“I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering.”
– Steven Wright (American stand-up comedian)
At some point (or perhaps multiple points) in our lives, we’ll struggle to stay focused—whether it’s work at our desk, focusing on a droning colleague, or reading the same line in a book multiple times.
Our days are drowning in notifications, emails, and errands, all grappling for our attention. How do we just stop, refocus, and get the job done? Let’s start by walking through the science.
Attention can be defined as a selective focus on a certain environmental stimulus. From an evolutionary perspective, developing the ability to selectively pay attention to important things (a dangerous predator, for example) was crucial to avoid being overwhelmed by the continuous deluge of data from our environment. Consciousness on the other hand, is merely the subjective awareness of our surroundings. We can be conscious of something without actually paying attention to it, and vice versa.
The neural circuitry that controls attention is complex and involves various interconnected regions within the brain and brainstem. Perhaps the most infamous disorder of attention is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Individuals (commonly children, although adult ADHD has been documented) are often described as skittish and have problems with procrastination. Other conditions like schizophrenia and autism also have elements of attentional deficits.
So we know there are mechanism at play that dictate our attention. What can we do about it? Well, a lot, actually.
First, take a break. A study found that those who were distracted completely from the task at hand for brief periods of time actually performed better than those who received no breaks at all(1). Interestingly, the key concept may be the need for ‘total distraction’ during a break rather than a break spent staring out the window but ruminating over the task.
The second method that may fly in the face of conventional attention-preserving methods is to keep your environment messy. What? Before you start shaking your head in doubt – the selective nature of our attention tends to choose the most pressing task at hand when faced with many different dis-tractors (known as the perceptual load)(2). Therefore, a higher perceptual load – such as a messy desk, or subtle background music - may help you concentrate more. Additionally, if you’re the type to put on music while you work, you may be better off playing tracks without lyrics. Why? Because purely instrumental music has been proven to increase satisfaction and productivity (3).
Having a diet rich in omega-3s has been shown to improve attention and cognition in those with ADHD. Both EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are types of omega-3s. A large analysis of several studies found that daily doses of between 65-80 mg of EPA and 2.7-640 mg of DHA taken for a few months were able to help children with ADHD focus better(4). Although evidence is unclear on its effects on attention in healthy adults, omega-3 is definitely good for you, so why not? The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that at least 250mg a day of EPA and DHA (about 8 ounces of seafood a week) is necessary in maintaining heart health.
Besides omega-3, zinc supplementation in ADHD patients have been found to improve their attention spans. Zinc deficiency has been associated to those with ADHD, and children given between 55-150mg of zinc for 6-12 weeks demonstrated significant improvement in their symptoms(5). However, it should be noted that zinc deficiencies are relatively rare in developed nations.
Let’s talk about coffee. A cup of joe has been scientifically proven to increase alertness and reduce fatigue. But how much is enough?
One study showed that 3mg/kg (so about a grande-sized Starbucks© Americano for a 70-kilo person) increased steering accuracy in a one hour simulated drive(6). Fascinatingly, another study found that just 200mg of coffee may improve performance better than a nap(7).
Don’t give up on your video games just yet. Aside from the added benefit of being fun, researchers have found that they may actually rewire your brain. Brain imaging studies of professional video gamers and casual players found that the former had strengthened neural circuits that were involved in hand-eye coordination and attention(8). Even elderly adults who played a training game (dubbed Neuroracer, which notably did not specifically train attention) for 12 hours over a month demonstrated better attention spans than those who never played the game(9). This highlights the intricate relationships between different cognitive abilities, and how improving one may indirectly benefit the other.
Last but not least, the practice of mindfulness and meditation trains your mind to stay where you want it to stay. Too often, we find ourselves ruminating about the past and worrying about the future instead of focusing on the here and now—which is exactly what the two techniques are about. A study found that promoting a corporate culture of mindfulness was able to sharpen attention and increase productivity levels in the office(10). A group of undergraduate students who underwent 20-minute long exercises integrating mindfulness and meditation had improved attention spans after just 5 days(11). Furthermore, these calming exercises have proven abilities to also reduce anxiety, anger, fatigue and stress. What’s not to love?
While there are dozens tips and tricks we can employ to improve attention, the best ones are, of course, the ones that work for you. Every brain is different, and their training regimen should be too.
1. Atsunori Ariga, Alejandro Lleras. Brief and rare mental 'breaks' keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition, 2011; DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007
2. Forster S, Lavie N. Harnessing the wandering mind: The role of perceptual load. Cognition. 2009 June; 111(3):345-355
3. Shih YN, Huang RH, Chiang HY. Background music: effects on attention performance. Work. 2012;42(4):573-8. doi: 10.3233/WOR-2012-1410.
4. Chang JPC, Su KP, Mondelli V, Pariente C. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in youths with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials and biological studies. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2017. doi: 10.1038/npp.2017.160.
5. Bloch MH, Mulqueen J. Nutritional Supplements for the Treatment of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Child and adolescent psychiatric clinics of North America. 2014;23(4):883-897. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.05.002.
6. Brice C, Smith A. The effects of caffeine on simulated driving, subjective alertness and sustained attention. Hum Psychopharmacol Clin Exp. 2001. 16:523-531. doi:10.1002/hup.327
7. Sagaspe P, Taillard J, Chaumet G, Moore N, Bioulac B, Philip P. Aging and Nocturnal Driving: Better with Coffee or a Nap? A Randomized Study. Sleep. 2007;30(12):1808-1813.
8. Gong D, He H, Liu D, Ma W, Li D, Luo C, Yao D. Enhanced functional connectivity and increased gray matter volume of insula related to action video game playing. Scientific Reports. 2015. 5, Article number 9763. doi:10.1038/srep09763
9. Anguera JA, Boccanfuso J, Rintoul JL, et al. Video game training enhances cognitive control in older adults. Nature. 2013;501(7465):97-101. doi:10.1038/nature12486.
10. Good DJ, Lyddy CJ, Glomb TM, Bono JE, Brown KW, Duffy MK et al. Contemplating mindfulness at work: An integrative review. Journal of Management. 2015;42(1):114-142
11. Tang YY, Ma Y, Wang J, Fan Y, Feng S, Lu Q et al. Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. PNAS. 2007;104(43):171