Attention is a mental process that enables selective concentration of mental energy on to a specific event, task or object. On the neurobiological level, attention is synchronized, rhythmic activity of a group of neurons. It is very important to understand that attention has its neurobiological basis, and that overall neurobiological functioning of our brain can impact attention process in many ways. Just like any other chemically dependent part of our body, our prefrontal cortex (part of the brain with the most activity in the attention process) can have its resources (neurotransmitters) depleted.
Assuming that attention process is mostly based on stopping non-relevant stimuli, rather than doing something extra with the relevant stimuli in our surroundings, we can understand how much energy our brain needs to stop all irrelevant impulses (sensory, cognitive or emotional), and modify impulses related to the focus of attention.
Why is all of this important?
It is important to know that you cannot alter your attention in the long term just by using free will. Many factors contribute to the process of attention like your genetics, current health status, emotional status, your habits, even time of the day.
Certain mental disorders may affect the process of attention, such as anxiety and depression — that are well known and common mental disorders that greatly affect attention. Once considered a disorder mainly present in the childhood, ADHD and ADD are becoming disorders that concern adults more frequently than before.
Acute and chronic diseases may also affect attention in a great way. Having a fever or intense tooth pain is probably the most common condition that everyone can relate to.
What can be done to refocus the attention?
Considering all of the previously mentioned facts, the most important thing is first to check and then to find all the reasons that are currently standing in the way of the optimal attention process. Is there any health issue that you should consider checking? Do you worry too much, or feel intolerable sadness for long periods of time? Are you trying to banish those feelings by forcing yourself to “stay strong” or “think positive”? This might give you some relief temporarily, but you should consider seeking professional help.
Also, don’t expect too much of the attention improvement if you are spending most of your time and energy on “forcing” yourself to feel better. Certain emotions (like constant worrying, prolonged deep saddens, feeling unhappy about yourself/work/relations) that bother you for quite some time can have a huge impact on your attention and create a vicious circle where lack of attention can provoke even more emotions like these.
Have in mind that if you experience significant attention problems for prolonged periods of time (a month or longer), it is not because you don’t have enough sticky notes hanging around to remind you about stuff, or keep you motivated. Chances are those will fall off eventually without you even noticing it.
I heard a lot about ADHD and ADD. How do I know if I have to seek professional help?
When it comes to disorders, you should always consult a professional. Just because you can relate to some of the symptoms in the articles written by health professionals, that doesn’t mean you should go and try things out on your own. However, if you are thinking about this diagnosis, the best place to start is ADHD rating scales website. Here, you can find just initial scales that are a part of a much wider diagnostic approach. This web page also offers a list of professionals around the world who are specialized in treating these disorders.
Are there any quick tips on how to boost my attention span?
The first thing to do is to find out what’s compromising your attention right now. For each person it is different. Besides the above-mentioned conditions, a lot of environmental factors contribute to the attention process. Distractions can be found in our environment, and we can only try to reduce them as much as possible, but we cannot completely block them. Your working environment should be the starting point, whether it’s a loud noise, a lot of non-work related information that pass by, mess on the working surface…
Whatever that is, and if you can change it, you should go and make the changes before you do anything else.
Remember — much of the energy needed to keep your attention is actually spent on keeping you from being distracted.
What can I start practicing now?
You can start by implementing small changes in your current habits and then try to develop them further. Examine your work time structure. Most people believe that continuous work without a break will help them remain focused, with typical interpretation “If I make a small break now, I’ll lose all the focus”. But focus, like any other mental function, has its limits, so time structure with frequent small breaks, helps you retain attention for a much longer period of time in the long run.
For some people, it helps to have a clear time structure (on post-it paper for the next few hours, with all the small breaks planed, etc.). For example, it might be an hour of work then 15 minute break, or 45 minutes of work followed by a 10 minute break. You can experiment to find your ideal structure.
Restrict your coffee intake if needed. Another frequent notion is that “Coffee is attention fuel” which is true only to some extent. Caffeine is a stimulant substance that affects our attention, but it also impacts other systems in our body, like cardiovascular system for example. It can also interfere with your sleep pattern which can be bad for your overall mental functioning during the day. Too much caffeine can cause your heart to beat fast, preventing your red blood cells from getting enough oxygen to transport to other cells. This can lead to shortness of breath, feeling air hunger and so on. If you drink more then 3–4 cups of coffee every day, it might happen that caffeine is doing more harm than good to your attention.
If there is any anxiety try to find the root cause of it. Hypervigilance is considered a common anxiety feature, but it has more to do with the state of high alertness, than it has to do with mental focus. In fact, alertness because of fear and ability to focus mentally can be conflicting. Get rid of distractions. Loud noises and visual distractions are two of the most important factors in our environment that can affect our ability to focus our mental energy. Try to adapt your environment or move to another place in the room.