12 Ways to Work Around a Short Attention Span At Work


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Karen Schneider, PMP®, PMI-ACP®, CSM®27
Experienced Project/Program Manager
May 22, 2024 at 4:32AM UTC
Your attention span (or lack thereof) can have a major impact on your performance at work or school, and your ability to deal with the tasks of everyday life — one even quick lapse in attention can result in missing out on important information, errors or something even worse.
But you're not alone. A University of New Hampshire survey found that 80 percent of college students text during class and 15 percent send 11 or more texts in a single class period. During a study published of the University of Louisville Law Review,  spies were placed at the back of law school classrooms to record the technological activities of second- and third-year law students. And the spies reported that 58 percent of students were using their laptops for non-class purposes, like surfing the web or stalking Facebook, more than half the time.

What does it mean to have a short attention span?

Attention span refers to how long you can focus on a particular task without getting distracted by something else. A short attention span means you lose focus on your tasks quickly.

How long is attention span?

A 2015 study by Microsoft found that the average attention span was eight seconds. However, this study has been heavily critiqued due to vague resources. For many adults, attention span lasts somewhere between 10-20 minutes, although there is no real evidence to support this idea.

What causes short concentration span?

Tons of people, especially millennials glued to Twitter every few seconds, find it difficult to pay attention these days. The average attention span among humans isn't getting any bigger with social media platforms and technology in general constantly distracting us.
There are also real psychological and medical causes for short attention span, including:
• Learning disability
• Head injury
• Mood disorder
Personally, when I was younger, I don't recall having any issues with concentrating or banging out tasks on my to-do list. Fast forward to present day, and I have self-diagnosed myself with adult ADHD I've even been lovingly nicknamed Wall-E by my coworker for staring at my wall whenever I'm most bogged down by a long list of overwhelming tasks. The distractions brought on by social media make it all that much easier to find temporary respite as I diligently avoid the looming deadlines tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me that they don't have time for my brain to take a vacation right now.
Eventually, I have to come back to reality and regain my focus to accomplish my tasks. Plus, I don't want my lack of sustained attention to affect my colleagues or our work. Here's how I recenter myself to ensure my productivity levels and performance stay up to par.

How do you treat short attention span?

1. First, don't forget the basics.

As in, get enough sleep, eat a healthy breakfast, drink enough water, and exercise your body. A healthy body equals a healthier mind.

2. Pinpoint what causes you to lose focus.

Is your phone regularly dinging with every social media notification, or are your emails visibly piling up as you're trying to edit your latest pitch? Put your phone on silent, and close out your email browser until you're finished. Whatever it might be, figure it out so you know how to properly combat it.

3. Clean up your workspace.

If my desk is messy, my mind (and my focus) seems to match it. Once I take the five minutes or so to tidy up, I feel more relaxed and ready to jump into my to-do list. 

4. Prioritize your to-do list. 

What must absolutely get done today — and reasonably so? If you feel your list of tasks is so overwhelming that you're not sure you can get it done in one day, meet with your manager and put a plan in place.   

5. Use apps to help.

Certain apps block social media use for a certain amount of time, and others even tally the total amount of time spent on them (yikes). Utilize them if needed.  

6. Practice mindfulness.

Speaking of apps, there are plenty that promote meditation and mindfulness, though you don't need them to practice. Start with gently shifting your focus back to work every time your mind starts to wander.

7. Schedule your distractions.

I consider my scheduled time almost like a reward for powering through and remaining focused. A few minutes of mindless scrolling through Instagram and checking my personal email is my go-to after I finish a task.

8. Find the work style that works best for you.

This simply means to start with the easiest task first, working up to the hardest, or vice versa. I personally like to get the easier, smaller tasks out of the way first, as it makes me feel more productive and motivated to keep tackling the rest.

9. Tell others what you need.

I laugh at my Wall-E nickname and am not ashamed to admit I suffer from a lack of focus at times. However, I am also not afraid to ask my coworkers for what I need from them in order to get back on track, which, for me, is scheduled drop-ins and respecting that I keep my door closed to center my attention on my work (there is a constant stream of traffic outside of my office). 

10. If possible, work from home (if this works for you).

Almost every time I work from home, I get nearly double the output that I do on any given day when I'm in the office. No one is knocking on my door for unscheduled drop-ins and, while I am reachable by phone and email, I notice many often either wait to address their issues in person or they put it into an email, which saves me valuable working time. However, I know there are some people who feel they are less focused at home, so this depends on your situation.  

11. Take a break when it's really needed.

Think of your brain as a muscle — just like any other part of your body, it needs to be worked out regularly or it will become fatigued quickly. However, muscles can only be worked out for so long before they lose strength. Therefore, make sure you're allowing enough recovery time and that the distractions or lack of focus isn't actually because you're just tired. Even with a short attention span, you need breaks.

12. Work on building your attention span.

"Mastering any skill requires practice and patience, and boosting your attention span is no different," writes Alan Henry of Lifehacker. "The absolute best thing you can do is embrace single-tasking whenever you can, and work hard to stay focused. We're not just saying 'focus harder' here either, instead, think about the things you do at home and at work that really do require singular focus, and make those projects first on your to-do list. Your mind may wander, or you may start to reach for your phone or think about doing something else, but try to resist those thoughts and stick to the task at hand. If you do get distracted, don't admonish yourself, just catch it and renew your focus."
Remember to be gentle with yourself. We all suffer from a lack of focus from time to time, but with some effort and attention (ha!), it is possible to rein it in and make the most of your workday.
Karen Schneider works for bareMinerals in Global Packaging + Creative Operations and has worked in a variety of industries over the span of her career, including digital media, fashion & apparel, and wine & spirits. She is currently a contributor to The Muse and Career Contessa and has been featured on Business Insider, Inc., Fast Company and Harvard Business Review for her career advice. She's obsessed with learning, life, and career/self-improvement. 

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