Our lives are brimming with distractions that make it difficult—and sometimes downright impossible—to stay focused. (Seriously, we’re bombarded with so much information every day that our collective attention span continues to decrease.) While it’s tempting to just shrug our shoulders and tell ourselves that it be like that sometimes, improving our attention spans is important in a variety of ways, from learning new skills to watching a TV show without scrolling through your phone at the same time to not getting fired at work because you never finish anything.
So we turned to Dr. Patrick Porter, neuroscience expert and founder of BrainTap, for help. “When I think of ways to improve attention span, there are three techniques I love to teach—especially to students,” he tells us. They also work for those of us whose classroom days are behind us. Below, Dr. Porter shares his very best hacks for improving attention span.
“When you’re in a lecture [Editor’s Note: or meeting] and your mind begins to wander, and you realize you’re not focused on the speaker or being attentive to the lecture, go ahead and look around the room for something that is the color red,” Dr. Porter explains. “Once you have that thing, return your attention to the lecture. If you find your mind wanders again, this time look around the room for something that is the color orange, and then return to the lecture. Continue this, changing the color each time.
This helps build your attention span because the brain, which loves patterns, is going to recognize that the space between looking for each color is going to expand, increasing your attention span instead of being conditioned out of awareness in that situation.”
“You can also increase your attention while reading,” Dr. Porter says. “Some people open a book and before long find their attention wanders or they fall asleep. As you’re going through your book and reading, notice if your mind wanders, and make a game of it. Shut the book, making note of which page you left off on. Look around the room. Take a few deep breaths. If you have water handy (which I recommend having while you’re reading), take a drink of water. Then return to your reading.
What you’ll find is as you practice this every time your attention wanders, you’re going to bring notice to your subconscious mind and interrupt the pattern. Once you interrupt the pattern, the brain will expand the time you’re able to read without your attention wandering. You’ll find that instead of only being able to read five or 10 minutes, you can go half an hour because you’re being more attentive to the information.”
“To stay aware when you’re listening to someone, keep your attention and focus on them,” Dr. Porter says. “This may seem counterintuitive, but when you’re with someone, try to become aware of how they’re breathing and then start to pace their breathing by breathing in while they’re speaking and breathing out while you’re speaking. You’ll find this increases your attention span, because you’re breathing in and staying attentive to when they speak. There is something to keep your awareness and the cadence of your breath going instead of allowing your mind to disengage and wander while they’re giving you information.”