By Dr. Kevin
Attention spans are shrinking in today’s information rich technology of sensory overload. In response, the market has introduced pills, drinks, and powders that claim to increase your powers of concentration. But there are also lifestyle and work habit changes you can make to increase your attention span naturally.
Actor Robert Redford once said of a colleague, “He has the attention span of a lightning bolt.” I winced at that observation, thinking he could have easily been describing me. I’m lucky if I can write a single sentence before fighting the urge to starting another game of solitaire.
Behavioural scientists have known for decades that the upper range of the average adult attention span is 20 minutes when listening to a speaker. But, in recent years we have been conditioned to have an even shorter focus. Television programming works with eight-minute spans. Multi-media options and lightening fast access to information on the computer force internet searches to narrow their window of opportunity to about 30 seconds. How can we condition our minds to follow through on a train of thought to reach its conclusion?
Some people turn to stimulants or dietary supplements to boost the power of concentration. But there are simple changes in lifestyle and work habits we can make that can increase our attention span naturally. In addition to sleeping well, eating healthy, and getting enough exercise, here are some specific strategies for improving attention span.
Feed Your Focus
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which can occur when otherwise healthy individuals neglect to eat, can slow the speed at which people process information and shorten their attention span. After the overnight fast and lack of glucose in the body, it is important to eat a breakfast rich in both carbohydrates and proteins. The sugars can quickly make your mind sharp, and the complex carbohydrates and proteins will sustain energy to think for extended periods.
The health effects of synthetic food additives on certain people were documented 30 years ago by the late Dr. Benjamin Feingold in his book Why Your Child is Hyperactive. Since then, researchers have consistently corroborated that food additives exacerbate the symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Many with the disorder who switch to a diet free from artificial colorings, sweeteners, and preservatives can experience major improvements in attention.
In addition, ensure that your diet includes enough vitamins and minerals. Deficiency of magnesium, for example, can lead to fidgeting, anxious restlessness, and learning difficulties. As well, the B-complex vitamins (including folic acid and choline), omega 3 fatty acids, and zinc are all linked to the maintenance of a healthy attention span.
Studies have shown that meditation is even more effective than sleep in improving attention span. For example, in a 2005 study, Bruce O’Hara, associate professor of biology at the University of Kentucky had college students either meditate, sleep or watch TV. The form of meditation was deceptively simple: it involved focusing on an image or sound or on one’s breathing.
O’Hara then tested all the students for what psychologists call psychomotor vigilance, asking them to hit a button when a light flashed on a screen. Those who had been taught to meditate performed 10% better—”a huge jump, statistically speaking,” says O’Hara. Those who snoozed did significantly worse. “What it means,” O’Hara theorizes, “is that meditation may restore synapses, much like sleep but without the initial grogginess.”
Control Your TV Watching
Between the constant commercial interruptions and the ever-present remote control that allows constant channel surfing, television breeds an appetite for distraction. When you want to watch, consider pre-recording episodes or renting movies so that you can enjoy the program without breaks.
Reading definitely increases your attention span. Have you ever noticed that if you find an interesting novel to read, you may turn the pages for five or six hours regardless of the activity around you? These marathon reading sessions increase the stamina of your attention span for other tasks that require extended focus.
Exercise Your Observation Skills
Exercising your memory and your observation skills is a great way to build your attention span. Try this “picture game”- study a picture for about a minute. Then, look away and recall as much of the picture as you can. Try to visualize and place objects in the image of your mind. As you practice this regularly, your attention span and power of recall in daily events will grow.
Limit Internet Use
You may have heard the quip, “The attention span of a computer is as long as its electrical cord.” Actually, you don’t have to unplug the machine to break a train of thought. All it takes is an impulsive click of the mouse. This is not good news for those of us who go on-line to inform and shape our thinking.
To avoid having the attention span of a computer, consider saving articles of significance and logging off the Internet to read them. You may even find it helpful to print important documents and leave your workstation to digest their content. This reduces the temptation to jump between websites competing for your interest.
These lifestyle and work habits can all help increase attention span. Of course, your powers of concentration will have ebbs and flows at the best of times. When this happens, don’t be afraid to take a complete break. It will refresh your mind in a way that simply switching to another task cannot.