How long is the average attention span?
February 28, 2009 6:44 PM   Subscribe

What is considered a reasonable amount of time to be able to concentrate on one task?

My job requires a lot of multi-tasking and I find it easy to quickly switch from one short task to another. Since working this job full-time for 18 months, I find it more difficult than ever to concentrate for extended periods of time.

Though I can read fiction for hours, I've always had difficulties focusing on anything 'mandatory' and I'm presently taking a course with a lot of readings. The articles are 20 + pages long and moderately dense - about average for most liberal arts degree type articles.

I read this thread which has a ton of great ideas about improving attention span but I want to know what I can reasonably expect of myself. I've heard people say they spend hours in the library reading and studying textbooks. Are they exaggerating? Are they reading every word? How long is the average attention span? How much time can I expect to devote to studying?
posted by cranberrymonger to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I spend all of my time doing 3 things which may be relevant to your question.

1. As a PhD student I read articles and have to think critically about them while jotting a few notes down. I am good for 30-40 minutes at this before a break, which is generally just 5 minutes and then I pick up where I left off. In total I can repeat this process for no more than 4 hours at a time.
2. I write my thesis incorporating these articles and my own ideas. I can do this for a little bit longer, say 60 minutes at a time before a break. Again maybe 4 hours of writing in total if I'm really pushing it.
3. I edit books for a living. I can read and edit for 2 hours at a stretch.

And the best tip I ever got in regard to having to stop tasks in the middle of them, especially the ones I do is: Stop in the middle of an idea, not in between ideas. This makes it so much easier to pick up the task again. Hope that's at least a bit helpful.
posted by meerkatty at 6:55 PM on February 28, 2009 [24 favorites]

>Stop in the middle of an idea, not in between ideas.

I marked this as a favorite because it is an excellent observation.
posted by yclipse at 7:02 PM on February 28, 2009

it should be noted that the 'middle of an idea' technique has the opposite effect for people who already have an attention span (you grow one by continuing to read or study even when you don't want to)
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 7:48 PM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

It depends on you.

The concrete answer is: as long as it takes. Different people need different amounts of time with different material.

Can you write a 5 minute precis on what you just read? From what you've posted, I'd say that if you were able to write/speak a 5 minute (or less) precis on what you read, then how long it takes to read what you read (Turing test!) to write a precis is enough time.

You aren't doing this for fun, right? If it's for fun, then you spend as much time as you want to understand and think and synthesize afterwards.

If this is for a job, just spend as much time as you need to be able to write a report that is sufficient for who you're reporting to. Same as with (unfortunately) lots of undergraduate classes.

Curious - what is the context from which your question comes from?
posted by porpoise at 8:07 PM on February 28, 2009

Hours studying? Absolutely! But not just one idea. Mostly it's that I read for a bit, get something I wonder about ("hmm, that's interesting..."), and then either keep reading to get more information on that topic or go look up whatever I was wondering about. This is a place where having a list of questions on the subject to keep in mind can be useful. The only way I've ever been able to focus on anything without great effort is if I'm genuinely interested - the trick is cultivating interest.
posted by Lady Li at 8:48 PM on February 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

I find that if I can read with a highlighter, the act of deciding what to highlight as I read involves more of my mind in the process and thus I am more focused. It is when my attention wanders that I start thinking about getting up and doing something else.
posted by metahawk at 12:57 AM on March 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't know how long the average concentration span is, but I can tell you that mine's about 45 minutes - for really serious, intense, exam-like concentration anyway. After that I can continue to concentrate, but my productivity drops off rapidly - I start daydreaming and reading each sentence 5 times etc. I'm not sure how much time I need to recharge before I can start again properly - it probably depends on how interested I am in the topic. I suspect it would be impossible to concentrate efficiently for hours straight, but maybe there are people out there better at it than me.

It might not be possible for you at this time of year, but I find it's easier to concentrate on reading dry non-fiction if I'm outside. Maybe the sunlight keeps me more alert, or maybe the reward of being outside helps.
posted by Emilyisnow at 5:24 AM on March 1, 2009

What meerkatty says is exactly my experience.
- I'm presently condensing footnotes in my dissertation pre-publication. Can do this for hours.
- Reading new stuff: max 45 minutes. Walk around during your 5 minute break, but do return to your desk afterward.
- Doing some dedicated collecting of information and writing: 60-80 minutes or so.
I usually need a longer break after two or three 45-min. sessions.

In practicing music they usually also recommend 40-45 minutes per stretch of concentrated work. Emphasis on 'concentrated'. I can lose hours of time playing random pieces without feeling the need to stop, but that's something else (I mean, I also can spend whole days on the internet, sort-of reading "interesting" stuff all the time and the only thing that gets tired is my mouse hand).
posted by Namlit at 5:51 AM on March 1, 2009

« Older The interweb killed my attention span.   |   Name this stupidly basic math function for me Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.