Are endless meetings, email notifications and social media maxing out your “mental bandwidth”? Here’s how to regain control over your attention span.
By Johanna Leggatt
When was the last time you sat down to read, undistracted, for an hour? Can you recall reading a news story from start to finish without being distracted by a pinging inbox or the urge to check your phone?
A 2019 study in Nature Communications has found that our collective attention span is narrowing under the weight of information overload, while the urge for “newness” makes us collectively switch between topics more rapidly.
This comes as no surprise to business coach and director of learning at Magical Learning, Danette Fenton-Menzies CPA, who says our attention spans have likely worsened during the stress of COVID-19.
“When we are really stressed, the blood flows away from the executive function into the fight-or-flight part of the brain,” she says.
However, the good news is there are steps we can take to improve our attention span.
Make sleep a priority
Sleep is the foundation for a focused workday, according to Fenton-Menzies.
“If we don't get our sleeping right, we wake up tired, we're eating sugary food, we caffeinate ourselves and we're on our phone as soon as we get up,” she notes.
The trick is to remove mobile phones from bedrooms, which will not only stop the negative impact of the blue light on your sleep patterns but will also prevent you from working from bed.
“I worked with a CEO who would wake up to go to the bathroom and reply to emails on his phone in the middle of the night,” she says.
Plan your tasks, including breaks
How often have you careened from one meeting to the next, with barely time to breathe?
Back-to-back scheduling has a damaging impact on our attention span, all but ensuring we are not fully present.
Fenton-Menzies says not only do people need to prioritise breaks, but they need to schedule them in their calendars, alongside meetings.
“When we have a break, our brain connects all of the important stuff that we have learned. Otherwise, our brain gets flooded and then foggy,” she says.
It is also important to maximise the first hour of every day, rather than automatically check your emails.
“Do the most important thing first, when you are most alert,” Fenton-Menzies says.
Some of us will be more susceptible to certain tools of distraction than others. Fenton-Menzies recommends keeping a journal.
“At the end of each day, ask yourself – out of 10, how focused you were that day,” she says.
If the number is below seven, she recommends writing down the distractions that took your sustained attention away. Was it your sleep? The back-to-back meetings?
“Once you become aware of what's causing the distractions, you are then able to make changes,” Fenton-Menzies says.
Take control of social media
One of the chief culprits of distraction is the vast “time suck” that is social media.
Fenton-Menzies suggests taking control of your social media – deleting apps off your phone, putting certain limits around use — otherwise social media will control you, not the other way around.
“Getting rid of all of those distractions gives us that mental bandwidth back,” she notes.
“People start saying to me, ‘Now I am reading books again,’ ‘I can now actually sit and read a full article, rather than swiping at something else that attracted me’.”
Don’t try to multitask
Think you can read emails, finish a project and scroll Facebook Marketplace all at the same time? Think again, according to business coach Lauren Tuck of Rah Rah Consulting.
“When we try to multitask, we have to continuously come back to the work and find our place again, because we have lost the flow,” she says.
This has a marked impact on our attention span, as we move between different projects, unable to fully focus on one thing.
“People think they can multitask, but they actually can’t,” says Tuck.
Learn to say no
Many employees struggle to say “’no” to competing tasks, which leaves them unfocused and pulled in many different directions.
“When we don’t say ‘no’, we set ourselves up for... stress,” Tuck says.
She recommends practising saying “no” regularly, to stay focused and improve attention span.
“Saying ‘no’ is not only about declining certain work requests, but it's also saying ‘no’ to those conversations or that person on Skype who's trying to show us all these funny GIFs,” she says.
Take a breath
Finally, mindfulness, meditation, yoga — whatever it is that grounds and relaxes you — is imperative for increasing your attention span.
A 2018 US study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience notes that meditation training of just 10 minutes a day “improves executive attention” even in “novice practitioners”.
Tuck says this doesn’t mean you need to meditate for an hour a day. A few minutes can go a long way towards helping calm your fight-or-flight response.
“Perhaps, before a meeting, take three or four big, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth,” she says.
“What that does is, it grounds us. It allows us to come back to where we are now, which is here, in the moment.”