Upon opening this article, you might quickly scroll down, see that it's longer than 500 words, and then leave it open as a tab to read later. After a few hours, you'll return, read a few paragraphs, then impulsively check your email. You might read a bit more, then succumb to the urge to look at Twitter or Facebook. Eventually the day is over, and the tab is left unread.
This, at least, is what often happens to me when I try to read a long article — or immerse myself in many other tasks that require sustained concentration when I'm online. And it seems to be happening to more and more of us.
"We are reading in a dramatically different way than we did just 15 years ago," says Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University cognitive neuroscientist who uses the term "spasmodic reading" to describe the habit of switching back and forth between tabs and devices. "There's one survey that showed young people, on average, are now switching their attention 27 times per hour."
This impulse makes it hard to actually finish a long article. There's also evidence that this sort of switching and skimming affects your ability to remember material you've read and think critically about it. But all is not lost: There are a number of specific steps you can take to help yourself focus.
1) Treat your attention like money: Spend it wisely
Most researchers start by pointing out an underappreciated fact about attention: It's finite. "Over time, your ability to focus your attention gets depleted and fatigued," says Jason Duvall, who studies the effect of different environments on people's attention at the University of Michigan. "For instance, experiments show that the last 10 minutes of doing a task are much harder than the first 10 minutes." Your attention is gradually depleted throughout the day, though particularly taxing tasks can do so over the course of hours or even minutes.
This means you shouldn't treat your attention like, say, electricity — something you can switch on and off easily whenever you want. It's more like money: an asset you need to conserve, use wisely, and replenish when you're out.
2) Strip all distractions out of your environment
"Everyone suffers some deficit in performance when they're exposed to irrelevant information, even if they're aware they should avoid it and are trying to do so," says Adam Gazzaley, a UC San Francisco neuroscientist who studies attention. Distractions are a problem, he says, because your brain has to work constantly to fend them off. Every time you have to force your attention back to the task at hand, it drains a bit of the reserves you could be applying toward the real goal.
This means that every time an email notification pops up on your screen, your brain involuntarily takes it in, then has to convince itself to get back to work. This may seem minor, but over time it adds up, exhausting your ability to focus.
But there are all sorts of external tools you can use to shut distractions out for you instead. If possible, you can print out an article and step away from your computer, or read it while shutting off your internet connection. If you need to be online, you can use apps like Freedom and Focus to lock your computer out of specific websites for a set period of time. If you have articles you want to read later, use OneTab or TabManager to save them without keeping a distracting tab open. Turn off your phone and desktop notifications to prevent every new email from disrupting your workflow.
3) Treat the most difficult tasks with special respect
Spending your attention wisely also requires you to identify the things that are especially hard to concentrate on — whether reading a long article or writing a report. This will let you attempt them at the right time, and in the right setting, to give yourself the best chance of completing them.
Prioritize them when you're freshest. For many people, this is the start of the day, but it can also be after an afternoon coffee break. Regardless, trying to read a long article when you're drowsy or restless is setting yourself up for failure.
It's also important to put yourself in an environment that will make focusing easier. "If I know I'm doing a particular task — like writing a proposal or reading an important article — that needs my full attention, then I change my mode," says Wolf. "I physically go to a different room, if possible, that has fewer distractions."
4) Don't try to multitask
The research on this one is clear: When we try to complete several tasks at once, we do them all more slowly — and commit more errors.
The reason, says Duvall, is that "multitasking is a bit of a misnomer. You can't actually work on two things simultaneously." Instead, when you multitask, your brain is constantly switching between different tasks, trying to keep multiple trains of thought active.
This drains your attention way more quickly than if you just did one thing at a time. Some work even suggests that chronic multitasking makes people more susceptible to distractions in general.
5) Get enough sleep — and take naps
All the tips above deal with spending your attention carefully. But there are also ways to replenish it — and the main one, Duvall says, is sleeping.
Getting enough sleep at night is crucial for being able to maintain attention during the day. Experiments on people who have been sleep-deprived show that they're significantly more prone to errors and lapses in attention on a test that measures focus.
But shorter naps during the day can also provide an attentional boost. This has been found in lab experiments that measure people's ability to pay attention to stimuli on a computer screen, but also in real-world experiments. Police officers who nap before a night shift are less likely to get into a car crash, and nurses who do so score better on tests of attention, and made fewer errors in a virtual catheter insertion test.
If you work during the day, the ideal time for a nap is probably the afternoon, when most people feel a dip in energy and focus. Nap for 30 minutes or less if you don't want to feel groggy afterward.
6) Take breaks — by doing things that engage you
Duvall's research concerns how exposure to nature can improve people's attention, part of a broader field called attention restoration theory. Over decades of research, all sorts of evidence has been found for this surprising idea: An hour-long walk in a park, for instance, improves people's performance on a test that measures focus.
The reason, researchers believe, is that we actually have two systems that direct attention. There's the one used to focus on things that are important but not especially exciting (this is the one discussed in all the tips above). But there's also a separate, more evolutionarily primitive system we don't actively control.
"This system automatically draws our focus to stimuli that are inherently fascinating," Duvall says. "Environments that use this system let your directed attention system rest."
This is why exposure to nature seems to boost attention: A walk in the woods pulls our attention to the rich, varied environment surrounding us. But if you don't have easy access to nature, there are all sorts of other activities that could accomplish the same goal.
Activities like cooking or exercising — depending on your interests — can also work. "It should be an activity that has enough to it to hold you," Duvall says. "There's got to be some richness to it."
7) Try meditation
A long-term strategy that might boost your ability to concentrate is mindfulness meditation: a practice that encourages you to focus on your thoughts and sensations in the present moment.
Research into meditation is still ongoing, but so far there's evidence that it can improve people's ability to focus even when they're not meditating. One review of 23 different studies found that in general, people who've been meditating for just a few months perform better on tasks that test their ability to shut out distractions, while longer-term meditators show a markedly improved ability to maintain focus for especially long periods of time.
Additionally, in most people, the ability to control attention declines significantly as they age. But research suggests that long-term meditation can slow down this decline.