Phone Killing Your Attention Span? How To Sustain Focus & Beat The Impulse

November 30, 2018

Can you recall the last time you experienced a day when you weren’t—at one point or another—distracted by your phone? Maybe you checked for notifications while catching up on your favorite TV show last night, or during your boss’s boring meeting this morning or worst of all: while a friend was filling you in on her life over coffee this afternoon. It appears we have an epidemic on our hands, but I don’t think we’re to blame. Platforms designed to be as addictive as possible and the normalization of this behavior means that we no longer bat an eyelid at the ways that our phones are totally disrupting our lives. From the discourse we’re not having, to the frazzled attention spans that further fuel the problem, the best way to cultivate a better habit is by first recognizing the issue.

It seems that the more people I talk to about this, the more I believe that it’s a ubiquitous crisis. We are all self-professed excellent multi-taskers —and expected to be in the modern day working world—but is this actually the case? Are we sure it isn’t that our attention spans are so shot that we are incapable of sustaining focus on any one task for any serious length of time? And to make ourselves feel better, we pretend that it’s beneficial for our output that we frenetically hop from one thing to the next every few minutes?

Life on the edge seems to be how we’re all doing things and it’s a real shame. No wonder anxiety levels are through the roof in our society: our brains have been trained to expect constant disruption.

I would hazard a guess that most people will think much like I did, earlier this year: that I was unaffected by all this nonsense. I’m a smart girl with a good head on my shoulders. I’m savvy. I’m self-aware. Surely I haven’t been sucked in to all this? Only, it wasn’t until I started studying for a major exam that I realized that I was incapable of focusing my mind for any longer than about 45 minutes. My exam was expected to take several hours, so I had to start doing better if I was to have the mental stamina on the big day. I spent about 4 months studying hard to get my head around all the subject matter, but truly the biggest obstacle was building that mental stamina to not drift off part-way through.

We think we’re such a wonderful species, but did you know that we now have attention spans shorter than goldfish? I know. A study revealed that our attention span fell from 12 seconds at the turn of the century to about 8 seconds by 2015. That’s a decrease of a third in 15 years, which is pretty shocking considering how long we’ve walked the planet! (Goldfish sit at 9 seconds, in case you’re wondering.)

It truly is frustrating when you notice your own attention span, or that of those around you, is unable to keep up with expectations. Whether you have an exam to study for, a report to write or simply want to get better at living a little more in the present and learning to feel content by focusing on one task at a time, here are some tips for improving your attention span. They’re simple but effective and you will only ever benefit from practicing them.

Become aware of the addiction – It might make you cringe, but admitting you have an addiction is the first step to getting yourself on track to a healthier relationship with your phone. It’s not easy though; it takes about 66 days to build a better habit and it has been found that resisting social media consumption is much harder than resisting most other things, with the rates of self-control failure particularly high. Know that it’s OK that you might find it really difficult to change your thinking, but try anyway.

Turn off the notifications – This one can make a huge difference. If there’s no little light to flash away or attention-thieving messages to look out for, you’re less likely to be on edge and in waiting. You can then start to work towards a more conscious interaction with your phone rather than something that’s a passive part of your experience.

Meditate regularly – Yes, that old badger. It’s good for your anxiety and it’s good for improving focus. The two go very much hand-in-hand. Our constant checking for notifications is a symptom of an anxious brain: the FOMO, the falling behind, the failure… Practicing a daily dose of meditation will do wonders for helping slow down your mind, in turn reducing the frequency of those impulses that have you feeling like you need to check your phone every couple of minutes.

Gradually build stamina – Whether you’re trying to change your diet, prepare for a marathon or quit smoking, most of us are more comfortable with gentle changes rather than going cold turkey. Gradual changes are far easier to sustain because they are tangible and don’t feel like you’re depriving yourself (which increases the likelihood of binging). So start small: try refraining from looking at your phone for half an hour upon waking and before you go to bed and then extend from there as you see fit.

Introduce a timer – This one was a total game-changer for me while I was studying earlier this year and to be honest I use it for most of my work. Set a timer for the maximum length of time that you know you can sustain focus for and make sure your work space is cleared of distractions (there might be other things in addition to your phone – give them the boot too!) Then, get to work. Once the time is up, you are free to distract yourself as much as you like. You need to exercise a little will power here and for those of us most addicted, this proves quite difficult at first. I promise you though, it gets easier with time. Just be sure to gently remind yourself that “play time” cannot go on forever and the timer must be reset once more after you’ve had a comfortable break.

Building a better relationship with your phone so that you can cultivate a stronger sense of focus on the life happening around you takes effort, but there is so much to gain by doing so. You can give yourself the gift of relaxation, the opportunity to better connect with friends and ultimately, greater productivity that will lead to your success. Start small, but stick at it and you might be surprised how your life shifts to something a little more fulfilling.

Do you find yourself easily distracted by your phone? Do you have any tips for improving focus?

Also by Kat: Yoga Sensation Adriene Mishler Says These 3 Things Are The Key To Her Happiness

Lonelier Than Usual? New Study Says *This* Surprising Thing Might Be The Culprit

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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