6 Tips to Improve Your Focus

5 min read  |  June 21, 2024  | 

You’ve noticed that your attention span has shrunk to the size of a goldfish’s. You have a dozen tabs open on your laptop, and you jump from one to another, barely looking at the offerings. When bored, you scroll mindlessly through your social media accounts, never settling for more than a few seconds on any item.

Take heart: you’re not alone. The ability to focus has become an elusive attribute, and there’s plenty of blame for what has happened.

“In today’s world, everything is delivered in small and frequent bites,” says James E. Galvin, M.D., M.P.H., a neurologist at the University of Miami Health System. “There’s also an excess of information, and people are switching from one thing to another without ever really focusing.”

He has observed his grandchildren watching short videos on YouTube but finding it challenging to sit still for a half-hour or an hour show. Like most of us, they expect to be entertained with quick feeds.

The result of our squirrel-like attention?

“The jury is still out on the long-term effects, but you have to take into account that your ability to learn and remember is diminished if you can’t pay attention,” he says. “If you can’t stay focused in geometry or English literature class, how are you going to learn the formulas or understand the deeper meaning of ‘Othello’?”

Studies support the anecdotal evidence about our distractibility. A California research psychologist and professor of informatics began studying attention span at the turn of the century. She found that in 2004, her study participants were able to spend 2.5 minutes, on average, focused on a screen. By 2012, that had dropped to 75 seconds; in the past five years, it plummeted to an average of 47 seconds.

Our short attention spans now influence many facets of life, from education to entertainment to advertising. For example, the research psychologist found that film and TV shots have contracted from 12 seconds to an average length of four seconds. The length of top-performing pop songs decreased by more than a minute between 1990 and 2020. SAT tests were reconfigured to be 45 minutes shorter, with some reading comprehension passages shortened to a mere two or three sentences.

Technology shouldn’t bear all the blame.

Cultural expectations also play a part. Dr. Galvin, who is also the founding director of the Comprehensive Center for Brain Health, points out how, in a 24/7 society that emphasizes productivity, we strive to multitask, which reduces our ability to focus on a single task.

“You think you’re accomplishing more, but you’re not,” he says. “You’re often just going from one thing to another.”

What’s more, the availability of screens and the demand for our attention actually sabotage our focus. “We have an overload of information; everything is ‘Breaking News,’ and it’s all delivered in a chyron speeding across the bottom of your screen.”

Not all is lost, however. Think of the ability to focus as a muscle. You have to train it, work it, challenge it — and in some cases, get it back in the shape it once was.

Here are Dr. Galvin’s suggestions:

1. Do one thing at a time.

Trying to do more actually takes longer and leads to more mistakes. Close all those tabs on your computer. Tackle only one item on your To Do list before moving on to the next one. The reality is that our brains are wired to do a single task, not many all at once. When we multitask, we’re not really doing two or three things at a time — just shifting focus.

2. Turn off notifications when working.

Nothing is more distracting than a ping from the family chat or the news app. Try the Pomodoro Technique, a popular time management technique that can also boost your attention. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work on your task for 25 uninterrupted minutes. When the time goes off, take a short break of about 5 to 10 minutes. Repeat this four times and then take a longer break (20-30 minutes)

3. Listen actively.

Pay attention to the speaker in front of you and resist the temptation for a quick peek at your phone or smartwatch. “Look at the person directly,” Dr. Galvin urges. “Don’t look away or down at a screen.” Some people also find it helpful to paraphrase what is being said because it forces you to pay attention to the conversation.

4. Take breaks from the screen both at home and at work.

This will help you return to your work refreshed. Some people use the 20-20-20 rule, which means that you look away after 20 minutes and spend 20 seconds looking at something about 20 feet away. Your eyes will thank you.

5. Limit your social media intake.

“We’re not built to take in all that overstimulation,” Dr. Galvin explains.

6. Practice mindfulness.

Meditation, spending quiet time in nature, or even listening to soft music can help strengthen your attention muscle. “Try to incorporate this into your routine until it becomes a habit,” Dr. Galvin says.

Headshot of Ana Veciana, author (2023)

Ana Veciana-Suarez is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.

Tags: brain exercises, Comprehensive Center for Brain Health, Dr. James Galvin, neurology care in Miami

Continue Reading