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Goldfish jumping from bowl

How to focus for longer than a goldfish

It’s never been harder to focus on one thing at a time. With a world of distractions at our fingertips, we have to be mentally strong to combat a wandering mind and thoughtless scrolling. We’re getting swifter at toggling between email, messages and social posts, with little consideration for the fact that this way of operating stops us from getting what we intend to complete done with uninterrupted focus. A 2015 study by Microsoft revealed that people maintain focus for an average of eight seconds – or, less time than a goldfish. So, how can we improve our ability to concentrate for longer stretches of time?

Listen to your thoughts

Dr Tamara May from Deakin University’s School of Psychology has studied the attention spans of children with autism, and works with adults diagnosed with ADHD. Dr May draws on her work in these areas to suggest strategies that can help anyone overcome an inability to focus.

Firstly, Dr May suggests noting your inner thoughts and questioning negative self-talk. ‘If you know you’re procrastinating, listen to what you’re saying to yourself. If you’re tired you’re probably always going to be tired, so using that as an excuse won’t get you anywhere,’ Dr May suggests. When you practice being aware of self-talk, you can work to rise above it. If you’re still struggling to settle into the task, Dr May says setting a focus target period of five minutes is a good start. ‘It can help you get over the hump and keep going,’ she points out.

Remove distractions from your workspace  

If you find yourself reaching for your phone the moment you hit a mental block or looking out the window and daydreaming for extended periods, you probably need to reconfigure the space you’re working in. ‘How you set up your workspace is important. Some people shouldn’t have their desks facing a window,’ Dr May points out and adds that it’s important to move anything that’s a potential distraction out of reach. There’re also a range of apps for mobile and desktop that can help disable access to digital distractions and track the time spent on each task in order to maintain study or work momentum.

'If you know you’re procrastinating, listen to what you’re saying to yourself. If you’re tired you’re probably always going to be tired, so using that as an excuse won’t get you anywhere.'

Dr Tamara May,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

A lack of focus can boil down to planning. With good planning, priorities can become clear. So, before you begin work, Dr May suggests arranging your tasks, reading questions and employing attention to detail so that the requirements are clear in your mind, and you can complete each task without feeling they’re jumbled up with other thoughts.

Be open to assistance

‘Drifting off is a normal thing. It’s difficult for many of us to stay focused,’ Dr May says. She adds that while practicing tactics such as mindful meditation can be helpful training for some people, it’s not enough for others. For students struggling to stay focused in lectures and tutorials, Dr May says it can be a good idea to summarise the key points that have been made every 10 minutes.

However, she suggests that if trouble maintaining focus is ongoing, it’s a good idea to look for additional resources. ‘People with ongoing problems with focus should consider speaking to their doctor if it’s a significant problem,’ she says. Depending on your needs, you may find support in a range of places. For example, university students can find study advice and mentorship through their tertiary institutions, and many workplaces offer training and tips on productivity for employees.

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Dr Tamara May
Dr Tamara May

Researcher, School of Psychology, Deakin University
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