Seemingly everyone is concerned about concentration these days. Margaret Sibley, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine, specializes in working with adolescents and adults who have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But recently, Sibley says, she and her colleagues have been “inundated” with clients who don’t actually have ADHD—they’re just worried they do.
It’s hard to blame them for worrying. ADHD diagnostic rates are on the rise in the U.S. and posts on TikTok and other social media platforms have convinced even more people that they have attention issues. There’s a shortage of medications to treat ADHD, largely driven by rising demand. And even among people who haven’t sought medical care, there seems to be a sense—probably enhanced by regular studies about shrinking attention spans—that focusing is getting harder. A recent U.K. survey found that about half of adults think their attention spans are getting shorter, and plenty of teachers say the same thing is happening with kids.
Adam Brown, co-director of the Center for Attention, Learning, and Memory at St. Bonaventure University in New York, says there’s good reason for concern: in his view, inattention has reached “epidemic” levels. But there’s good news too, he says. It’s an epidemic we have the power to reverse.
“At a neurological level, I wouldn’t guess there’s this massive thing happening…such that people have shorter attention spans,” Brown says. It’s “the environment we live in. It’s the phones.”
A modern look at an old problem
Distractibility is nothing new. Focus naturally waxes and wanes depending on a range of factors, from how much sleep someone got the night before to how interested they are in the task at hand. But the “cocktail” of anxieties inherent to modern life can make for a particularly potent drain on attention, Sibley says.
Most people without chronic attention issues could likely focus fairly well if given a task in a quiet, empty room—but they’d probably perform worse if they did the same task in a room where people are talking and music is playing. In modern life, Sibley says, we’re essentially living in a room filled with distractions all the time, thanks to the competing demands of work and home life, societal stressors like the pandemic, and the constant temptation of phones, social media, and the internet.
Screens present a unique minefield of distractibility, with their constant flow of notifications and information—and that’s by design, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity. At its core, the internet was designed to capitalize on how humans think, Mark says, so it’s little surprise that people are drawn to it. “It’s not just the fact that there’s algorithms catching our attention,” Mark says. “We have this sense that we have to respond, we have to check.”
Human brains want novelty, excitement, and social connection, and devices play into those desires. Checking a notification flashing across your screen can provide a small hit of dopamine, creating a sense of reward that keeps you coming back for more.
When you give in to temptation by pausing a task to check your phone, your brain also has to shift gears to stop what it was previously doing and move to a new task, Brown says. This process negatively affects the overall speed and quality of your work in the short term, research suggests, and in the long term, “the more you engage in task switching, the more your brain wants to wander and look for that new thing,” Brown says.
In other words, your brain gets used to constant diversions and engages in them out of habit—hence why you might find yourself mindlessly checking your phone even as you watch your favorite television show.
Indeed, Mark’s research suggests we’re giving into digital temptation more and more. In the early 2000s, she and her team tracked people while they used an electronic device and noted each time their focus shifted to something new—roughly every 2.5 minutes, on average. In recent repeats of that experiment, she says, the average has gone down to about 47 seconds.
The problem may not be permanent
Despite the draw of technology, Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, director of the Neuroscience Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, says she’s not convinced we’re losing the ability to focus. Instead, she says, we’re using devices in exactly the way tech companies want us to: constantly. “I’m not sure that it’s changing how our brains operate,” Shinn-Cunningham says, “but [rather] leveraging how our brains operate to keep us engaged with our electronics.”
Indeed, it’s hard to objectively nail down how long someone’s attention span really is and how it’s changing over time. Even diagnostic criteria for ADHD—significant and chronic attention issues that interfere with someone’s daily life—are somewhat subjective. Among people who don’t meet that bar, the picture is even murkier.
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One 2016 journal article questioned widely held assumptions about attention, such as that students can only focus on a lecture for 10 to 15 minutes. After reviewing the literature, author Neil Bradbury, a professor at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Illinois, found few studies that objectively demonstrated students had a finite ability to focus. Many studies use behaviors—such as note-taking or fidgeting—as proxies for attention, Bradbury says, but behavior isn’t necessarily the same as focus itself.
“There really isn’t a good definition of what attention means,” Bradbury says. “And unless you have a good definition that everybody agrees on, it is really hard to come up with a measurement of that, because you really don’t know what you’re measuring.”
In many cases, Bradbury says, students’ ability to pay attention seems to depend on how interesting they find the material they’re learning and how well it’s presented, which makes measuring their inherent attention spans both difficult and “a little beside the point.”
Research also suggests that environment has a significant impact on attention, Sibley says, which suggests it can be tweaked to improve focus. “People should feel reassured that if they did assess their life and try to make modifications…there’s a good chance they would feel better,” she says.
How to get your focus back
For people with serious, chronic focus problems, those modifications might include working with a mental-health clinician and/or taking medication. But most people who experience occasional concentration issues can make tweaks on their own.
In Brown’s opinion, there’s one adjustment that’s more important than any other: “Remove the device. In times of needed focus, take that device and put it someplace else,” he says. Turning your phone facedown isn’t always enough; research suggests that simply having a phone within eyesight can make it harder to focus, and the buzz of a single notification can ruin concentration.
When you have a big task at hand, putting your phone in another room is the best option, Brown says. But it’s also important to learn how to be around screens without letting them derail your concentration, a process that he says largely comes down to muscle memory. Just as you get used to constantly checking your phone, you can build a habit of not looking at it all the time, Brown says. “When your phone goes off, you want to go look at it,” he says. “But over the course of weeks and months, if you deliberately ignore it…you will get better at focus.”
It’s also important to assess your priorities and focus your energy there, rather than trying to split your limited time and attention in a million directions, Sibley says. That might mean dropping non-crucial commitments in pursuit of being fully present for the ones that really matter to you, she says.
“Attention is goal-directed,” Mark agrees. Her research has shown that people are better at staying on task if they’re regularly reminded of what they want to achieve. Something as low-tech as writing your goal on a Post-it note and placing it where you can see it can help, she says.
Mark also recommends visualizing what you want your short-term future to look like, and using that as motivation in the present moment. If you can clearly imagine how good it would feel to finish work at 5 p.m. and then go for a walk with friends, you may be more inclined to power through your afternoon energy slump. Getting enough sleep, taking regular breaks, and spending time outside can also help, Mark says.
“If we know what’s happening, then we can take measures to help our attention and memory for our future lives,” Brown says. “It’s not only possible, it’s probable—but it’s effortful.”
Write to Jamie Ducharme at email@example.com.