Your attention span is probably shorter than it used to be. How to fix it

Attention is in short supply. But don’t fret. If you’re wondering about how to increase your attention span, you’re not alone. As we lose our ability to maintain concentration, remedies for repairing focus can promise some relief.

“Attention span refers to the length of time we can be focused or mindful, without distraction, to a particular stimulus,” says Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D., clinical associate in psychology at McLean Hospital and lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

“What research is showing is that the average attention span for various tasks is decreasing overall, especially when it comes to screens,” he adds.

Three studies demonstrate how our average attention span continues to decrease. In her book, “Attention Span,” Gloria Mark, Ph.D., a psychologist who co-authored these studies, writes that the first study from 2004 showed our average attention span for screens was two and a half minutes. Another from 2012 found it was as low as 75 seconds. And the most recent research shows it's 47 seconds.

Learn how to increase your attention span and maybe you’ll finally be able to put your phone down while you watch TV and type on the computer.

Why is my attention span so short?

There are several factors contributing to the widespread stunting of our attention spans, from sleep deprivation to distracting environments and — no surprise — screens.

Screens are a primary contributor to loss of focus because they overstimulate the mind. “The brain is getting such a high reward, leading to the craving of more instant forms of gratification,” Olivardia says. Once you see something you like, you’ll keep turning back to the screens that bring you the most pleasure.

Sleep deprivation is another focus killer since sleep improves executive function. Plus, a noisy or cluttered environment can easily distract you.

What qualifies as a short attention span?

There are a ton of variables in determining whether your attention span is normal or short. “Factors such as the task, interest, age, expectations and environment all can shape the definition of a long or short attention span,” Olivardia says.

Generally speaking, it's a good sign your attention span is shot if you can’t stay on task or recall information afterward, he adds.

While we don’t all have the same attention span, truly paying attention to something is universal. It means being locked in with the stimulus before you.

For example, “if we’re talking about a work project, but (you’re) more present with the thought of what we are going to have for dinner that night, (you) are paying attention to (your) thoughts,” and not the work, says Olivardia.

The impulse to multitask may also be related to short attention span, Olivardia says, because most people aren't as good at it as they think. When people say they’re multitasking, “they really mean task-switching, which involves moving our attention between multiple tasks in a similar time frame,” Olivardia says.

If you need to multitask, dedicating a certain amount of time to one activity and spending that same amount of time on another before switching back again can be more effective, particularly for those with ADHD. But if this isn’t your typical multitasking strategy, you’re probably not being as productive as you think and likely getting distracted along the way.

Is having a short attention span bad?

It can be. Olivardia points to these downsides of a short attention span:

  • Decreased executive functioning

  • Decreased ability to absorb and process information

  • Poor working memory

  • Problems with decision making

  • Problems with organization

  • Problems with time management

  • Difficulty carrying out longer-term projects

  • Difficulty with emotional regulation

Your lack of focus can also impact your social relationships, he adds, since you’re more likely to communicate poorly. “Less active listening can leave friends and family frustrated,” Olivardia explains.

You’ll likely suffer at school or work, too. “Less attentional bandwidth can run into problems in meeting expectations,” Olivardia notes.

You might also struggle to enjoy activities and events if you’re not able to be present. Plus, those with shortened attention spans have a harder time maintaining healthy habits since they don’t often dedicate their time to one thing for long enough.

Is it possible to improve your attention span?

Yes, it is. But the amount of work you'll have to put in will depend on a few factors, such as genetics, nutrition, health habits and "the severity of the impairment," Olivardia says.

You may also never be able to fully repair your attention span. “In the case of head trauma, medical conditions or severe substance (use), we cannot always repair our attention spans but can always work to improve it,” he adds.

Improving your attention span requires changing some of your daily practices, and the timeline will depend on how long you’ve been dealing with a short attention span and your overall health.

How can I increase my focus and attention?

Here are a few tips you can try to improve or repair a shortened attention span.

Get your sleep in check

“Sleep is one of the most important things we can do for our overall health, including improving attention,” Olivardia says. When we’re asleep, our bodies and brains process the information gathered throughout the day.

“Sleep is not a passive process,” he points out. “Our brains consolidate memories and similar information during sleep, which make it easier to access and process information.”

Think of the brain at rest like a librarian tidying and reorganizing books on the shelves after a long day of visitors misplacing them. This way, you can easily find the book you need the following day.

As you sleep, the also brain also recovers to prepare for the next day. “Think of it as little elves cleaning up our neurons, making them shiny for the next day,” says Olivardia.

Failure to sleep enough impacts our ability to reach rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — an important phase of sleep dedicated to learning and memory — thus limiting our brain’s ability to function optimally.

“Sleep hygiene requires getting adequate amounts of solid sleep, which is typically between seven to nine hours for adults and eight to 10 for teens. Ideally these hours would be during times when the sun is down,” says Olivardia. And, if you can swing it, try to go to sleep and wake up at the same times every day.

Prioritize healthy foods

“Healthy foods contain nutrients that boost neurochemicals in our brains, like serotonin, that promote attention,” says Olivardia. “Foods like blueberries, for example, contain antioxidants, vitamins and flavonoids. Flavonoids activate enzymes in the brain that stimulate oxygen and blood flow to the brain.”

He also recommends reaching for foods that are high in monosaturated fats, like avocados. Monosaturated fats help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and maintain your body’s cells, previously reported. These fats also “boost acetylcholine, which is chemically responsible for memory and learning,” Olivardia says.

You can also count on leafy greens for potassium, which Olivardia says strengthens neuronal connections you need to process information.

Also focus on eating rich sources of protein, complex carbs, such as sweet potatoes and whole grain bread, and fiber every day, and drink plenty of water since adequate hydration is essential to the production of neurotransmitters for executive functioning, says Olivardia.

And take note of how much you’re eating because “eating too much or too little can also affect your ability to focus. And hunger can distract you,” Olivardia notes.

Take screen breaks

There’s no formal rule about how much screen time you should or shouldn’t have, Olivardia points out, but he recommends adults limit screen time to two to four hours a day for recreational use with an additional eight hours if your job requires you work at a computer. “For children and teens, it is recommended (they have) no more than one to two hours per day of recreational use,” says Olivardia.

As important as limiting your screen time is, the quality of what’s on your screen is a biggie too. If you’re spending time researching, reading articles or writing a brief for work, the impact on your attention span is far less severe than if you’re on social media.

Olivardia understands screen breaks are much easier said than done, so he recommends taking note of how much time you spend looking at screens per day and then taking five to 10-minute breaks per hour of screen use.

“Stay off screens at least an hour before bedtime. Take a vision break using the 20-20-20 rule, where every 20 minutes you look at something at least 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. This is beneficial for eye health,” adds Olivardia.

You might also consider turning off notifications for the apps that distract you the most or download an app blocker. These blockers — ironically, also apps — are made to help you focus by cutting off your access to certain distracting apps after a certain amount of time per day, previously reported.

Take things slowly at first. Work your way up to longer breaks, then, if you’re up for it, Olivardia says you might try for a screen-free day or weekend.

If you’re not sure what to do when you’re screenless, Olivardia recommends getting some movement in. Go for a walk or stretch.


“Any movement or exercise boosts attention,” says Olivardia. “The kind of exercise is less important than having an established routine of movement, which gets your heart rate going. Exercise stimulates production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a key molecule impacted in boosting neuronal growth, connections and neuroplasticity.”

This growth and connectivity in the brain is essential to learning, memory and concentration. Plus, it helps protect the brain from cognitive decline in later years.

Meditate, listen mindfully to music and spend more time in nature

These are all what Olivardia calls “mindfulness activities that require sustained attention.” Think of it like exercising your attention muscles (if such things existed), he says. These activities promote function in the frontal lobe — the part of the brain where executive functioning and attention regulation happens. “These activities (also) boost functioning in the anterior cingulate cortex, which plays a key role in attentional capacity,” he adds.

Meditation, music and nature are calming, too, thus reducing your stress levels. This tranquility allows for “better emotional regulation, which enables us to be more focused cognitively,” says Olivardia.

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