lauren_hodgesBy: Dr. Lauren HodgesDirector of Corporate PerformanceSPECTRUM, Inc

When’s the last time you sat down and listened intently to a friend, colleague, significant other, or child with your full and best focus and attention? Without checking your checking cell phone, typing an email, glancing at the TV, or letting your mind drift to your to-do list? Do you find it hard to put the phone down while driving? When a co-worker comes in to your office, do you have trouble peeling your eyes away from the computer screen? Ever try giving your best focus to an item at work only to find yourself browsing Facebook or Twitter within minutes? Are you still even reading this article? Based on the statistics, if you are still reading this, you better than most of the population. Now I challenge you to try and read on…

Take a look at the table. Unfortunately, based on these statistics even in writing this article I have less than 10 seconds to grab your attention; and likely even less time to keep it. We have, today, the attention span of a common goldfish – now that’s embarrassing.

Attention Span StatisticsNational Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S.
National Library of Medicine, The Associated Press
The average attention span in 2013 8 seconds
The average attention span in 2000 12 seconds
The average attention span of a gold fish 9 seconds
Percent of teens who forget major details of close friends and relatives 25%
Percent of people who forget their own birthdays from time to time 7%
Average number of times per hour an office worker checks their email inbox 30
Average length watched of a single internet video 2.7 minutes
Percent of words read on web pages with 11 words or less. 49 minutes
Percent of words read on an average (593 words) web page. 28%

Why can’t we simply pay attention? Focus and attention are rare skills to possess this day and age; ironically, we have more access to information than ever before and the technology to maximize ease of access to that information. If you feel like that goldfish lately, there’s hope yet.

Here are a few tips to help increase your attention and focus:

1. Be sure you eat regularly. By eating smaller meals throughout the day including regular intake of a balance of carbohydrates proteins, and fats, you help regulate insulin and blood sugar levels thereby providing a steady dose of glucose (aka energy) to the brain at all times; specifically your cerebral cortex which is the hub for concentration and critical thinking skills.

2. Write it down. Take notes and keep a journal and to-do list. This will help clear the clutter in your brain and better equip you to focus on the story your spouse is telling you or the project you’re tackling at work.

3. Triage your day. Studies consistently show that our brains cannot handle more than two complex tasks at a time—so tackling emails, projects, phone calls, and a conversation with a co-worker simultaneously can drastically reduce your attentional skills and also stress your metabolic system, releasing cortisol (the stress hormone). Try to triage what’s most important in your day and tackle the most important items first. Remember, that email can wait: major projects and the respect and gratitude of your co-worker cannot.

4. Set the tone. If you have a TV show blaring while your spouse is speaking to you, or a magazine open to the article you are reading, turn it off and put it away; setting your phone deliberately down when a co-worker or child asks a question creates an environment conducive to giving your best to the most important people in your life and sends the message that the person speaking to you is important – a message which will create a lasting impression about your character.

5. Take a break! Never forget to disengage every 45 minutes to an hour from your work. Taking a quick few minutes to breathe, stretch, drink water, and have a snack can significantly increase your attention skills, reduce the clutter in your mind, and help you focus. Based on the science of focus and attention you are much more intelligent, creative, and productive after a break as opposed to trudging through hours of slow-going work.

Remember, your focus and attentional skills are much like a muscle of the body: you can literally train yourself to concentrate on your spouse, child, or friend and strengthen that “muscle” until it becomes second nature to set the phone down, turn the screen off, and return to the deep, meaningful human connection we are meant to make with others.