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How can we improve our attention span?

How can we improve our attention span? | Good Question
How can we improve our attention span? | Good Question 02:38

SAINT PAUL — Sometimes when you're trying to focus, it can feel like distractions are everywhere. Most notably, the mini-computer in your hand or pocket stands out.

To combat that problem, we wanted to know: How can we improve our attention span? Good Question.

Endless options to play, learn, and discover greet kids at the Minnesota Children's Museum. Some activities grab their attention more than others, but they stay in the moment, something their parents can struggle with.

"I feel like my cellphone gets in the way of me enjoying the outside world sometimes," said Makaylah Harris of Minneapolis.

From downtime to on-the-clock, the need to do two things at once intensifies for some people.

"With my job, I have to multitask because I run two screens," said Gail Allen of Eagan.

Dr. Gloria Mark is a professor of Informatics at the University of California. She researches attention span and wrote a book on how to improve it.

"I've been tracking attention spans over two decades and we started 20 years ago," she said.

For her study, subjects watched content on a screen. When they diverted their attention, the time was marked. In the beginning, Dr. Mark said the average time a person kept their attention on the screen was about 2.5 minutes. Twenty years later, subjects were shifting their attention from the screen within an average of 47 seconds.

Why are attention spans dropping? Dr. Mark says smartphones are the culprit.

They help owners instantly connect with people, blast them with notifications, and they're often on a person at all times. Then there's the internet, providing a depth of links and pages that help people bounce from one topic and tab to another.

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Lastly, email is a big distractor.  A survey by Zero Bounce found 40% of people check their email 3-5 times a day, while 27% check it 10-20 times. Not far behind, 22% check it more than 20 times per day. Dr. Mark said another issue with email is that many people continue checking it after work hours, preventing them from disconnecting from work.         

How can we increase our attention spans?  "Learn to recognize and reflect on when you have urges to check your smartphone, check the news, check social media," said Dr. Mark. For her, she often check her devices because she's bored or procrastinating. Once you can identify why you're getting distracted, you can devise a plan to better focus for a period of time. Once finished, you can reward yourself with the previous distraction

Another idea she suggests is practicing forethought. That means imagining what your future self wants to be doing and feeling at the end of the day. "Every time I have an urge to say, read the news because I'm a news junkie, I bring up a visualization of myself at the end of the day and I want to be relaxing. I want to be having fun, I want to feel fulfilled and rewarded," she said.

Parents we talked with say removing technology has helped them avoid distractions and improve their attention span. "Sometimes you just have to go outside and maybe leave your phone at home," said parent Jamie Bonczyk of Richfield. "Go on a nature walk and just give yourself the freedom to wonder and wander."

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