Three simple tricks to improve your attention span

As most of us are well aware of, we are living in a world of instant gratification and quick fixes. Usually we are not able to spend even a minute of focused effort without a notification popping up somewhere.

For how long can you actually focus? 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 1 hour?

What is the problem?

As stated by Joe Kraus in one of my earlier blog posts, doing things quickly and hasty has caused our attention span to diminish over time. That's why it has become surprisingly difficult for people to even finish reading an entire article without looking at their phone or switching over to Facebook.

If you cannot focus on something for 5 minutes, you are experiencing a loss of patience and deep thinking.

The author of What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr said that in order to create lasting results, we need to wrap our head around something way longer than the typical 5 minute attention span that today's internet users tend to have.

One of the most common reasons is this: When your current focus is suddenly directed towards something more appealing, your body releases dopamine. Social media and instant messaging notify us of new events at irregular intervals, comparable to slot machines, which also reward people unexpectedly. And the more unexpected the win, the more exciting it becomes.

Social media is actually like ubiquitous slot machines. This is why people get addicted.

Three no-brainers to get started

But how exactly do we improve our attention span?

Last week, I held a speech at my local Toastmasters club about implementing small changes into your life. My conclusion was that if you want to change or introduce a new habit, you not only have to take the first step in the right direction, but also make sure it is ridiculously easy, so you don't get overwhelmed.

In other words: Start small enough to be able to do it every day.

So if you have no idea how to start, here are some easy first steps that have helped me recover my ability to be more focused.

Turn off notifications on your phone

While it might be obvious, I constantly see notifications popping up on other people's phones. Though it is not my concern, it find it alarming how few people are conscious about this permanent source of distraction.

On the iPhone, go to Settings and then Notifications and put all your social media and messaging apps on silence.

On Android phones, Go to your phone's settings menu. Under the Device heading, tap Application manager and select the app that is causing the notifications. There should be a checkbox saying "Show notifications" that you can disable.

Switch off messaging apps

There are plenty of apps that are constantly begging for our attention. Yes, I'm talking about email clients, Skype and other messaging apps that are constantly making sounds, giving visual cues and randomly interrupting your flow.

My advice would be to define certain hours of the day when to turn them off.

You can use Concentrate for Mac or Cold Turkey for Windows. Both allow you to disable the programs of your choice when you choose to not be interrupted. You will not even notice anymore that they were there.

Use the block site plugin

This is pretty radical, but effective. You just block domains that get you easily sidetracked. In my case I used to type in the first letter of my favorite news site almost unconsciously, and started skimming through the latest topics. This has become so annoying, that I decided to block them entirely, or at least get redirected to a less distractive site.

For Chrome, You can download the Block Site plugin, for Firefox there is a plugin called LeechBlock, and for Safari there is the WasteNoTime Extension. As a Windows/Internet Explorer user, you can use the Cold Turkey plugin mentioned above.

The benefits of a longer attention span

These simple tricks should have given you an idea on how to start dedicating more time to things that matter.

As mentioned by Joe Kraus, dedication shouldn't be compromised by unimportant distractions and low priority tasks. And the time spent focusing is worth it: It encourages a broader, deeper exploration of a topic and leads to longer-lasting learning achievements.

Let me know your opinion on how to improve your attention span and develop a better focus. And if you can have finished this article from the beginning to the end without getting distracted, please leave a comment.

Additional resources