One of the foundational cognitive functions that can be impacted by an attention deficit diagnosis, brain injury, or concussion is attention. An attention deficit can manifest in many different ways; if you don’t or can’t pay attention in the first place, how can you expect to remember? Very frequently, when people have difficulty with memory, the problem comes down to poor attention… because they are limited in the ability to sufficiently pay attention to the information to encode it in the first place!
There are several different kinds of attention, and each requires different brain functions. Different authors and researchers use different terms and definitions, but the below list covers the main categories:
- Focused attention: being able to single out one thing to pay attention to
- Sustained attention: being able to pay attention to one thing for an extended period of time
- Selective attention: paying attention to one thing and ignoring others
- Alternating attention: switching attention back and forth between mental tasks
- Divided attention: doing several things at once
- Concentration: doing mental work while paying attention
The symptoms of poor attention can present in a variety of ways; some that you might not expect. If you consider the fact that attention is the foundation on which our other thinking functions are built, however, it makes sense that we would see issues such as distraction, messy or careless work, being prone to mistakes, stopping tasks to focus on or switch to something irrelevant, disorganization, procrastination, poor memory and forgetfulness, and not listening to other people as attention-related issues. Consider this example: if someone doesn’t have the attention skills to enter an appointment into their calendar and double check to be sure that they got the details right, how will they ever remember to attend?
How to Improve Attention?
7 methods of improving attention:
- Control your environment. If you know that you struggle to focus on one thing at a time, remove all distractions! Tidy your environment, turn off the music, make sure you aren’t hungry or thirsty, make sure your workstation is reasonably comfortable, use noise-cancelling headphones, don’t work with your dog on your lap, and put away your phone.
- Keep things organized! An organized home and workspace will make a significant difference in the ability to sustain attention. If your space is organized (including your cupboards, computer folders, backpack or purse, binders, etc.) there is less to distract you. A kitchen table covered in papers and folders is much more distracting than a clear table with only the one item you need.
- Figure out which of the activities you are struggling with is the most important to you, and practice it for gradually increasing amounts of time. For example, if you are easily distracted while writing emails (and it’s important to you to improve that skill), start to practice responding to emails in 5-minute increments. Set an alarm, and make sure you stop and take a break when it rings. Over time, gradually increase the duration of your practice sessions. Use your distraction symptoms as a signal that you are practicing for too long. For example, if your mind starts to wander after 10 minutes, practice in increments of 8 minutes, then 9, then try 10 again. The idea is to increase your brain’s tolerance to the activity – much like increasing your walking or running distance!
- Practice focus meditation. Focus meditations activate a part of your brain called the anterior cingulate. This part is responsible for focussing and sustaining attention. A focus meditation is essentially practicing paying attention to something!
- Alternate tasks. Instead of expecting yourself to pay attention for a solid hour, give yourself the flexibility to alternate between tasks. Set an alarm and study for 20 minutes, then take a 5-minute break to stand up and stretch, then resume the study task.
- Work out! Increasing your physical activity has been shown to improve attention skills.
- Set up accountability. If you need help getting organized or staying focussed, consider asking a loved one to sit with you while you do your work. Their job is not to do the work for you but to sit with you and remind you to stay on task when you are distracted. If you are struggling to pay attention while doing homework, an online study group might be a good choice. You might also consider posting on social media to put gentle pressure on yourself to follow through with your goals!
Although attention deficits can be very challenging, there are tools, therapy modalities and strategies that can help!
Are you struggling with attention skills? Our team of clinicians is here to support you! Contact us if we can help.