The ability to pay attention to important things—and ignore the rest—has been a crucial survival skill throughout human history. Attention can help us focus our awareness on a particular aspect of our environment, important decisions, or the thoughts in our head. Maintaining focus is a perennial challenge for individuals of all ages, and people have long sought out strategies, tricks, and medications to help them stay on track.
Attention helps us learn in school, get ahead in the workplace, and build successful relationships, but when it's compromised, achievement of any kind becomes far more challenging. Some individuals may seem naturally to have more control over their focus, but most people’s ability to pay attention varies depending on the situation, the number of distractions they face, and whether they are employing the aid of stimulants like caffeine or Ritalin. And others—particularly those with ADHD or other mental health concerns—may struggle to pay attention even when it matters most.
The ability to focus on a particular task for an extended period of time can vary widely among individuals. Evolutionary psychologists speculate that individuals with long and short attention spans both had value in early human societies. The latter, for example, might have been novelty-seekers, more adventurous and quicker to migrate than others.
Many people attempt to perform two or more tasks at once—driving while texting, for example, or reading while listening to a podcast—but a growing body of research finds that attempting to split our focus actually leads to lower efficiency on both tasks, greater stress and distractibility, and even reductions in the brain’s grey matter.
A key to maintaining focus is the ability to recover attention quickly after a distraction. Research shows that people who get less sleep find it much more difficult to rebound from distraction, to complete tasks, and to finish jobs without mistakes. And in the case of driving, when focus is absolutely essential, insufficient rest leads to a higher accident rate.
Older individuals tend to experience time as passing more quickly, as do those who find their days to be monotonous or wasted. And research on the so-called “Matrix effect” has found that, in moments of extreme danger, such as a near accident, our perception of time slows significantly, enabling us to remember moment-by-moment details we cannot produce for more mundane events.
It’s not unusual for our focus to stray, especially when we’re consumed by stress or when the task is routine. Many people, for example, have found themselves in their driveway without remembering anything about their trip home. When we are preoccupied by our inner thoughts and self-talk, though, the costs can sometimes be tragic, such as leaving a child unoccupied in a car.
People can be distracted both by internal forces, like wandering thoughts, and external cues, like the inviting ping of a text message. When the mind seeks, or is hijacked by, distraction, it can feel almost impossible to force ourselves to refocus or attention on the task at hand, especially if it’s boring or challenging.
Some researchers who study attention view it as sort of muscle that can be strengthened with practice, and have hypothesized that certain strategies or techniques may be especially effective at building capacity over the long-term. One strategy that’s gained ground in recent years is mindfulness, which cultivates the brain’s ability to direct attention to specific cues.
Mindfulness training can help people stay calmer and more focused when their mind wanders. With greater mindfulness, many individuals find it easier to accept and sit with negative thoughts, develop greater personal awareness, and sustain attention. There is mixed evidence, however, on whether meditation is any more effective at heightening focus than other mindfulness techniques.
It’s tempting to surround children, especially young children, with an array of toys, crafts, and games. But research suggests that when children are presented with an abundance of play options, they get quickly distracted and the quality of their engagement suffers. When they have only a few toys to choose from, they play with more focus and creativity.
People seen as daydreamers are often dismissed as inefficient or infantile. The truth may be far different. Psychologist Jerome Singer proposed that “happy daydreamers” drew on self-generated images, fantasies, and interior monologues to plot their futures, amuse themselves, and generate creative solutions for their challenges. Today, living in an environment full of distraction, some experts suggest that we should consider spending more time lingering in our daydreams. Rather than representing a lapse in attention, occasional mind-wandering could help us remember more effectively, solve problems more creatively, and maintain greater mental health.
In studies, people who tracked their episodes of daydreaming reported feeling refreshed and more effective after they snapped back to attention. Unfocusing and refocusing, some experts believe, may be a secret to solving personal and professional challenges, as when we walk away from a vexing problem only to have the solution pop into our head quickly when we return to it.
Distractions, when properly managed, can be highly beneficial, if they pull us away from negative thoughts or unhealthy activities. Video games, for example, can draw our attention away from overeating or alcohol and drug use, and music can help us stick with a strenuous workout. But while distraction can be a useful short-term aid in suppressing negative emotions, it can backfire as a long-term solution.
People who consistently struggle with inattentiveness, distractibility, hyperactivity, and impulsivity may have the neurobehavioral disorder known as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Approximately 5 to 11 percent of children may live with ADHD, likely making it the most common childhood mental health disorder. But ADHD affects many adults as well, making challenges of learning, working, and establishing healthy relationships. A combination of therapy and stimulants is often used to help treat ADHD.
For much more, please see our ADHD Center.