When was the last time you sat through a commercial? Maybe you felt a little anxious as your mind started to wander, anxiety that didn’t subside until you had something else to occupy your attention. Did you grab your phone to occupy your mind, unable to pay attention in the brief moments before a YouTube clip began or a TV show returned?
We’ve become a nation of short attention spans. So short that a 2015 study found that the average adult can stay on track for a total of eight seconds. Compare that to 2000, when the average person could stay on task for 12 seconds. Or even compare it the attention span of a goldfish, which scientists claim can hold a thought for a total of nine seconds. We’re failing big time. Go ahead and blame technology—the experts do. “The omnipresence of gadgetry in our lives drastically affects our ability to concentrate by literally changing brain chemistry,” says Dr. Bobbi Wegner, a clinical psychologist and teaching fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“Research shows that increased levels of dopamine—'the reward drug'—are associated with screen use, much like in cocaine addiction,” Wegner explains. “Kids and adults look for dopamine hits by jumping around the internet, social media and online gaming. The more people are on screens, the more they are a building a chemically-dependent habit.” And lest you think that a short attention span just means your busy brain can handle a lot more things, Dr. Chen Yu’s research shows otherwise. The Indiana University psychologist has researched the effect wandering adult minds have on infants, and he warns “a shorter attention span causes shallow information processing.” “Longer attention leads to better memory,” Yu adds. “Sustained attention is always linked to deeper information processing. This is like you have a long sleep without being interrupted versus getting several short naps.”
So, can we actually challenge our brains to stay on task longer? I asked experts how we can beef up our attention spans:
Never underestimate the restorative power of exercise. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that a 20-minute walk can help kids pay better attention in class.
When sitting down to a task, turn off anything that does not have to do with said task—email, texts, everything. And make it a habit to do so. That alone can retrain your brain, says Dr. Christine Carter, sociologist and senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Create a ritual that sets your brain up for focused time. Disconnect your WiFi, set your phone on airplane mode—whatever you do, make it a routine that you follow again and again when you’re readying yourself to hyperfocus on one particular task. Carter says it can even help to write out the plan to follow, as it will help drop you into a state of focus.
It’s likely no surprise to its practitioners, but University of California researchers have found that meditation helps people focus longer on tasks that require them to distinguish small differences between things they see.
Tuning into a playlist can have a real impact on how well you tune into information says Dr. Jim Jackson, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an expert in neuropsychological functioning. “Research using neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging shows that music engages the attentional regions of the brain,” Jackson says. But you may want to stick to classical or ambient genres when you pull up Pandora. “Many of the studies done on music and attention have been done with lyric-free music,” Jackson warns.