We understand attention as a distinct mental or neurological process—however, as research in this field makes clear, “attention” is just the name we give to a variety of mechanisms we have for filtering out irrelevant or overwhelming information.
The ability to selectively focus attention on certain aspects of one’s environment is referred to as “executive attention,” which is one of these mechanisms. For instance, while working on your laptop, you could be trying to ignore other screens like the television that is on in the background, as well as items on your desk, your cell phone, and the ticking clock on the wall in order to concentrate on the task at hand.
One aspect of executive attention that comes to mind is the “attention span,” or the amount of time we can maintain executive attention on a certain task before becoming distracted by anything else or switching to that activity.
Modern life can be so hectic that it’s difficult to maintain your attention for lengthy periods of time, making you less productive. So, what are some strategies that might help you improve your attention span?
Manage your “daemons”
It’s normal to be distracted when working on an important task. We are often tempted to check our emails or allow our thoughts to wander to another project we have on the go. This is due to the fact that our brains have been trained to pay attention to different things in our surroundings at different intervals.
This is quite similar to how computer environments frequently allow programs to operate in the background that monitors for specific events and handle them—sometimes interrupting the present process that is executing. These programs are known as daemons.
When trying to be productive, it is critical to identify and control the “daemons” you have running in the background of your own mind. Begin by examining your behavior and noting how long you can focus on a task before being distracted. Determine what causes you to want to move to another task and devise a new timetable to decrease the frequency of these distractions. For example, if you’re tempted to check email every 10 minutes at work, limit it to every 30 minutes or hour. The idea is to retrain your brain so that it does not offer alternative activities while you are concentrating on a task.
Handle your environment
What is available to do right now in your surrounding environment influences much of your attention span. If your phone is sitting on the table in front of you, rather than in another room, you are more likely to fiddle with it.
As you learn what causes you to shift your attention, you can work to make good habits automatic and bad ones difficult to maintain. As a result, you should remove potential distractions from the nearby area.
The decision to listen to music or not while working is a tricky one. As with many tricky psychological questions, the answer is “It depends.” Even if you’re the type of person who has no trouble staying focused for extended periods of time, music can be a potential distraction. On the other hand, if you’re easily distracted by background noise, you might want to play some music to drown those sounds out. A good pair of headphones might help you filter out the noise of the office if you’re easily distracted while working in a cubicle.
Remap your cues
As you become more attuned to the triggers that cause you to switch gears, it’s important to note how you’re feeling immediately before transitioning. When you start to feel a little annoyed with the task at hand, for instance, you might find that you switch over to scrolling through social media. If you’re feeling frustrated, that’s because you’re using it as a cue to transition to a different behavior.
Once you’ve identified the triggers, you can work on retraining your brain to respond in a more positive way. Try working on the assignment for five more minutes if you’re agitated instead of switching directly to Instagram or TikTok. The benefit of this action is that it helps you form a new habit in which you reinterpret the cue as a signal to increase your effort level rather than give up. With practice, you’ll find that you can maintain focus without giving it much thought.