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Your Healthy Family: Restoring your shortening attention span

Posted at 8:43 AM, Sep 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-08 08:43:05-04

Have you noticed your attention span has been shrinking? We're constantly distracted by texts, e-mails and notifications lighting up our smartphones and computers, and a lack of focus can make you feel over-stressed. But there are things you can do to keep your attention in check.

A study found in 2004, our average attention span on screens was two-and-a-half minutes. Now, researchers say it's down to just 47 seconds.

Dr. Gloria Mark wrote the book 'Attention Span: A Groundbreaking way to restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity.' She said there are several ways you can maintain better focus.

1. Avoid attention-switching

"If we look at how often we switch projects, it takes us about 25-and-a-half minutes to return back to that project," Dr. Mark said. "We're switching to another project and then another, and then we start to work on another and then we go back."

She said by the time we get back to that original project, our mind has been elsewhere and it's hard to re-orient back on track. She says all of that 'attention-switching' negatively impacts your health and job performance.

"We had people wear heart rate monitors and we see the very strong correlation between switching attention and the heart rate monitors indicating stress," she said.

Dr. Mark said that can lead to slip-ups.

"People make more errors when they switch attention. That's been well-documented. Studies of physicians, nurses, pilots, when they're constantly switching attention. And information workers," she said.

She said you can stop all of that switching by paying closer attention to your 'automatic actions.'

2. Paying closer attention to 'automatic actions'

"We automatically check email, social media, check our phones," Dr. Mark said.

She says stop and think about why you're switching to that other task.

"Is it because I'm bored? Is it because it's too hard? And figure out what can I do about that," she said.

Dr. Mark also said to think about how that action will impact you later that day.

"If I spend 30 minutes on social media now, what's my life going to be like at seven o'clock at night, or ten o'clock?" she said.

3. Be strategic with your time

"If you're someone who's going to spend 30-40 minutes on social media, you need to plan some strategy," Dr. Mark said.

She said to schedule it, and set a timer. And consider when you're at peak focus, then schedule your hardest tasks for the day at that time. That's when you're fully engaged and most productive.

"For most people, around 11 AM and also mid-afternoon between 2 and 3 PM," she said.

It might vary a bit depending on if you're an early bird or a night owl.

"Design your day to put the hardest tasks, those that require the most creativity, at those times when we've got the most mental resources to deal with them," she said.

She said it's also important to take breaks and recharge.

And for anyone concerned, she said don't worry: it is possible to get a grip on your attention span.

"A lot of people feel they're doomed, this is the way it is. No, that's not the case. People, we can take control over our attention," Dr. Mark said.