Ever zoned out during a long lecture? Noticed your mind wandering in the middle of reading a dry textbook? You’re not alone! Although humanity’s shrinking attention span may be a myth, the fact that our attention is a limited resource is just that: a fact. But in order to figure out how to make the most of our attention, we need to understand where that resource comes from.
Attention, along with skills like planning, task initiation, and emotional regulation, is one of many executive functions. If you think of your brain as a car, then your executive function is the driver, deciding what to do and then making it happen. And like in a car, all these different processes are going to burn fuel. When you’re stressed or tired, it’s like driving uphill – it takes more energy. When you’ve been using a lot of your executive functions and run out of gas, you might find it hard to drive at all!
So, when we think about how to maximize attention, we’re really thinking about how to maximize executive functioning. Keeping with the car metaphor, we want to make your brain more fuel-efficient. There are two primary ways to do this:
Outsource Important Executive Functions
The less work your brain has to do to keep you organized and on task, the easier it will be to stay organized and on task. Using alarms, planners, calendars, and/or task lists can help you reduce demands on memory, but they can also give you more control over when you’re using those planning and organizational skills – and when you can just follow a list of steps. And remember:
- Choose a format that is easily visible and accessible to you. A to-do list posted above your desk is more helpful than one buried at the bottom of your backpack!
- Reinforce progress, not just completion. Break down tasks so that you can check off outlining a paper or studying one chapter for an exam, rather than having to wait days or weeks to feel like you’ve accomplished something.
- Technology can be your friend! Check out this list of supportive smartphone apps to help you reduce distractions, straighten out your schedule, and stay focused.
- There is no one “right” way to work on your attention. Need help getting started? Take a look at these different productivity methods, and find the one that works best for you – then customize it to fit your life and your needs.
Reduce Other Demands On Your Executive Functioning
How much harder is it to focus when you’re tired? What about when you’re sick, or stressed, or sad? We may spend a lot of our energy on managing these other concerns, leaving us with very little left for our attention. Reducing your baseline stress level and the number of additional demands on your executive functioning will leave you with more resources to put towards the goals and activities that matter most to you.
- Prioritize sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. Getting enough sleep refills our executive functioning fuel tank, good nutrition keeps it topped up, and regular physical activity reduces stress and keeps it from draining too quickly.
- Take a break! Although it can be hard to hit pause when you’re busy, 10-15 minutes a day of relaxation or mindfulness strategies can help reduce your baseline stress level – and make it that much easier to focus when you go back to work.
- Ask for support. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when it’s hard to focus. If you’re feeling down or worried, addressing those feelings – whether with a friend, family member, or CAPS provider – may be an important part of improving your executive functioning.
While everyone can do something to improve their attention and executive functioning, it's important to remember that you don’t have to do it alone! Want more information? Check out the Attention Management Program skill videos and group, as well as additional resources and treatment options through the CAPS ADHD Clinic.