How to improve attention span and productivity amid distractions


With every form of entertainment available just a click away, it’s safe to say that the postmodern world is brimming with stimuli. 

Add multiple tasks, email notifications, and other external factors like noise to the list–and you realize that focusing on a single task for a long period of time is more difficult than ever before. 

But there’s a way out of this dilemma–multiple ways, actually. Today, we’ll talk about low attention span, its causes, how it chips away at your productivity, and some important tips to help you improve your attention span.  

What does it mean to have a short attention span?

A short attention span refers to the limited ability to focus on a task for an adequate time. Think of attention span as your brain's ability to stick to a task without wandering off. In contrast, a short attention span is a sign of your brain’s inability to stick to the task at hand without becoming distracted. 

But attention span isn’t just about lack of focus. It's a cognitive function that also takes into account how well we concentrate on certain tasks while ignoring distractions. 

However, research indicates that human attention spans vary across age groups. For instance, children generally have shorter attention spans than adults. That said, there’s a recent decline in attention spans regardless of the age group due to unprecedented levels of screen time, digital exposure, and information consumption.

For example, a relatively recent study suggested that out of 2,000 adults surveyed, 49% felt their attention span was shorter than ever before. Nearly 47% agreed that “‘deep thinking’ has become a thing of the past.”

What causes poor attention spans or concentration?

There are many factors that can cause poor attention spans or concentration in different situations. Here are some of the main culprits:

Technological influence 

A 2022 report by DataReportal revealed that the average internet user spends nearly 7 hours on the internet daily, accounting for almost half of their waking hours. 

For South Africa, the number is as high as 10 hours and 46 minutes of screen time. 

Most of this screen time is spent watching TV,  looking at a smartphone, playing video games, or using a laptop. Some studies have suggested that excessive use of digital media can negatively affect brain functions, such as memory, learning, and attention.

It isn't just a distraction. It's rewiring our brains to crave constant stimulation, making it harder to focus on one thing for too long. This tech overload can also diminish attention by increasing the expectation of immediate responses and feedback, leading to frequent interruptions and multitasking.

Environmental factors 

Ever tried to focus on work in a cluttered, messy room or with a loud TV in the background? You’ve likely felt the impact of a distracting environment. 

Common environmental factors that hinder your attention span include noise, temperature, lighting, and lack of comfort. That said, moderating these factors can work in your favor. Here are some ways to use your environment to your advantage. 

  • Ambient noise: While loud noise can cause distractions, moderate ambient noise is good for focus. 
  • Comfortable temperature: Heat or cold can reduce attention and performance, while optimal temperature can improve cognitive functions. 
  • Good lighting: Lighting can influence mood, alertness, and circadian rhythms. Bright light during the day suppresses melatonin production and increases alertness, while darkness triggers melatonin release, promoting drowsiness.
  • Equipment quality: The quality of your chair, desk, and equipment can also affect attention by influencing posture, ergonomics, and health. 

Biological and psychological factors: 

Factors impinging on your attention span aren’t always external. Some people may also have medical or psychological conditions like ADHD, stress, and sleep deprivation affecting their attention span. 

For example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a type of neurodivergence that can cause difficulties with attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. People with ADHD may have trouble regulating their emotions and behaviors, affecting their daily functioning and relationships. 

Luckily, these days, people struggling with low attention spans due to ADHD have a supportive community. There are more resources and tools than ever to help folks get more done with ADHD and tackle this issue head-on.  

For example, Sunsama—the daily planner designed with ADHDers in mind—helps you design a  daily workflow to avoid overplanning and focus on the optimal tasks. 

Sunsama daily planning workflow 

How does a poor attention span affect your productivity?

A short attention span can have several negative effects on productivity. Here’s how: 

Impact on learning and work performance 

From emails to social media, distractions are aplenty, and people with a short attention span find themselves easily swayed. The result? Suffering work performance, rushed assignments, missed deadlines, and low learning ability. 

Imagine trying to work on an important assignment while watching Netflix or getting sidetracked by mobile notifications occasionally. Lots of effort but little progress.

Inability to complete daily tasks

A low attention span not only affects your work performance but also keeps you from completing tasks at a designated time. 

Picture this: You decide to work on an important report today. But first, you check what’s trending on Twitter—five minutes tops, right? You’ll switch back to work eventually, but it won’t be long before you decide to check your notifications again. At the end of the day, the report isn’t anywhere near complete.

That’s what a low attention span does to your precious time and productivity. And it’s not just work-related tasks—a short attention span also makes it challenging to complete tasks like doing your laundry, running errands, or cleaning the house. 

Impact on decision-making 

Once you let yourself get distracted, returning to the same level of concentration will be a challenge. According to a study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes to regain focus after an interruption. The same study states that after only 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.

This disruption can severely impede your decision-making capabilities. 

Scientifically, when you shift your attention from one activity to another, you burn up oxygenated glucose—the fuel your brain uses to keep you focused. Continual task switching causes the brain to burn through this fuel, leading to exhaustion and stress, which ultimately forces you to make rushed and poor decisions.

It keeps you from enjoying your hobbies 

Beyond work, your personal satisfaction also takes a hit due to low attention.

You find it difficult to fully immerse yourself in a hobby–from watching your favorite sport to reading a book. Even your most cherished moments take a hit. The good news is that we have multiple strategies for you that can help elevate your focus and productivity, along with a daily planning tool that can assist you in the process. 

Top 5 ways to improve your attention span

When working to improve your attention span, it’s important to keep your “why” in mind. At the end of the day, the goal is not only to increase productivity—regaining focus will allow you to approach your workday with calm and intention.

Let’s walk through some ways to bolster your attention span:

1. Take regular breaks 

Taking regular breaks can help you improve your attention span and ability to focus on your work. According to neuropsychologist Rosemarie Manfredi, PsyD, “When we’re stressed, our attention span shrinks, and our concentration is often disrupted by both external stimuli and our own internal thoughts.” 

Therefore, taking short breaks can help you relieve some stress, give your mind a recharge, and ultimately improve your ability to focus when you return to tasks. 

Consider the Pomodoro Technique, a popular time management strategy involving 25-minute work intervals followed by 5-minute breaks. 

Larry Rosen, Ph.D., and professor of psychology at California State University suggests taking “technology breaks” after every 15 minutes of undisrupted work. According to Rose, you can use this break to quickly check alerts, texts, and other messages. 

Rosen further suggests, "Once you learn how to work for 15 minutes, start increasing the time before taking a technology break."

Whether you’re using the Pomodoro technique or taking “technology breaks,” it should be all business once your break is over. This means putting your phone on silent, turning it face down, and turning off email alerts to avoid checking your phone again before the break. We’re not taking any chances. 

Bonus tip: If this isn’t enough, you can use Sunsama's focus mode, which will give you a nudge to dive back into your tasks once the break is over. It will also block out every other task on your to-do list to help you regain optimal concentration levels.

Sunsama focus mode (Source)

2. Prioritize and set clear goals

Setting clear goals keeps your brain from straying from one task to another and keeps you focused on what matters the most at that moment. 

Once you set clear goals, the next step is to prioritize them based on importance. Prioritizing goals helps you tackle the most critical or time-sensitive tasks first, preventing cognitive overload and decision fatigue.

Without a proper roadmap, you might find yourself floundering from one task to another, struggling to focus even on one. Setting and prioritizing your goals will direct your focus to the most important/urgent task, helping you progress systematically. 

Bonus tip: Sunsama lets you create a daily agenda that aligns with your goals and priorities and helps you track your progress and time spent on each task.

Creating a daily planner and setting goals for the day using Sunsama (Source)

Here are some more tips to help you prioritize and set clear goals: 

  • Be specific: Rather than “finish the task,” your goal should be “complete project slides by 3 PM.”
  • Set measurable goals: Making goals measurable will help you track progress. For example, “write 1000 words for the article.”
  • Identify urgent vs. important: Use the Eisenhower Matrix to boost productivity by prioritizing tasks based on Urgent, Important, Delegate, or Eliminate. Sunsama’s focus mode will again come in handy here to help you dive into prioritized tasks
  • Impact vs. effort: Categorize tasks based on their potential impact and effort required. Start with high-impact tasks first. 
  • Avoid multitasking: Focus on one task at a time to enhance attention and avoid stress and distractions. 

3. Mindfulness practices 

Imagine starting your day with a brief mindfulness exercise—it's like priming your brain for better focus throughout the day. 

After testing an 8-week mindfulness training program among a group of adolescent and adult females, the Journal of Adolescence found that both teens and adults showed improvements in reorienting their attention. 

Another study found that regular mindfulness meditation not only improved attention spans but also enhanced cognitive performance. 

Beyond scientific reasoning, these practices have their roots in ancient traditions like the Buddhist zen. Monks in many parts of Asia engage in zazen (or zen meditation), a seated meditation used to foster deep concentration and awareness. 

Zen meditation postures (Source)

This lifestyle revolves around being fully present in each moment, appreciating the simplicity of life without being overwhelmed by distractions.

Ready to add some zen to your life? Here are some common mindfulness practices you can inculcate in your life to improve your attention span: 

  • Meditation: Focus on your breath or sensations to cultivate awareness and calmness.
  • Deep breathing: Engage in deliberate, slow breathing exercises to center yourself and reduce stress.
  • Body scan: Pay attention to each part of your body from head to toe, noticing sensations without judgment.
  • Journaling: Write down thoughts, feelings, or observations to bolster self-reflection and awareness.
  • Gratitude practice: Reflect on and appreciate the positive aspects of your life or moments in your day.
  • Guided imagery: Imagine a peaceful place or scenario, engaging your senses to relax and unwind.

4. Optimize your working environment 

We talked about some common environmental factors that can be detrimental to your attention span–from extreme weather conditions to clutter to disruptive noise. 

Luckily, there are ways to sidestep these issues: environment optimization.

An optimized environment negates distractions and promotes comfort to help you concentrate on your tasks for a longer time.  

Here are some ways to optimize your environment for better concentration: 

  • Organize your space and time: A disarrayed room and a disorganized workday can lead to stress, confusion, and an unfocused brain. To avoid this, declutter your surroundings as well as your mobile devices. One of the best ways to organize your digital life is by using tools like Sunsama to plan and schedule your tasks. 
  • Use noise-canceling devices: Noise clutter is another roadblock between you and your productivity. Consider using noise-canceling headphones or earplugs while working or finding quieter spaces to concentrate better. 
  • Use natural light and plants: Decades of research show that a natural green environment and light help you improve focus and alleviate stress. You can work facing a window and keep natural plants on your window sill.

  • Set a designated work area: When you sit down to work at your specific workspace, it signals your brain that it’s now time to focus. 
  • Digital detox: Keep away from your digital devices during your work hours by putting them on silent or using timeboxing to enhance productivity and reduce distractions. 

5. Don’t neglect factors like physical exercise, diet, and sleep hygiene 

Change doesn’t always come from outside. Improving your daily routine, diet, and overall lifestyle can also do wonders for your attention span. 

Studies continue to highlight the close link between physical activity and cognitive function, including attention span. Experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week for optimal brain health. 

Don’t sleep on a good balanced diet, either. A diet with whole foods, vegetables, fruits, and sufficient hydration is good for your energy levels, which will directly affect your attention span. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins also support cognitive health. In contrast, added sugar and processed foods affect your blood sugar levels, resulting in cognitive decline. 

Quality sleep is another important factor in elevating focus and achieving stellar cognitive function. To enhance your sleep quality and attention span during working hours, make sure you follow a consistent sleep schedule and maintain a conducive sleep environment.

Your action plan for laser-sharp focus and enhanced productivity

Amid seas of distractions, struggling for focus, and a longer attention span isn’t surprising. That said, the solutions that can help you increase attention span and productivity are also aplenty. We discussed some of the top ways to regain focus, including incorporating mindfulness practices, embracing an active lifestyle, taking regular breaks, and optimizing your environment, among others. 

Since modern times require modern solutions, make sure to incorporate intuitive daily planners and task management apps like Sunsama. It will help you set clear goals, prioritize your tasks, and work on a clutter-free schedule–everything you need for undivided concentration. 

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