What You Need To Know About Selective Attention

How To Work Through Your Selective Attention Span

attention signage in bold typeface

Scientists say the average person’s attention span is only eight seconds.

Seems like a long time, right? Well, if those researchers are correct, then we’ve lost four seconds from our attention spans in less than two decades: it was 12 seconds in 2000. It’s also one second lower than the average attention span of a goldfish.

There’s no need to panic. The stats cited so popularly by alarmists and technophobes don't come from real research.

Still, if you’ve tried to accomplish anything less-than-thrilling in the past ten years, you’ve clocked yourself mindlessly checking your phone.

In other words, it’s not that you don’t have a decent attention span. It’s that you have a selective attention span.

6 Tips on How to Work Through Your Selective Attention Span

According to Dr. Gemma Biggs, a psychology lecturer at the UK’s Open University, the idea of an “average attention span” means very little. Our attention spans are task dependent. We’ll give our all to a task we find engaging and drift off when we’re asked to count beans or watch daytime TV.

You can train your selective attention span to maximize your time. Ready to learn how?

Here are six tips that will help you learn how to work through your selective attention span.

Play Some Tunes

a man playing a guitar to help him cope with selective attention span

Playing the right music helps you reach peak concentration levels for longer.

Science says so.

Stanford University studied the impact of classical music on brain activity and found that short symphonies engage the parts of your brain that affect concentration, memory recall, and making predictions.

The music itself is less critical for productivity than the silence in between. The break between movements or pieces gives your brain the boost.

Of course, not all music helps. Avoid the song that reminds of your ex (there’s more than one reason for that) and put on some more Mahler.

Avoid Stressors

close-up photo of a person writing on paper the list that stress her out

Stress kills productivity. It seems obvious, but those little things that irk you, cause anxiety, or stress you out are distractions. Distractions lead to time spent in spits and starts rather than blocks of solid work.

Before sitting down, sort out your stress. Take an inventory of what’s bothering you that day and set it aside either physically or emotionally. You’ll experience a release that’s enough to get working without shoving it so far away that you’ll forget about it.

Use a Productivity App

The productivity app your friends have been raving about is as good as they say.

Productivity apps create the structure that busy brains need to stay on task. There’s an app for whatever your go-to distraction is.

Anti-Social blocks social media sites to prevent you from falling down the rabbit hole on Reddit or getting into a flame war on Facebook.

StayFocused limits the amount of time you’re allowed to spend on a site. Once you’ve hit your allotted time, the app blocks you from the site.

Reward Yourself

a rewarding salmon dish after working through selective attention span


A reward system enables not only good behavior but consistent behavior. Your system should include two parts: deadlines and rewards.

With a deadline, you’ll boost the relevance of the task before you and create focus. Time limits or deadlines develop a system of accountability, and they’re especially important for projects that don’t have strict oversight. When you meet that deadline, you can enjoy a reward.

These systems work because they don’t require time management skills. As Tony Schwartz says, it’s more important to work on managing your energy.

Humans aren’t machines. We don’t run on a timer, and we don’t work or think linearly. So, we need help prioritizing our physical and emotional energy to match the tasks we need to accomplish. Think of it as a system override.

Choosing the right reward system is critical to meeting the end goal. Your rewards shouldn’t derail your overall progress.

Here’s an example we can all relate to rewarding yourself with a big bowl of ice cream after making healthy food choices for several days straight hurts you. Why? Because Haagen Dazs contradicts your original goal of making better food choices.

a bowl of vanilla ice cream, a sample of reward

Consider using a video-game style reward system, like the one advocated by productivity guru Steve Kamb.

When you work for a reward in a game, the reward motivates good behavior. However, your prize also allows you to move forward and progress in the game. You wouldn’t aim to complete a level if the reward at the end sent you back to the beginning of the game.

What could you give yourself that will help you move forward? Go on a work-related field trip. Schedule something for your evening hours that’s just for you. Top up your Starbucks card. Take yourself out for breakfast or lunch.

These are all rewards to look forward to that don’t send you down a rabbit hole or damage your productivity. They’ll also leave you feeling refreshed and ready to tackle your next task.

Don’t forget to make your rewards personal. Only you know what motivates you. One thing you should never use as a reward: exercise. Exercise shouldn’t be a reward for completing your work, but a tool for helping you get the job done. While it’s tempting to restrict your active time during busy periods, stressful times are precisely when you must prioritize exercise in your life. You’ll see why in tip #5.

Get (More) Exercise

woman doing abs crunches

There are so many good reasons to get active. The biggest reason is that exercise affords us the ability to live a healthy, long life free from chronic and age-related diseases. It also helps us in the day-to-day: we feel more body confident, alleviate anxiety, and see that extra spring in our step.

Exercise is also part of your job.

Bummer, right? For those of us who won’t even run to the dinner table, the notion of exercise as work sounds particularly terrible.

Research regularly shows that our brain’s ability to fire on all cylinders links directly to our physical health. A recent study by the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise seems to grow the size of your hippocampus.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that works with learning and memory.

Unfortunately, stretching, balance, and resistance training didn’t produce the same results.

The good news is the participants in the UBC study weren’t marathon runners. Two hours of brisk walking per week improved memory.

Exercise also contributes to productivity. In a study performed by the University of Leeds, researchers studied the exercise habits of 200 employees. On days an employee visited the gym before or during work, their day changed. They self-reported better time management, increased productivity, and more kindness to their colleagues.

Hitting the gym also left them feeling more satisfied at the end of their working day.

Want to go a step further? Instead of "getting active," get involved in an activity that prioritizes goals. Mastering a new pursuit offers you the chance to focus on unlocking new levels of skills. Your focus on running a six-minute mile, hitting a new personal best in the weight room, or becoming a level three pilates ninja will translate into persistence and commitment in all areas of your life.

Keep Hydrated

a woman drinking a glass of water which can help cope with selective attention span

The final tip is both universal and straightforward: everyone needs water, and if you want to be productive, then you need to keep on top of hydration.

Even mild dehydration hurts your concentration levels. In fact, you don’t need to be thirsty to find yourself distracted. Even a 2 percent drop in hydration, which doesn’t trigger thirst, impacts productivity.

Drink water, then drink more water. If you wait until you’re dehydrated to drink, then you’ve waited too long.

Struggle to maintain your water intake? Create good drinking habits by:

  • Bring a bottle of water wherever you go
  • Order a glass of water with every coffee or meal out
  • Schedule water breaks or set a timer to create good habits
  • Drink a big glass of water after getting out of bed
  • Increasing your water intake with exercise
  • Adding electrolytes to your water
  • Buy a reusable water bottle
  • Add fruit to your water for a fresh taste

All of these will remind you to drink, drink, drink and help your brain working the way it should.

Let Your Mind Wander with the Focus Tips

close-up photo of a woman with cover in her mouth and nose and with her eyes focusing on an object in her left

Our focus is selective. It’s why you could happily watch eight hours of your favorite TV show, but eight hours of group project work puts you through the ringer.

Because mental focus is a skill, there are ways to override the system. Some of these tips, like exercise and hydration, are essential for every single human. Other tips like creating a rewards system are highly personal and work best when you create a system that works for you.

Do you have any productivity tips? How do you overcome your brain’s desire to do the less boring thing? Share your stories in the comments below.

About the author

Sara Miller


shares