Want to improve your concentration? There is no magic pill, but science does offer some tips and tricks
Brain training apps are not the answer to your concentration troubles. Plenty of sleep, exercise and lifelong learning are better allies.
We often hear about how smartphones make it harder to focus on complex tasks, that social media content is turning over faster and faster and there are concerns that this is all hurting our ability to pay attention both in classrooms and at work.
What if you could train your attention and improve your concentration? Brain training apps have been increasing in popularity, with people wanting to improve their attention and memory, to the point where it is now a multi-billion dollar industry.
But the question of what works and what doesn’t work, is still up in the air.
Want to avoid cognitive decline? Go back to school
Let’s start with brain training apps. They are easy to install and claim to be able to improve attention and memory with just five minutes of practice a day!
However, the science isn’t behind these apps, and while there is no harm is using them, there is no compelling evidence that these apps improve cognition. So if you have one of these, it can be a fun game, but it probably won’t improve your attention.
To really prevent cognitive decline with age and improve memory and attention, you are better off going back to school.
Multiple studies have shown that education that really challenges you, for example, learning a new language or learning to quilt, can improve cognitive performance and slow cognitive decline. So go sign up for an adult learning class and learn something new!
Can technology improve our attention?
There is hope for technology to become part of the solution though. In 2020, the FDA approved, for the first time, a video game as a treatment for ADHD. In this game, the child has a character which they navigate through an obstacle course.
It is designed to make them focus on a singular task and filter out distractions and the game monitors a player’s actions to give immediate feedback to keep the game challenging.
In a clinical trial in children diagnosed with ADHD between 8-12 years of age, the researchers found improvements in attention after one month of playing the game.
Back to basics to improve attention: Get enough sleep
Many studies around improving attention have focused on lifestyle interventions such as sleep and exercise.
Sleep is particularly important for those in school. It is estimated that teenagers need between eight and ten hours of sleep per night.
However, a study from researchers in Norway found that teenagers were sleeping only six and a half hour on average per night. That is at least an hour and a half too little. And sleep deprivation has been shown to hurt sustained attention, the sort of attention you need to pay attention to lectures or stay focused for long periods of time.
A 2016 study from Australian researchers found that when restricted to only five hours of sleep during the week, teenagers felt very tired showed significant impairments in sustained attention. Once allowed a weekend to recover their sleep, the feelings of tiredness went away but the impairments to attention did not.
This means that it is not enough for teens to simply ‘make up’ the lack of sleep on weekends, they need regular good nights of sleep for the best attention span.
Overall, it is important to regularly get the recommended amount of sleep. The amount of sleep you need depends on your age. Children need to sleep longer than adults.
According to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), school age children should be sleeping 9 to 12 hours per night, teenagers between 8 to 10 hours per night and adults between 7 and 9 hours per night.
Beware of the light
Once again, technology can play a large role in your sleep habits. It could be part of why you stay up so late.
Blue light such as that from computer and phone screens can trick your brain into feeling like it is still daytime and making it harder for you to fall asleep. So don’t spend an hour on your phone in bed before trying to sleep. Try reading or some relaxing stretching right before bed.
Fortunately, technology can also make it easier for you to get into the mood for sleep. For example, smart lightbulbs can help you dim the lights around your home as it gets closer to bedtime and apps that can decrease the amount of blue light on your computer screen as the sun sets.
Likewise, there are many sleep tracking apps that can remind you when to go to bed, and help you keep track of how many hours of sleep you are getting each night so you can stay on track.
Get up and go for a jog
However, if you are still having trouble falling asleep, perhaps you can try this second small lifestyle change and get some regular exercise.
Regular exercise will not only help with attention, but also help regulate sleep and can help alleviate many other health related issues. It is the cure-all for most problems, both physical and mental.
Single bouts of exercise have been shown to improve children’s ability to sustain attention in the classroom directly after the exercise, also in children with ADHD and taking ADHD medication. It has also been shown to be helpful for cognitive performance in adults and elderly.
It is still up for debate exactly how long you should exercise for or how intensely you should exercise to improve attention but it is clear that some kind of daily exercise is good for both the body and mind.
Change your working habits
According to a recent survey, the average person checks their phones every six minutes. How much work can you get done in those six minutes? It will take your brain some time just to switch between the task you were focusing on to focusing on your phone.
Constantly checking your phone and email or constantly getting interrupted at work can be eating up to 40 percent of your productivity every day.
So, there are some changes you can make to your habits that may not train your attention, but they can help get rid of distractions and make you more productive.
One of the classic techniques to help you concentrate at work is the pomodoro technique. It became popular in the 1990s to help teams stay focused and productive. The idea is pretty simple.
You set a timer for 25 minutes. You then work for those 25 minutes and do not check emails, your phone or allow anything else to distract you in that time. You then take a break and start working again.
The main advantage of this kind of technique is that it helps you eliminate distractions. And if you don’t like the idea of using a timer, you can also get plenty of applications for your phone or computer that can help you eliminate distractions for a specified period of time, for example by blocking notifications and popups, or preventing you from going on social media.
This way you can stop looking at the clock or worrying about emails and just keep working until the app reminds you to take a break.
Overall, there is no simple solution to training your attention.
Focusing on healthy habits, like life-long learning, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly can go a long way. As well as changing working habits to minimize distractions and giving yourself dedicated time to focus on a task.
Summary of tips for better concentration:
1. Sleep – rest and recharge
2. Regular exercise – keep your body active
3. Lifelong learning – keep your brain active
4. Keep good working habits – minimize distractions
PDF [655 KB] Figures Save Share Reprints Request A novel digital intervention for actively reducing severity of paediatric ADHD (STARS-ADHD): a randomised controlled trial, OI:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2589-7500(20)30017-0