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In most cases a normal attention span for adults is approximately 15 to 20 minutes, though a lot depends on factors like subject matter, nature of the activity, and time of day. Spans tend to be longer in the mornings and shorter in the evenings, and people often have better attentiveness when it comes to things that interest them. As a general rule, what is “normal” depends a lot on age — infants and young children often have shorter spans, but things tend to increase until they hit a plateau around early adulthood. Then, as people age, things tend to slow down again. Many scholars blame the rise of technology and Internet-based reading for a general decline in attention spans in people who live in highly tech-savvy cultures, and children are often the most impacted by this. Certain medical and psychological conditions also play a role. People with attention deficit disorders, for instance, usually have their own definition of “normal.”
Babies are usually born with a short attention span that is held only for a few seconds for about the first 10 days of life, and from there things often progress at a slow rate that can depend on certain variables. Babies often develop longer attention spans by staring into the face of their parents or caretakers for varying amounts of time, for example, and stimulating activities can encourage longer periods of focus, too. It’s also important to keep in mind that, during the first year of life, each baby is different. Some have short attention spans of only a few seconds and others are able to keep their attention directed for several minutes. Either is considered normal, so long as the child’s cognitive development is otherwise on track.
Considerations for Children
Children who are attending school tend to develop a longer attention span through the activities typically completed in an educational environment. The structure of many school days is designed to provide a diversity of activities and lessons in short “bursts” that children can stay focused on. In many places these bursts are shortest in the younger grades, and progressively lengthen in order to encourage an improved attention span over time.
Girls are usually are equipped with longer attention spans than boys during their school years, though by late adolescence things typically even out. In this sense, it may be “normal” for an 8-year-old girl to have an attention span of 12 minutes, for instance, whereas a boy of the same age might also be considered normal with a span of only 9 minutes. Older students typically continue to develop longer attention spans as they are provided with new experiences and activities.
Adolescents and Young Adults
Things tend to peak in the late teens and early twenties for both genders. People in this stage of life can typically hold their focus on one specific thing without struggling for about 15 to 20 minutes. Of course, this span is usually longer if the activity is interesting to the person; someone may only be able to focus for a little while on a lecture, for instance, but may have no trouble spending hours engaged in films or books that have some sort of personal value.
Young adults are often in the best position to intentionally increase their normal attention span by spending time consciously focusing and spending dedicated time devoted to certain tasks. A lot of this comes down to willpower and drive. A university student may be able to easily focus on her friends for an hour or more, but may have to really talk herself into spending the same amount of time studying or reading for a certain course. Sometimes it makes the most sense to structure studying in short bursts, but in most cases it is possible to lengthen what’s “normal” with practice.
Decline as Part of Aging
Most people experience a shortening of their focus times as they age, too, and this is also considered normal. Elderly people often revert to more infant-like tendencies and often find themselves distracted after only a few moments. This is usually a natural consequence of brain decline and deterioration.
Societal and Cultural Impacts
There are a number of things that can negatively impact attention spans, which in some cases can alter general norms. Technology is one of the biggest. A number of experts think that the large amount of information that is available on the Internet almost instantaneously can reduce an adult's attention span to mere minutes as he or she surfs from website to website. Extreme cases of Internet addiction can reduce the attention span of an adult to less than 10 seconds, though this is rare and is usually also accompanied by a number of different sociological problems.
Ideas of what’s “normal” can also vary depending on a person’s psychological and medical state. Various factors can affect how the attention span develops, including learning difficulties throughout childhood. Medical conditions that affect it include attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Attention can be affected when the focus of the child or adult is placed on small, insignificant details or by the general restlessness caused by ADD and ADHD.
Is a Short Attention Span a Problem?
Sometimes, it’s easy to interpret a short attention span as a problem. For example, having a shorter-than-average attention span can make it challenging to focus on work and might lead others to believe you’re not attentive at all.
However, having a short attention span is not an objective problem. On the contrary, the social model of disability suggests that disability is only a “problem” because the non-disabled world does not accommodate disabled people.
Of course, this is not to say that someone with a low attention span is free from all responsibility for their actions. On the contrary, it’s important to consider how one’s actions affect others.
How Do I Know if I Have a Low Attention Span?
It can be challenging to determine if someone has a short attention span because there is no reliable method for categorizing attention. Human emotions are not always stable, and attention can vary between activities you care about and other tasks that you find boring (it can be easy for someone to watch a movie but challenging to read a book).
The best way to determine if you have a low attention span is to notice how sharp the disparity is between activities you enjoy and those you don’t.
Suppose you find yourself incredibly focused on a few activities like reading but extremely unfocused while doing everyday chores like washing dishes, driving, and making dinner. In that case, you may be experiencing an attention span problem.
Similarly, you should take note of your attention levels during activities that you do enjoy. If you find yourself easily distracted while engaged in hobbies, it may be a sign of an attention-related problem.
Considering your low attention span, consider how difficult it feels to focus. When you are distracted, does the distraction feel mild or insurmountable? It is natural to think of other things while bored, but if you cannot focus, it might be a sign of a short attention span or attention disorder.
How Do I Train My Attention Span?
If you feel like you’re easily distracted and worry that your attention span could be better, there are things you can do to train yourself to focus.
Guided meditation, for example, can be a positive way to increase your concentration, but keep in mind that it takes practice to reap all of the benefits.
Other things you can do to strengthen your mind and attention span include listening to instrumental music while completing mundane tasks such as studying or workday activities, like writing reports or analyzing data.
You can also do attentive reading, where you carve out 20 to 30 minutes every day to read without any distractions. Put your phone on silent mode and grab a book, sit quietly where you won’t be disturbed, and read. Make this a daily habit to improve your ability to concentrate.
Finally, while mental exercise is essential to improving your attention span, so too is physical exercise. Moderate physical activity, like going for a walk or a bike ride, can help the mind relax so it can focus on the activities requiring focus, plus it improves your overall mental and physical health.