“Where did I leave my keys?”
“It’s on the tip of my tongue…”
We all know what it’s like to be forgetful or have trouble finding the right words. But when your brain constantly lets you down, it has a big impact on your daily life.
Cognitive problems like poor memory, slow thinking, difficulty focusing and mental fatigue are common and frustrating symptoms that accompany many chronic diseases. Mild mental impairments can be the result of physical changes in your body, a side effect from medical treatments or intensified by stress, anxiety and depressive feelings.
People often don’t realise how much cognitive problems affect your everyday activities. When you can’t think as clearly and fast as you used to, it can be hard to finish your studies, perform well at your job, navigate busy traffic safely or even join in on conversations. As a result, having cognitive problems can contribute to loneliness and social isolation almost as much as physical symptoms do.
Attention – the mental ability to focus on one thing while mostly ignoring everything else that’s going on around you – is one of our most basic cognitive functions. It supports countless brain activities, from listening to someone talk and reading this sentence to driving and memorizing new facts.
That’s why the tips below focus on the often-overlooked mental side of recovery: your attention span.
13 Strategies to Improve Your Attention Span
Staying focused for long periods of time puts your mental stamina to the test. Luckily, you can train your mental muscles just like you’d work on your physical endurance. This mental training involves three elements: (1) setting the scene for optimal concentration, (2) doing daily mental workouts and (3) working smarter.
1. Set The Scene
If you’re struggling to stay focused, don’t just sit down and get started with your work, but first create the right conditions for optimal concentration.
- Reserve your peak hours for high-focus tasks. Schedule important work that demands your full attention during the time of day when you’re most likely to feel good. If you feel most alert in the morning, don’t waste your precious energy on mindless browsing, but concentrate on what you’d like to accomplish that day. Save tasks that require less brainpower for moments when you’re more likely to be tired.
- Boost your blood circulation. Your brain needs nutrient-rich blood to function optimally. But when you’re ill, your blood often doesn’t flow as freely through your body, especially if your mobility is limited. Cold hands and feet, tingling and numbness are tell-tale signs of poor blood circulation. That’s why exercising before doing challenging mental tasks can improve your performance. If physical activity isn’t an option health-wise, you can boost your circulation by gently circling your joints, using a self-massage tool or alternating hot and cold water during your morning shower. Also make sure you have a good posture when you sit behind your desk to do your focused work. No slouching!
- Create a short ritual to easily get into a state of ‘flow’. Do you like to put on easy listening music or sip a cup of green tea as you’re working on projects? The little behaviours you associate with high-focus tasks can serve as cues that trigger the necessary mindset. So even something as simple as consistently sitting down with a latte and putting on your headphones before you get to work could signal to your mind that it’s time to concentrate.
2. Train Your Mental Muscles
Experiment with specific strategies to boost your concentration and rebuild your attention span. You won’t see improvement overnight. Just like your physical muscles it takes time to build mental stamina. So start small and take it slow.
- Practice meditation. “Meditation is weightlifting for the mind.” I can’t remember where I read that quote, but it should come as no surprise that the habit of quieting the constant chatter in your head strengthens your concentration. Now, sitting peacefully in lotus position for twenty minutes without a single thought crossing your mind is reserved for the trained yogis among us. When you’re recovering from illness, you should aim more for 3-minute meditations to gradually rebuild your attention span. You could simply count your breaths, repeat meaningful words over and over in your mind like a calming mantra or do a walking meditation. There are also plenty of guided meditations available online.
- Read long-form text in print. The worldwide web with its bite-sized nuggets of information encourages you to scroll through pages and scan a few lines instead of actually reading the words. If you want to improve your attention span, try working your way through an old-school paper book. Read one paragraph, one page or one chapter at a time. Work your way up slowly. You could also read aloud if you’re easily distracted.
- Do a daily mental workout. Sudoku, crossword puzzles, playing card games and chess are fun ways to train your mental muscles. However, the verdict is still out on whether the gains of brain training games crossover to other areas of life – or that you’re just getting really good at playing that specific game. So your best bet probably is to practice what you wish to improve. Do you want to be able to have a normal conversation with your friends without losing track mid-sentence? Practice attentive listening by tuning in to audiobooks. If you’re looking to get back into study mode, boost your memory by remembering as many items possible from your grocery shopping list.
- Use classic conditioning techniques to increase your attention span. You can prime your mind to quickly get ‘into the zone’ by using contextual cues, like putting on instrumental music during your study sessions.
3. Work Smarter
Attention is a limited-capacity resource. So the key is not to work harder, but to use your mental energy wisely:
- Only do one thing at a time. Multitasking is notoriously bad for our focus – even though we all mistakenly believe that we are the exception to that rule. Switching your attention drains your brainpower and on average, it takes 25 minutes (!) to return to a task after being distracted. So stop the mental juggling if you want to work smarter, not harder.
- Alternate between different types of tasks that each tap into other parts of the brain. For example, after an hour of memorizing data for an upcoming test, you could switch to doing some research or roughly outlining your paper instead of cramming Spanish expressions next. And when you’re planning your workday, don’t schedule back-to-back meetings, but mix it up with routine administrative tasks and proper breaks.
- Try the “Pomodoro” technique to boost your focus. With this method, you set a timer to focus on one assignment for 25 minutes and when the alarm goes off you take a 5-minute break. You could repeat this sequence 3 times, after which you relax for 30 minutes. Of course you can use this principle to choose any length of time you feel comfortable with to concentrate on the single task at hand.
- Schedule real breaks. Our brains have a hard time concentrating on one thing for more than 45 minutes. Whatever the length of time that you are able to fully focus (which maybe very short due to your health problems, and that’s ok!) plan breaks in between your tasks to recharge. Give your mind a proper rest by doing something physical during your breaks rather than checking email. Even mental activities like watching YouTube deplete your brainpower instead of restoring it.
- Go green. Taking a walk in the park is a proven way to ease brain fatigue. Research shows that visiting green spaces improves your concentration and lowers your stress levels. If you’re housebound or live in a concrete jungle, you could adorn your desk with a plant or simply look at natural scenes for similar effects.
- Carve out time for daydreaming. Your brain’s default mode is to wander freely. It needs time to switch off and recharge, to come up with original ideas and creative solutions. That’s why your best ideas always come to you in the shower. Being in such a relaxed state of mind allows your brain to roam, make new associations and connect the dots. So for your mind’s sake, don’t fill every spare moment with on-demand entertainment. Sometimes just staring out of the window is the best thing you can do for yourself.
What helps you to improve your attention span?
This is an adapted excerpt from How to Create Your Own Action Plan for Recovery, the step-by-step guide to rebuild your health after illness or injury. For more tips on how you can regain your focus, grab your digital copy here.
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