How to increase my attention span?
April 24, 2014 3:49 AM   Subscribe

I don't seem to have the attention span for books, TV series and movies anymore, and I'm missing out on a lot of good entertainment, as well as having a general feeling of being culturally 'out of it'. How can I increase my attention span and start getting into long-form entertainment again?

I used to be able to get sucked into entertainment quite easily. I could spend hours and hours watching TV or reading. In fact it was probably excessive: I used to stay up all night reading, and in all day watching Lost marathons (this is how far back we are talking about). It probably wasn't very healthy but I've clearly grown out of it.

Now my problem is the opposite: a one-hour long TV drama makes me feel antsy, I can't focus on the story and just end up checking my phone a lot, and often I'm so tired after a long day of work I fall asleep midway even if I am enjoying it. I have missed out on so much good TV because it all seems like a commitment rather than something you do for fun.

With books, I keep having to put them aside after bite-size chunks, and anything too intellectually demanding takes so much longer to read than it used to: months and months when before I used to be able to tear through books. I used to read books during my commute to work, but now I just can't bring myself to read: the commute is my time for my mind to be free. But that does take away prime book-reading time.

The thing is, I don't think it has anything to do with the quality of the entertainment: it's all really good stuff but it feels like my brain just doesn't have the space for it. I am starting to feel a little spiritually/culturally impoverished, actually. And it's making me sad because I always used to be the person who read a lot, and was up on all the current popular culture and now I'm not.

So how can I get back into long-form entertainment again? Please note: I'm not looking for recommendations for good current TV/movies/books etc - I have recommendations coming out of my ears. I'm just looking for ways to expand my attention span a little so that I don't feel exhausted by anything longer than a short story or a half-hour sitcom episode.

About me: 31, healthy, busy, technically 9-5 job, more commonly 9-7.
posted by Ziggy500 to Grab Bag (17 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
I know this might not be the answer you're looking for -- but could it be your age?

I should say "our" age. I just noticed recently that TV / Netflix is on for me as background noise rather than paying close attention. Even shows I like I end up only paying attention to halfway. Maybe when we hit our 30s our brains just start weeding out the entertainment to process the "important" stuff more, like work. Maybe it's not you, it's TIME. Your brain is telling you, "Come on, Ziggy500, you have to go to bed soon for work tomorrow, you really don't have time for a five hour marathon."

I say embrace the half-ass attention span when it comes to TV. Find something to do with your hands while it's on -- I knit while I watch, or work on a quilt; I've also rewired a lamp and sorted out my file box, and once I spent half a season of Buffy working on a puzzle.

But if you really want to absorb the show, treat it like anything else that needs dedicated brain energy. Spend the week working and save up your attention for the weekends, then go all out when an block of time just for watching a show with whatever fun things you like -- drinks, comfort food, etc.

As for books, I am also a big reader and have always prided myself on the amount and variety of my reading. I catch up by breaking books into smaller bites -- I take whatever I'm reading to work and read over lunch, even if I'm just sitting at my desk. I also read for a few minutes when I get in bed. And, if I'm going to be taking a long drive for work (my regular commute is short), I get a book on CD. Maybe go to the library and get an audio book of whatever you're reading for background noise during the commute, if you want to progress, then pick back up with wherever the book continues next time you have a chance.
posted by mibo at 3:59 AM on April 24, 2014

When did you notice this change in your attention span? Has anything else changed in your routine or mental health?

It sounds to me like you're exhausted and just don't have the extra mental energy you need.
posted by bunderful at 4:00 AM on April 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

As a positive / negative note, my attention for reading improved over the past two months by having six different business trips. Between airplane safety mode and the reality of only being able to hang out with middle aged coworkers at a hotel bar I found... inspiration to read a metric ton of books.
posted by Nanukthedog at 4:18 AM on April 24, 2014

I was going to ask the same thing as bunderful. Could you simply be going through a period of exhaustion? Are you over-worked or stressed in some other area of your life?

Could it be that you just expect too much of yourself? Does your work require you to be focused for extended periods of time? I train students who often complain of having no attention span. I ask them to list out the focused work they did that day. They usually list at least 4-5 hours of "focused" work (reading, writing, coding, marking). But the minute they're too tired to keep going, they panic and cast themselves as having no concentration. Thing is, they do have concentration - they just expect to always be able to concentrate. That's just not humanly possible.

So, are there areas in your life where you (have to) show extreme focus? Is there a way to cut back on that activity so as to have more energy for reading and television?
posted by Milau at 4:35 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Overlap with these earlier threads here and here.

You can try to read Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows". Usage of the Internet is changing our brains. We get a little jolt of neurochemical pleasure from finding new information (we like novelty) so surfing/clicking starts to look like addictive behaviour. Carr said he found that he was losing his ability to concentrate in a sustained way or even read a book. If you read his book, you can see how he dealt with the problem. You can consider meditation as a way of strengthening your ability to focus, and have media-free weekends.

As the other posters have suggested, you might get yourself screened for depression if the issue is inability to concentrate.
Good luck.
posted by PickeringPete at 4:55 AM on April 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

I tend to lose my ability to focus when I'm more stressed out than I realize. My concentration for things like "Arrested Development" is gone, and it's never good if a person can't focus on Gob Bluth.

It's usually a sign I need to slow the fuck down, practice mindfulness exercises and TAKE B-COMPLEX vitamins.

When I do that, I can stay more focused at night.
posted by kinetic at 5:01 AM on April 24, 2014

With the internet and smart phones in addition to TV, movies and books...there are just a LOT of things competing for our attention these days. I noticed you said that you caught yourself checking your phone while watching TV and wondering that is part of the problem? Phones - with their pinging of texts - and Facebook with its constant update feed - can be highly addictive....could it be that you are used to that instantaneous "data hit" and that TV and books are no longer providing that for you?

Why not try an "electronic fast" for a day? Avoid the internet, phone and TV. Try reading books, but don't feel bad if you don't finish or can't get into it. Meet up with friends. Go outside. It may help you decompress - it sounds like this lack of attention span could be due to stress as other have suggested. As for figuring out which books to read, I'd go to the library and taking out a bunch of books that look interesting, but are free to try so you don't feel bad if you don't finish.

I recently when on a weekend retreat where there was no TV or cell phone usage allowed. I was amazed how quickly I found myself able to focus on reading and writing again (but now that I'm back in my day to day life, surrounded by technology I'm back to my old ways. Of course).
posted by Shadow Boxer at 5:21 AM on April 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ancient problem, you're not alone.
Kava - drink it in small amounts before before the activity requiring attention. It will slow the racing in your brain, relax you, and allow you to concentrate. Consult with your doc first.
posted by Kruger5 at 7:07 AM on April 24, 2014

I'm on a big fish-oil kick these days since it really IS brain food. So try that and a good quality multivitamin.

Maybe in the back of your mind when you're watching you're thinking "there's all these other things I should do." Push that away and allow yourself to sink into the show, sink into caring what happens, how the characters must be feeling, and why they're choosing their actions.

When all else fails, read Jane Austen. Her writing is so dense, and yet subtle and so interesting, you have to pay attention or you'll miss major plot points. I find forcing myself to read a chapter or two helps slow me down.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:10 AM on April 24, 2014

Spend time outdoors. Go spend a weekend at a lake somewhere with a stack of books and no technology. Once you have a reset, it's easier to get your everyday life back in balance a bit.
posted by judith at 7:29 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a similar problem, but I found the problem was that I wasn't actually that interested in the show, or book, or whatever. I thought I was into it, and I wanted to be, but in actuality, I totally wasn't. I found other things I was interested in, and my attention span returned.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:31 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I probably recommend Vitamin D for basically everything at this point, but... seriously. One of the things that massive amounts of Vitamin D helped me with was attention span. I can read books again!
posted by Andrhia at 8:00 AM on April 24, 2014

It's totally the internet. Quit the shortest-attention-span/fastest reward parts of your internet life, namely facebook and games like candy crush.

For books, I would ease back in by finding short, engaging novellas, graphic novels, or even poetry, to rebuild the habit of reading.
posted by latkes at 8:02 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

How do you when watching a movie in a theater? Watching plays, musicals, operas, classical music performances? These environments are very easy to focus in because that's part of the idea. You go in, shut off your phone and pay attention to what's on the stage or screen. And ushers (or fellow patrons) will correct you if you take out a phone, are chatting, etc.

Like an earlier answerer I had a stretch of frequent travelling where I started to look forward to flights because they meant I would read more and watch more operas than I could manage otherwise.

If such environments are helpful for you then you can work to create them on your own. Try shutting off or silencing your phone, powerinng off your computer (or only having Netflix/Amazon Prime/whatever open). Maybe read from a physical book or an e-reader without a good web browser/messaging capabilities. Maybe even go to a room/place/chair specifically arranged to help you focus.

That being said I also have found that I have had to listen to my attention span and re-calibrate my selection criteria. Fifteen years ago I raced my sister through The Brother's Karamazov; now there's no way I could read that in a month much less a week. It may be helpful to move away from whatever type/genre/style of book you're used to reading to find what you actually will read.

There are times I start a book and will constantly choose to do something else every day on my commute home. If I force myself to stick to that book as the one I am reading it will just mean I don't read that will be frustrating. There are other books that I start and just want to read every chance I get to the point that I have to tell myself that it's not appropriate to try and read a chapter during a bathroom break. Find what you actually will read and read that, regardless of what you think you should be reading.

If this helps you note that the genre/etc. shift may not be permanent. Once you get in the habit of reading you may find it easier to expand your range again.

This applies to television shows (and movies, etc) as well; don't dismiss the episodic half hour sitcom; watching 22 minutes of a silly meaningless comedy can be more relaxing than fall asleep halfway through an hour-long drama. Watch what you will watch.
posted by mountmccabe at 8:04 AM on April 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I asked a question last week that was tangentially related to this (is not reading books making me dumb?) The answer cloud basically was to stop judging yourself and to try to back off the internet. I also realized a big part of my problem was my stupid stressful job that i hate yet spend the overwhelming majority of my life at, so..stress reduction is a good idea.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:08 AM on April 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think that there is a big difference between now and even 10 years ago in the amount of web and smartphone based media that competes with older media like books, movies, and TV. I read a lot more book in the 1990's because there was nothing good on TV. Even 10 years ago-- 2004-- there were no podcasts, Netflix, smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, etc. and I read more then too.

As noted above, all that stuff is really addictive. One route to try might be to leave your phone at home and head to a coffee shop or park with a book.
posted by Asparagus at 2:45 PM on April 24, 2014

I don't know why either of these things are true, but they work for me:

- if my hands are busy, I can spend kind of unlimited time listening to media. Crocheting or doing other semi-mindless, repetitive actions while listening to podcasts or listening to (and half-watching, or watching off and on, when the action calls for more visual attention) tv is almost meditative. It becomes super immersive and enjoyable.

- using an e-reader has greatly improved my attention span, and I'm back into reading novels in a way I haven't done in over a decade.

Also, getting my first pair of glasses has improved my attention span for anything visual. I knew I needed them, but had no idea how badly, or how much my fuzzy near vision had been messing with my ability to concentrate. You're probably not as dumb as me, and you know whether you can see or not, but I wanted to mention this. "Inability to focus" can have a lot to do with inability to literally FOCUS.
posted by jessicapierce at 10:55 AM on April 25, 2014

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