I don’t know about you, but in the last few years, my attention span has shrunken to an abysmal size. Or as author Ann Patchett put it: my “attention span has shrunken like a sweater accidentally thrown in the dryer.” I went from being able to read a hundred pages in one sitting to reading three pages and then getting distracted by… well, anything. A notification on my phone, the distant sound of a car horn, a bird flying past my window. My brain helpfully chiming in to remind me that I need to do laundry. My cat embarking upon a life-and-death battle with imaginary enemies.
It’s bad, folks.
I realized that this had become a real problem I needed to solve when I stood up Cat Sebastian for a Facebook Live at The Unusual Historical Romance Book Club. My brain, scattered at the best of times, somehow managed to mix up the dates of the week. I only realized what had happened the next morning, when I received a DM from Cat asking if I was all right.
That did it. I booked an appointment with my doctor and started Googling ways to improve one’s attention span. And, y’know, one’s memory. Forgetting what day of the week it is seems like the kind of thing to finally kick you into motion.
And as it turns out, it seems that I’m not alone. In December 2021, while working on an article about this topic (the first article I read when I went searching), David Oliver tweeted a question: “Do you feel like this COVID era has hurt your attention span? i.e. you can’t focus on a movie but you can watch a 30-minute show?” The responses ranged from ‘yes’ to ‘pick another topic’, but most were in agreement: the era of COVID has, indeed, affected how long we could concentrate either on movies, books, or even work.
(Some of) the Culprits Behind a Shrinking Attention Span
For me, this issue began several years ago, but it seems to have worsened significantly since 2020. Crystal Burwell, director of outpatient services for Newport Healthcare Atlanta, said that “COVID led to many people experiencing cognitive overload, whereby our brains become short-circuited due to being inundated with information our brains are trying to process.”
In the same article, clinical psychologist and professor Sabrina Romanoff pointed out that this was an already existing problem: “This struggle was mounting since before COVID […] We only have a finite amount of mental resources and energy. The more and more that becomes compounded, the more we must compensate for those energy drains by cutting out the superfluous or unnecessary drains on our mental reserves.”
Trying to pinpoint a before and after, I realized that — yes, to both things. My concentration abilities were at their best in my (early) teens, when there were significantly fewer demands on my time and attention. My only big responsibility was school, I didn’t yet have a cell phone, and I read one book at a time. Then I got my first job, my first cell phone, and I went off to university. All of a sudden, my attention span was fragmented: not too bad, but it was definitely harder to focus and stay focused. When depression struck, it all went to hell. My brain refused to process even regular amounts of information, let alone the laundry list of catastrophes going on in the world.
From 2020 onward? Oh boy. I spent more time than ever checking the news and scrolling down social media. Cognitive overload was no longer a concept. It was a reality affecting every area of my life.
How I’ve Been Trying to Improve My Attention Span
Meditation and Mindfulness
Not to be that person, but regular meditation really does wonders for both my anxiety and my attention span. It shrinks the former and enlarges the latter. That’s hardly a shock, considering that our brains going too fast, and fleeting from thought to thought without time to process them, is responsible for our collective poor attention in the first place.
This one hurts to type. When I realized that regular exercise was helping to calm down the weird assortment of random thoughts in my head, I was dismayed. You mean that everybody who ever told me to exercise was right? I have to do this regularly?
It was an attack, both to my pride and to my couch potato soul. But hey, if it helps, I won’t question it.
Put the Damn Phone Down
I often joke that you can tell what kind of cell phone I did or didn’t have by how good (or bad) my attention span and my eyesight were. Up until my late teens: perfect eyesight and attention span, no phone. From my late teens to my early twenties: medium eyesight and attention span, an old phone with no Internet. From my mid-twenties till now: eyesight and attention span are a wreck, a smartphone.
Even knowing all that, it is always a concerted effort to keep my phone time to a minimum. It’s one that I often fail at. But I have found that this is the best thing I can do for my focus, so persevere I shall.
Setting a Timer
I learned later that this is a commonly recommended technique, but at the time, it was brought about by desperation. I set a timer on my phone for 15 minutes and swore on my life that I would spend that time reading. Everything else on my to-do list could wait. I now do it regularly. Something about actively giving yourself permission to stop the racing thoughts and focus on one thing at a time helps to put everything else on the back burner.