3 Hacks To Increase Your Attention Span & Focus Better
According to Johann Hari, we're living in a real attention crisis. The New York Times bestselling author interviewed over 200 of the leading experts on attention for his newest title, Stolen Focus, learning all the factors that make concentration better or worse. It turns out, "Loads of the factors that can make your attention worse have been significantly rising in recent years," he says on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
But Hari is an optimist: While it will ultimately take a big societal shift to overcome these factors, he does offer some day-to-day hacks to enhance concentration. "Your attention did not collapse—your attention has been stolen from you by some very big and powerful forces," he notes. "And we're going to have to respond in two ways: One way is to protect ourselves at an individual level." Below, find his top tips to reclaim your own attention span:
According to Hari, the No. 1 thing that's robbing your concentration isn't technology (although, perhaps devices come in second)—it's a lack of sleep. The link between sleep and attention is well documented, as poor sleep has been shown to affect cognitive performance.
"When you're sleeping, your brain is cleaning itself," explains Hari. "Your cerebral spinal fluid channels open, a watery fluid rinses through them, and all the 'brain cell poop' that builds up throughout the day is washed out of your brain, taken down to your liver, and exits your body." In other words: Sleep is quite literally restorative. "If you don't sleep, that repairing process doesn't happen," he continues. "Your brain is literally clogged up with waste, so you can't think as well and you can't pay attention as well." That said, if you have a couple of nights of poor sleep, "you'll be much more vulnerable to these technologies that are already designed to hack and invade our attention," adds Hari. If you'd like to improve the quality of your sleep, check out our expert-backed tips here.
Switch tasks less.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Multitasking simply doesn't work. In fact, neurologists believe it actually hinders brain health. Says Hari, every time your attention gets interrupted, it takes 23 minutes to get back to your original level of focus. And when you keep alternating between tasks, constantly trying to get your focus back on track, it comes with a performance cost (aptly called the "switch-cost effect"): "You make more mistakes, you remember less of what you do, and you're far less creative," says Hari.
Even something as small as an incoming text message can throw your attention off-kilter: "So when you want me to respond to your text, you're asking me for 23 minutes of my focus," Hari says. "If that text conversation happens over four hours, you've taken four hours of my focus, even though it only felt like very small bursts." That said, he recommends not responding to text messages immediately—a good friend should respect your delayed reply.
Set limits on your devices.
On a similar note, Hari also recommends stashing your devices or setting time limits, especially if you cannot resist the temptation to text or scroll. He recommends a product called the kSafe—a plastic bin that can lock your phone away for as little as five minutes or up to an entire day. Hari considers it a helpful tool, even beyond a working environment. For example, you could say: I will not sit down with my partner and watch a movie unless we both put our phones in the kSafe. That way, you resist the urge to text, scroll through social media, Google the plot, etc.
Hari also uses an app called Freedom on his laptop: Similarly, the app cuts you off from specific sites (or the internet entirely) for however long you please. "I use both of these [tools] every day for four hours," says Hari. "At first it was very painful, but over time, the benefits of getting my focus back outweighed the desire to smash the safe and get back to it."
If you'd like to ease up on distractions, these hacks above can help get you started. Of course, enhancing your attention at the individual level is only Step 1 of the process: "At the moment, it's like someone is pouring itching powder over us, and then that person has leaned forward and said, 'You might want to learn how to meditate, then you wouldn't scratch so much,'" Hari explains. Meaning, individual efforts can be helpful, but collective action (and perhaps policy reform) is where we'll start to see large-scale shifts.