking” is a thing of the past and 49% feel that their attention span is shorter than it used to be.
- Human beings are designed to constantly seek out new information, but the use of modern technology has made regaining focus difficult. Today, it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on track after a distraction.
- Motivation is directly related to attention span. When a task or project provides a sense of purpose, you’re far more likely to retain focus.
What Is Attention Span?
Attention span refers to the amount of time you can concentrate on a task or activity without getting distracted. It’s a crucial cognitive ability that enables us to focus on and complete tasks.
Attention span can vary from person to person, and from task to task, but an adult’s typical attention span is about 10 minutes when listening to a lecture or presentation, and less than a minute when working on a screen.
Our brains are designed to constantly seek new information. The body’s dopamine system is actually directly related to our information-seeking behaviors, triggering positive feelings when we learn or find something new. This natural body process has allowed for the survival and evolution of human beings.
For thousands of years, humans had to be on high alert, always searching for lurking predators and potential food sources. That’s exactly why our brains scan the environment every few minutes and why we can quickly switch our attention from one task to another. In a nutshell, we are hardwired to know what’s going on around us, at every moment. That worked when our ancestors were quickly distracted by a snapped branch or ruffle of trees, but how do our ancient brains deal with the non-stop, intrusive signals of modern technology?
The Modern-Day Attention Span
We know from research on the human brain that it’s normal to scan or sample the environment while engaging in focused work. “This is an ancient drive that leads to all sorts of complexities in how we interact with the world around us,” said neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley in a Discover Magazine article.
Our attention span occurs in rhythmic cycles throughout the day. When you’re working, you will naturally stop every few minutes to scan the room and search out more important tasks. If nothing steals away your attention, you will (eventually) get back to work. While this is normal, studies show that our attention spans are dwindling in recent years, which is largely blamed on the increased use (and reliance on) technology.
A U.K. survey by the Policy Institute and Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College found:
- 47% of adults believe “deep thinking” is a thing of the past.
- 67% of the U.K. public believe that technology interferes with our ability to concentrate.
- 49% of adults feel that their attention span is shorter than it used to be, compared to 23% who disagree.
- Adults check their cell phones up to 80 times a day.
- 50% of U.K. adults say they can’t stop checking their cell phones when trying to focus on a task, despite their best efforts.
When you mix our brain’s need to gather information and devices that constantly throw new information at us, you’re left with a declining attention span and increased time between moments of deep focus.
Should we just throw in the towel on maintaining attention span? Not exactly. Even in the modern age, we need to maintain focus in order to complete tasks. This is a critical tool for work productivity, personal hobbies, relationships, and more.
Benefits of Having a Better Attention Span
Your ability to concentrate on a task will impact many factors of life, including work performance, ability to achieve both personal and professional goals, desire to interact with people face-to-face, and motivation to engage in hobbies.
The top benefits of a better attention span include:
- Increased productivity: If a person has a longer attention span, they can concentrate for longer periods without getting distracted, thereby being more productive.
- Improved creativity: A greater ability to focus will help your creative process by allowing you to generate new ideas, dive deeper into problems, consider different perspectives, and come up with innovative solutions.
- Deeper relationships: Being able to engage in active listening, which requires a greater attention span, will benefit your relationships and help you to be viewed as a trusted and thoughtful friend or coworker.
- Reaching goals: Being able to focus on a task, whether it’s personal or professional, allows you to reach the goals you’ve set for yourself.
- Learning and growing: Reading, listening, and engaging all require deep attention, and allow you to learn and grow as an individual.
Signs of a Low Attention Span
Attention span will vary depending on the person and task. You may notice that when it comes to a project you enjoy, it’s much easier to remain focused. If you often have trouble following through on an activity or assignment, however, you may have a short attention span.
The most common signs of low attention span include:
- Struggle to complete tasks effectively and efficiently
- Poor performance at work
- Trouble reading long texts, pages, or articles
- Tendency to leave tasks incomplete
- Difficulty with time management and organization
- Trouble listening and retaining information
- Forgetting appointments or important details
- Difficulty communicating
- Trouble sticking to a plan
Why Is Your Attention Span so Short?
Low attention span can be caused by psychological, physical, and environmental factors. For some people, poor attention span is the result of a medical condition, reducing their ability to concentrate on one task for an extended period of time. Others lose focus because of distractions and have trouble quickly getting back on task.
The most common causes of short attention span include:
- Age: Studies have found that attention span tends to decline with age, although this decline can be slowed down or even reversed through training and mental stimulation. Children typically have lower attention spans.
- Motivation: Research has shown that motivation can play a significant role in determining attention span. Individuals tend to concentrate better on tasks they find enjoyable or meaningful and focus far less on tasks they find boring or meaningless.
- Technology: Many study groups and organizations have investigated the impact of digital devices and technology on attention span. Most studies suggest that excessive use of these devices can reduce attention span and impair cognitive functions. However, reports indicate that in some cases, technology can be used to improve attention span, such as through the use of apps and games designed to train attention and focus.
- Mental Health: Fatigue, depression, stress, anxiety, and other mental health conditions can significantly impair attention span.
- Physical Health: Physical factors such as poor sleep, deficient nutrition, excessive sugar and processed food consumption, and dehydration can have a negative impact on attention span. Certain conditions, such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), autism, head trauma, and learning disabilities may also experience low attention span.
- Environment: Distractions such as noise, interruptions, and clutter can shorten attention span and make it more difficult to stay focused on a task.
- Task complexity: Your brain will handle tasks that are too simple and considered boring differently than those that are too complex and feel overwhelming. The difficulty of a task will greatly impact your ability to stay focused on it for an extended period of time.
How to Increase Attention Span
1. Eliminate Distractions
Notifications from phones or emails, background noise, and other technological or environmental interruptions can all shorten a person’s attention span and reduce their productivity. In fact, research conducted at London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that persistent distractions among adults at work caused a 10-point fall in their IQ.
Creating a conducive environment and minimizing distractions can help increase your ability to focus on a task for an extended period of time.
To eliminate distractions, be sure to:
- Turn off phone and computer notifications.
- Turn off the television and distracting music.
- Put your phone in a drawer, another room, or on silent mode.
- Notify coworkers, housemates, or family members that you are doing focused work.
- Use work apps like Slack to indicate you can’t be distracted.
2. Avoid Being a Constant Checker
Although about 65% of Americans think that “unplugging” from technology would improve their mental health, only 28% of them actually report doing it, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
A 2017 report by the APA found that on their days off from work:
- 65% of American adults say they often or constantly check their personal email.
- 52% constantly check their text messages.
- 44% constantly check social media.
- 28% often check their work email.
To improve your attention span and learn how to focus, make a conscious effort to avoid being a constant checker. Turn off your phone or notifications, silence rings and pings, and set a designated time every day that you will not check your devices in order to engage in deep, focused work.
3. Stop Multitasking
Despite popular opinion, for a large majority of individuals, multitasking is impossible. Unless one task is automatic, like walking, it’s nearly impossible for the brain to handle two tasks at the same time. Multitasking leads to cognitive overload and actually makes us less efficient because it requires extra time for the brain to shift gears from one task to another. Research suggests that multitasking reduces productivity by 40%.
Do this to stop multitasking:
- Create a list of your daily priorities and tackle one task at a time.
- Eliminate distractions in order to engage in focused work.
- Say “no” when you can’t handle another assignment.
- Keep your work area neat and free from clutter.
- Take breaks throughout the day.
4. Set Clear Goals
How can you keep a healthy attention span if you don’t have clear goals to work towards? The American Psychological Association suggests that writing down goals will boost performance and motivation, getting you closer to your desired outcomes.
Create and write down SMART goals that are:
- Specific: “Who” and “what” are needed to accomplish the goal?
- Measurable: How do you plan to measure success over a certain period of time?
- Achievable: Is the goal within reach?
- Relevant: How does the goal contribute to other goals and align with your life vision?
- Time-bound: When is a reasonable date for accomplishment?
5. Practice Time Blocking and Take Breaks
Your work day should be a balance of time blocking, allowing for focused work and breaks. Time blocking involves indicating a certain period of time that will be dedicated to a specific task. Blocking out time for deep work will motivate you to stay on task and get the assignment done during that time frame.
Time blocking works best when you schedule breaks, too. When you know that a break is coming as soon as you finish a task (and your time block is over), you will be much more likely to focus on completing the job in order to enjoy your reward.
Use this time management tool by:
- Identifying your priority task or assignment.
- Blocking out a specific period of time to get the task done, such as 1–2 hours.
- Plan for a break after completing the task.
6. Practice Meditation and Relaxation Techniques
Research shows that brief meditation sessions can have a beneficial effect on attention span. Meditative and relaxation training helps improve executive attention, training your mind to build resilience and discipline when faced with distractions.
Try this simple meditation technique for 5–10 minutes daily:
- Sit or lie comfortably and close your eyes.
- Breath naturally.
- Focus your attention on your breath and how it moves your body when inhaling and exhaling.
- Observe the quiet movement of your shoulders, chest, rib cage, and belly.
- If you lose focus on your body’s movements, return focus back to your breath.
7. Train With Mentally Stimulating Activities or Games
Attention span can be improved with training and practice. For instance, engaging in mentally stimulating activities like using apps or games designed to stimulate your mind, will promote better and longer focus.
Some brain-training games for attention span include:
8. Read Daily and Listen Carefully
Reading stimulates your prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that affects attention and concentration. It increases mental stimulation and allows for the production of new neurons in the brain and makes it easier to recall information.
Studies show that reading as little as 6 minutes daily can improve your quality of life by sharpening your mental acuity and reducing stress.
Listening also improves attention span because it helps you focus on receiving and absorbing information. When someone is speaking to you, practice deep listening and relay information back to the speaker to stay engaged.
9. Get Creative
Have you ever been so inspired by a project that you worked hours on it without realizing how quickly time flew?
When a person is engaged in a creative task or project, they are better able to concentrate for longer periods, as they are motivated by the task itself. Additionally, being creative can help develop and improve attention span, as it requires sustained focus and the ability to block out distractions.
Some ways to get creative (even if you don’t consider yourself creative) include:
- Freewriting for ten minutes daily
- Doing something you loved to do as a child
- Building something from scratch
- Cooking and experimenting with new recipes
- Gardening and composting
- Taking an art or writing class
- Listening to or playing music
10. Spend Time Outdoors
There are many cognitive advantages to spending time outdoors. Research indicates that time in nature helps restore processes that require the brain’s prefrontal cortex, including concentration. It also improves creativity and problem-solving, reduces stress, and improves sleep.
Studies show that spending just two hours a week outdoors will lead to numerous mental and physical health benefits, including improved focus.
Adding exercise to your outdoor time is even better, as physical activity has additional benefits on attention span. Try hiking or walking, engaging in an outdoor team sport, swimming, or biking.
Focus on What Matters Most
Attention span is largely affected by motivation. In 2019, organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote a New York Times article entitled “Productivity Isn’t About Time Management. It’s About Attention Management.” Grant said that attention management is “the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places, and at the right moments.” He argues that productivity struggles are not caused by a lack of efficiency, but a lack of motivation.
If you find yourself spending most of the day distracted rather than focused on a project or assignment, it’s time to reframe your vision—what you are striving to achieve and why. When your life vision statement is clear, you will experience a renewed sense of motivation and purpose, helping you to focus on what matters most and ignore distractions.
Leaders Media has established sourcing guidelines and relies on relevant, and credible sources for the data, facts, and expert insights and analysis we reference. You can learn more about our mission, ethics, and how we cite sources in our editorial policy.
- Fiebelkorn, I. C. (2018, August 22). A Dynamic Interplay within the Frontoparietal Network Underlies Rhythmic Spatial Attention. Neuron. https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(18)30636-6
- LaMotte, S. (2023, January 11). Your attention span is shrinking, studies say. Here’s how to stay focused. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/01/11/health/short-attention-span-wellness/index.html
- Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more? (2016, October). Adv Physiol Educ. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://journals.physiology.org/doi/pdf/10.1152/advan.00109.2016
- Science X. (2022, February 16). Are attention spans really collapsing? Data shows UK public is worried, but also see technology benefits. https://phys.org/news/2022-02-attention-spans-collapsing-uk-technology.html
- Miller, K. (2020, April 22). How Our Ancient Brains Are Coping in the Age of Digital Distraction. Discover Magazine. https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/how-our-ancient-brains-are-coping-in-the-age-of-digital-distraction
- Study.com | Take Online Courses. Earn College Credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers. (n.d.). https://study.com/academy/lesson/attention-span-definition-how-to-improve.html
- Vallesi, A. (2021, March 26). Age differences in sustained attention tasks: A meta-analysis. SpringerLink. https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-021-01908-x
- Engelmann, J. B. (2009, March 30). Combined effects of attention and motivation on visual task performance: transient and sustained motivational effects. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/neuro.09.004.2009/full
- King’s College London. (2022, February 16). Are attention spans really collapsing? Data shows UK public are worried – but also see benefits from. . .. King’s College London. https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/are-attention-spans-really-collapsing-data-shows-uk-public-are-worried-but-also-see-benefits-from-technology
- Reporter, G. S. (2018, October 17). The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/14/the-lost-art-of-concentration-being-distracted-in-a-digital-world
- Stress in America. (2017). American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2017/technology-social-media.pdf
- Multitasking undermines our efficiency, study suggests. (2001). American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/oct01/multitask
- Boosting productivity. (2004). American Psychological Association. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2017/09/boosting-productivity.html
- George Washington University’s Online Healthcare MBA. (2020, November 6). How to Increase Attention Span: Exercises, Tips & Resources. George Washington University. https://healthcaremba.gwu.edu/blog/how-to-increase-attention-span/
- Lastiri, L. (2022, March 25). Does Reading Improve Memory? Iris Reading. https://irisreading.com/does-reading-improve-memory/
- Martinez, K. (2020, November 5). Reading Books Can Benefit Your Mental Health. Step up for Mental Health. https://www.stepupformentalhealth.org/reading-books-can-benefit-hour-mental-health/
- Carruthers, L. (2016). Creativity and Attention: A Multi-Method Investigation. Edinburgh Napier University. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from https://www.napier.ac.uk/~/media/worktribe/output-1052411/creativity-and-attention-a-multi-method-investigation.pdf
- Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PloS one, 7(12), e51474. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
- White, M. P. (2019, June 13). Spending at least 120â€‰minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3
- Healthy UNH. (2014, September 17). Recent Study Ties Physical Activity to Longer Attention Span. https://www.unh.edu/healthyunh/blog/2013/07/recent-study-ties-physical-activity-longer-attention-span
- Grant, A. (2019, April 10). Productivity Isn’t About Time Management. It’s About Attention Management. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/28/smarter-living/productivity-isnt-about-time-management-its-about-attention-management.html