5 ways to boost your attention span

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Oh, but some folks are still going to fight me on this one: But you don’t understand, I’m really good at multitasking! Oh, really? If you think that, you’re actually the worst at it.

From The Distracted Mind:

It has been shown that people who believe that they are good at multitasking actually tend to be those who do the worst on laboratory tests of multitasking, leading the study authors to conclude that “participants’ perceptions of their multi-tasking ability were poorly grounded in reality.”

Yes, you probably feel good when you multitask. But feeling good and efficiency are not the same thing. Multitasking meets your emotional need to do something new and exciting while also slowing your brain down and increasing errors.

From The Distracted Mind:

The reason behind the constant task switching is a desire to feed emotional needs — often by switching from school work to entertainment or social communication — rather than cognitive or intellectual needs.

You wouldn’t even try to lift 5,000 pounds. You know your body can’t do it. So stop thinking you can efficiently multitask. You now know your brain can’t do it.

Okay, so what’s the single most powerful way to actually increase your attention span?

2. Exercise

Strengthen your body and you strengthen your brain. In fact, cognitive control is measurably better after just a single exercise session.

From The Distracted Mind:

Boosts in cognitive control abilities occur even after engagement in a single bout of physical exertion, as assessed in healthy children and those diagnosed with ADHD, with benefits extending to academic achievement. Interestingly, it seems that the impact on the brain is greater if an exercise program is also cognitively engaging. Similar training benefits of acute and chronic exercise on cognitive control have been shown in both young adults and middle-age adults. There is also a very large body of research on the cognitive benefits of physical exercise in older adults.

And while we’re discussing things physical, let me confirm what should be obvious: Get your sleep. While just one exercise session boosts cognitive control, just one bad night’s sleep reduces it.

From The Distracted Mind:

Even a single bad night’s sleep can impair cognitive control and how ongoing sleep deprivation can have severe and long-term consequences.

Exercise makes you brain healthier and that sharpens cognitive control. But what’s the most direct way to improve your attention span?

3. Meditate

Focus on your breath and when your mind wanders, return your attention to your breath. That’s meditation in a nutshell. Guess what else that is? Attention training.

From The Distracted Mind:

Results indicated that participants exhibited improvements in selective attention compared to those in a control group who did not train over the same time period. This study was consistent with findings from previous research that showed expert meditators excelled on selective attention tasks compared to non-meditators. Over the years more evidence has accrued that meditation techniques improve cognitive control, including sustained attention, speed of processing, and working memory capacity.

Start with a minute a day. Will you see enormous effects from that? Nope. But it sure will stop you from telling me, “I don’t have time to meditate.” Eventually build up to a habit of 20 minutes a day and you’ll start to see why everyone keeps yakking about how great it is.

I know, I know: Exercise is hard. And, frankly, meditation is harder. So what’s a way to improve cognitive control as passively as possible?

4. Call your mother nature

Exercise and meditation both strengthen your attention muscles. Spending time in nature recharges those muscles when they’ve been exhausted. The effect is so powerful that merely looking at a picture of nature had restorative effects.

From The Distracted Mind:

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