Timothy Egan recently wrote a piece in The New York Times titled, “The 8-Second Attention Span.” It’s every bit as depressing as it sounds. Egan discussed how our incredibly connected world has made us incredibly inattentive people.
In the piece, Egan also includes the following, “A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.” Here’s a free idea for a TV show: “Can you can pay attention longer than a goldfish?”
We’ve all seen it and many of us are guilty of it: reaching out to check our texts or emails fives minutes after doing just that, forever signing in and out of Facebook, that Instagram morning scroll before we’ve even got out of bed, etc. At every turn, we can seldom ever focus on the thing that we want to or ought to be doing. As Egan mentions, we see it everywhere from our news media to our politics. (I am also committing an attention-span crime here by writing a listicle so excuse the irony.)
As a remedy, among other things, Egan recommends deep reading and gardening. I will build up on that reading point in my own recommendations. As for gardening, if you live in a city, and are unable/unwilling to find a place to garden, that might not be for you. The following are my recommendations on improving your attention span:
1. Practice yoga/meditation
The physical benefits of yoga – strength, flexibility, injury protecting, etc. – are endless. But one of the other non-exercise related benefits of yoga is that it forces you to focus on your body in a way that few other physical exercises do. Running, for example, is another brain exercise that improves memory. But yoga is centered on attentiveness to each movement which forces focus. Moreover, the breathing in yoga also calls for a focus on each moment. Meditation works the same way. Try incorporating 15-20 minutes of either yoga or meditation in your morning. It’s better for you than the Instagram scroll.
2. Eat more “brain foods”
It’s a pity that food is still not perceived in many cultures as the primary way to prevent and fight disease. In American culture as far as I can observe, food is more about politics than nutrition. However, I digress. The thing about “brain foods” is that it’s mostly food you ordinarily should have in your diet: eggs, spinach, salmon, oatmeal, blueberries, etc. Unsurprisingly, eating healthy meals improves brain function overall. Food and nutrition scientists also recommend hydrating with water and tea for improved attention. (My other advice now that I’m on Day 90 of a refined sugar-free/ alcohol-free year? Reduce or give up sugar and alcohol completely for periods of time to improve concentration.)
3. Take up chess
As a child, my dad encouraged us to play chess. Sadly, I haven’t played much in adulthood but I’ve always loved the strategy involved in the game. More than that, playing chess teaches you patience and builds your ability to focus one complex activity. Some research has also shown that chess is used in improving the concentration of children who suffer from ADHD. Other benefits include that you’re training both sides of your brain, it builds self-esteem, and it also works as a therapeutic activity for mental and emotional health.
4. Play video games that improve your attention span
Video game enthusiasts rejoice! But not so fast because some researchers hypothesize that video games may adversely affect attention spans, and that there may even be a correlation between video games and ADHD. Still, there have been electronic games developed specifically for improving attention. Games like Dual-N-Back, “improves working memory (short term memory) and fluid intelligence.”
5. Timed reading before bed
Egan suggests “deep reading” in his piece. I agree. I also suggest timed reading before bed. Whether it’s 30 minutes or one hour, learn to focus on something non-electronic that also requires your awareness. Not only is this good for your attention span, it is good for your sleep as well. Of course, be weary of trying to “hurry” through the timed read. A habit I picked up in grad school that works when you’ve got hundreds of pages to go through each week, but is not ideal for reading for pleasure, is swift skimming/reading quickly. Doing this to improve your attention defeats the purpose. Absorbing your reading material without distractions will do wonders for your focus elsewhere.
6. Take digital breaks
Whether it’s leaving your phone and computer in another room for a day on the weekend, or going on a hiatus from social media for a period of time, or banning social media from your phone but allowing it while you’re on the computer, find a way to take breaks every so often. One singular digital break is very unlikely to be the life-changing activity you’re looking for, that will prevent your round-the-clock digital checking. It’s sort of like fasting or a cleanse. Just like you shouldn’t go into a fast or a cleanse expecting long-term weight loss, but rather a mental shift in your food consumption, digital breaks should give you a mental shift in your digital consumption.
7. Focus-assisting glasses
Did you know there are glasses that can help you focus? I didn’t until this morning when I told a co-worker I was writing on the subject. Narbis are apparently the digital generation’s solution to attention struggles. The device works with sensors that improve your brain power and focus by darkening when you daydream, while staying clear when you are attentive. Well, if technology got us into our attention span mess, I suppose it’s only fitting that there is a technological solution to our mess too.