By Real Simple
Updated January 30, 2009
Iron burn on a piece of fabric
Credit: Nato Welton

There was a time when people had longer attention spans. Back in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, audiences routinely listened to speeches lasting two hours or more. So when Lincoln concluded after just two minutes, no one even applauded. Nowadays we’re so accustomed to focusing for shorter periods of time that we aren’t phased when the typical TV show runs from just one to eight minutes before a commercial. The Internet, with its one-click system of gratification, has also conditioned us to focus for shorter periods of time, says Nadeau.

At the office, e-mail is one of the biggest attention zappers. A joint study by the University of Illinois and Microsoft reported that we’re interrupted by an average of four e-mail alerts an hour. When you stop what you’re doing to answer an e-mail, it takes an average of 15 minutes to return to the first task and 10 minutes more to get back to the concentration level you had before the interruption.

The modern habit of multitasking further divides focus. “Multitasking is really a misnomer, since your brain is unable to focus on two tasks at once,” says Nadeau. When you try, “a kind of bottleneck occurs,” says Rene Marois, Ph.D., an associate professor of neuroscience and psychology at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, "and you become less efficient than if you were to finish one task before starting another."

How to Regain Your Focus

  • Limit multitasking. Since multitasking and inefficiency tend to go hand in hand, the technique should be used only if the tasks involved require little mental effort, says Marois. In other words, it’s OK to talk on the phone while ironing, but it’s not OK to do it while driving.
  • Take breaks. Our attention naturally falters after we’ve been doing something for a while, so taking breaks helps us recharge. Aim for a 10-minute breather every hour, says Palladino. “When I take a work break, I stay on task by jotting down the time I have to return to my computer,” she says.
  • Alternate high-stimulation and low-stimulation tasks. When you’re doing something that requires a lot of mental effort, like filling out your tax return, rekindle your brainpower with something rote and mindless, such as vacuuming. You’ll return to the first task with a greater level of concentration.
  • Find your optimal time to work. Hallowell suggests identifying the time of day when you feel most focused or alert. For most people that’s the morning―when the day hasn’t tired you out yet―but it could be the afternoon or the night. Then use that time to tackle your most challenging projects.
  • Visualize what you want to achieve. When you’re interrupted, get back on track with this focusing trick used by athletes in competition: Close your eyes for a few moments and imagine successfully completing the task, whether it’s handing a finished report to your boss or shutting the door of a clean, organized closet.

Something to try: If you’re reading this article while listening to music and occasionally belting out some favorite lyrics, it might be time to switch to something instrumental. According to Marois, whose laboratory is devoted to the study of attention, listening to music with lyrics can be distracting. The lyric-less version will keep you upbeat without steering you off course.