Attention span – the ultimate advantage today

13 minutes reading time

A big disadvantage of today’s time is the so-called “fast food” characteristic of the society. You can see it in almost every aspect of life. Not only are fast food restaurant chains thriving, people want to get rich overnight, relationships that last years are a weird thing, and the average person unlocks their mobile phone around 200 times per day and locks it back the next second.

We could describe the elements of the “fast food” disease that people suffer from as the following:

  • I’m a special snowflake; things should come to me easily without any real effort
  • I want things now and I definitely don’t want to wait
  • I want to experience everything very quickly and move on to the next thing as soon as possible
  • I easily get bored or irritated, that’s why I constantly need new stimuli
  • Everything that distracts me helps me keep busy and feel alive

Fast to get, easy to consume and constantly providing something new together with aggressive distracting notifications is what people are addicted to today. Severely addicted. That’s why reality shows, get-rich-quick schemes and mental masturbation articles are thriving.

The “fast food” society brings many problems – from overspending and overeating to shallow relationships and high anxiety levels. But the mother of those problems is absolutely the shortened attention span.

The vicious circle behind it is quite simple. People consume products or do activities that require almost zero effort, including only a short attention span. Not training the discipline muscle and attention span leads to even shorter attention and general low cognitive performance capabilities. Soon you aren’t capable of reading 5 pages of a book without wanting to go to the toilet or checking the fridge.

Attention span is the length of time during which a person is able to concentrate or remain interested in a task or an activity.

Without proactively directed attention for a longer period of time, you can’t do a single thing that really matters in life. You can’t learn new things, you can’t create in the flow, you can’t form deep relationships, you can’t grow and improve, you can’t choose what to focus on, you can’t complete complex projects and you can’t even follow your own goals, nothing.

You can only react to what’s happening in your environment. You can’t be really proactive. That’s why you should go into the opposite direction of the fast food society.

Attention span

Producers have an extremely long attention span

In today’s society, we know two types of people – consumers and producers. Consumers only consume, nothing else. They do the easy things. They spend (borrowed) money, play lottery, entertain themselves on social networks and in clubs, go to a job they hate and hope for better times. They do all the tasks and activities that require a short attention span (or a passive attention span, as we will see).

Consumers and short attention span people have no problem:

  • Talking to a friend over coffee and constantly checking their mobile phone
  • Working for 15 minutes and then starting to gossip
  • Visiting a nice tourist destination, but first taking a selfie
  • Reading an interesting article on the internet and already browsing photos of funny cats
  • Changing partners faster than underwear
  • Buying more and more new products (clothes, cars etc.) because they get bored by the old ones
  • Eating too expensively, daintily, too much or too soon

The average attention span of a human today is 8 seconds. A goldfish has the attention span of 9 seconds.

Producers, on the other hand, are building products, providing services, creating things, forging relationships, innovating, thinking, strategizing, growing, learning, putting together new concepts and providing value to different markets. Producers do all the things that require a long attention span and strong focus. That’s why consumers are getting (mentally) poor and producers are getting rich.

Not to get confused, you have to understand the word producer in a broader sense. Producing is every task that leads to a positive outcome of creating something valuable or beautiful. Producers with a long attention span have no problem:

  • Talking to a person for hours without checking their mobile phone to forge a multidimensional relationship and to really understand the person they’re talking to.
  • Working straight for hours or even days in a flow to create a product, service, piece of art or any other valuable thing.
  • Reading for hours and learning new things and developing their competences.
  • Building strong and everlasting key personal relationships that get deeper and deeper with years.
  • Resisting compulsive buying or emotional eating and instead following their own health, wealth and other goals they have in life.

Producers usually live a happy, fulfilling and rich life. Because they put in the effort. They don’t go for the average and they don’t want to become passive zombies with the attention span of a goldfish.

That’s why you have to become a producer and you have to make sure that you can hold your attention on a single thing for a very long period of time. An extremely strong, focused and long attention span will bring miracles into your life. So let’s look at how to do that.

Passive and active attention span

Have you ever wondered how come you can watch TV, browse the Internet or lie on a beach for hours, but you can’t do the same when you’re working, reading or learning something new? How you can focus all your attention with ease when it’s time to binge watch a TV show, but when you are reading a book you get lost on the second page?

Why is it easy to spend hours in front of the TV, completely focused? It’s because we know two kinds of attention – a passive and an active one. Your attention is always directed onto something, except when you’re sleeping (and even that can be discussed). And you’re always doing something when you’re awake, merely by existing.

Depending on the task you do, you can be physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually or socially actively or passively involved in a task. Being passively involved means that you are only witnessing something, you don’t play a very active role. Your effort in the activity, your contribution is low. You are either hibernating while things are happening around you or you are repeating something that is very familiar to you.

Active attention, on the other hand, requires a lot of effort. It requires focus, presence, involvement, discipline, consistency, activation of all senses, engaging your mental capabilities, and so on. Active attention takes place when you consciously put effort into achieving something meaningful.

Something meaningful means everything that’s connected to why we are here on this planet – to grow (personal improvement), to contribute (create value) and to enjoy life and connect with other people. To grow takes effort, to create takes effort, to connect with people takes effort and to be really happy with yourself and enjoy life takes effort; not only effort, but also a long attention span.

Passive attention – Low effort Active attention – High effort
Low physical, analytical, creative or communicational effort High physical, analytical, creative or communicational effort
  • Procrastinating
  • Repeating routine tasks
  • Small talk
  • Watching TV
  • Reading news
  • Playing video games (not all of them)
  • Participating in a low-quality meeting
  • Feeling sorry for yourself
  • Complaining
  • Being indecisive
  • Checking social media
  • Listening to music
  • Gossiping
  • Small talk
  • Eating quickly prepared low-quality food
  • Browsing the internet
  • Playing email ping pong
  • Instant messaging
  • Playing lotto
  • Spending money
  • Going on a miracle diet
  • Setting and following your own goals
  • Brainstorming and analyzing ideas
  • Creating in the flow
  • Learning new things
  • Developing competences
  • Writing, drawing, programming
  • Organizing & leading a productive meeting
  • Upgrading your mindset
  • Thinking of a solution & following through
  • Making a proactive decision
  • Sharing quality ideas on social media
  • Listening to online courses
  • Really getting to know a person
  • Building a deep and quality relationship
  • Cooking a healthy meal
  • Using the internet to learn new things
  • Replying to an email in the shortest way
  • Meeting new people in real life
  • Starting your own business
  • Saving money
  • Changing your health lifestyle
Consumers Producers

Doing things that require a short attention span is the easy road. Doing things that require a long attention span means undertaking the hard road. And with time, the hard road becomes easy and the easy road becomes hard. That’s why you have to take the hard road and strengthen your attention span.

It may be true that it’s in our genes to do all the things with the short attention span. Nonetheless, easy cognitive activities often bring instant gratification. For example, easy cognitive activities can bring you short-term benefits like:

  • Constant happening that’s driving you away from yourself and the pain of life (constantly checking the mobile phone, gossiping etc.)
  • Instant excess of calories (eating a bag of chips in front of TV)
  • Saving energy – physical, mental (with zero body or brain exercise)
  • Fake feeling of connectedness (having 1000 Facebook friends but no real friends)
  • Getting something for nothing (playing lotto, going on a “miracle” diet)
  • Zero effort fun (playing video games instead of doing sports etc.)

That may all sound like a good deal. But it’s not. It may have been a good deal back in the jungle (where food, people and distractions were rare), but today it’s nothing but a series of bad decisions that lead to a poor quality of life in the long term.

Doing only activities that require a short attention span leads to being broke, fat, doing a job you hate and spending time with people you don’t like. It may be bearable as long as you have enough distractions, but it’s far from the good life you deserve.

The zombie life is bearable as long as you have enough distractions that help you forget about it. That’s why with time, you need more and more activities that require a short attention span.

That’s why you need to slowly move away from activities that require a passive and short attention span to the ones that require a long active attention span. You need to start building up your focusing capabilities. It may be hard at the beginning, but in the long term it will bring you a whole new level of quality of life.

Training your attention span will slowly lead you to easily do things like:

  • Not giving up easily and becoming more resilient
  • Saying no and avoiding any kind of distractions
  • Strategically planning and setting goals with the long-term view
  • Increasing your competence level
  • Brainstorming hundreds of ideas
  • Creating different kinds of products and art
  • Working in a flow for hours day by day, even for weeks on a single task
  • Slicing, managing and finishing complex tasks
  • Better observing what is happening with you (body, mind, emotions, spirit)
  • Better observing what is happening in your environment (trends, people etc.)
  • Making better decisions about your wealth and health
  • Many other benefits

Building up your attention span and doing activities that matter is a good deal today. The best deal you can go for. That’s the deal you should go after. So let’s look at some practical advice on how to build up your attention span.

There is no person in the world with a short attention span who can successfully deal with life challenges that await us all on the life path.

Training focus

How to build your attention span

Now that we know how important attention span is, let’s look at a few core techniques for how to improve it. As long as you’re at least a bit motivated to improve your concentration, it’s not hard to do it. The techniques to build up your attention span fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Get the experience of how awesome it is to be focused and how good results it brings
  2. Make room in your life and get rid of things that are corrupting your attention span
  3. Deliberately practice your concentration abilities with different exercises
  4. Use things that help with concentration

The best advice is to build up attention span naturally with small additions to your life. Start a new hobby you’re obsessed with. Turn off all notifications on your mobile phone. Try to meditate for a few minutes or challenge yourself with a brain game. Add almonds to your snacks.

By doing small activities like these and consequently building up your attention span bit by bit every day, results will accumulate and you will soon become scary focused superhuman. Now let’s dive deeper into these ideas.

1. Find one productive thing you are obsessed with

If you don’t have the experience (or you had it long time ago) of being concentrated and focused and you’re not aware of what magical results an unbreakable attention span can bring, you won’t see any sense in it. You have to feel it in your bones and see concrete results that come with the ability to focus.

That’s why the number one thing I recommend if you suffer from a short attention span in general is to enter the search mode. Try dozens and dozens of different things (that require active attention), including sports, arts, hobbies etc., and find that one thing (the so-called fit) that will ignite a spark in you. Find that one thing that will awaken passion and utter obsession in you.

Because when you find that one thing, your fit, something magical happens. You become more focused and concentrated without even trying to be focused. You just don’t think about it. You want to do it over and over again. Like a video game or watching TV, only that you are actively present.

For example, if you find a hobby you like, you can devote hours and hours of your free time in the afternoons and weekends to it. You don’t have to struggle. You just do it and get lost in the flow. And as you have probably figure it out, watching TV doesn’t count.

Try as many things as possible and don’t give up until you find that one thing that will change your life forever and naturally teach you how to be more focused. Here are some ideas for what to try:

  • Try 10 different sports and find the one that fits you best and you want to do it every day
  • Find a list online of all the hobbies and try a few of them
  • Create something – an article, a poem, a computer program, anything you like and then do it over and over again, day by day
  • Go to a public library and scan all the sections and books until something really draws your attention (it must feel like a magnet) and then read everything on that topic
  • Start an online course on something that has always interested you

The catch is that when you have an experience of being utterly focused on something, you will not only train your attention span, your brain will get a model and an experience that can be transferred to other areas of life. You won’t struggle to focus anymore, but will have an easy time devoting your attention to things for as long as you want.

2. Unplug yourself and simplify your life

A very sad truth is that mobile phones are the number one attention span killers, together with other electronic devices. Technology is like fire. You can cook yourself dinner with it or burn yourself. You want to use technology to your advantage. You have to be smarter than the average user.

How to be smarter than a person with an 8-second attention span?

  • Turn on “do not disturb” when creating in the flow or spending time with other people
  • Turn off notifications on your mobile phone
  • Don’t look at your mobile phone the first and last 60 minutes of your day
  • Delete all mental masturbation apps
  • Check email and social networks only twice a day in bulk
  • Get rid of the mobile phone, like I did
  • Go to regular technology detox sessions

The second biggest executioners of attention span are stress, anxiety and overload. You need to do fewer things and do them in higher quality. No matter how much you train your attention span, it’s still limited. That’s why you have to treat it as a very precious resource. You have to simplify your life and focus on only a few important goals that will really make you successful and happy.

Here are a few ideas for what to do, all leading to increasing your margin in life:

  • Commit to fewer projects and obligations
  • Get rid of toxic people in your life and have a few really quality relationships
  • Cancel unproductive meetings and send fewer emails
  • Use fewer apps, watch fewer TV shows
  • Sell things you don’t use, spend less and disinvest

Build up your attention span

3. Deliberately build up your cognitive endurance and attention span

It’s very easy to deliberately build up your cognitive endurance. You do it with gradual progress. Pick an active attention task you like. If you don’t know which one to do, use the search mode as we discussed. Perform it every day. Make sure you do it for 1 – 10 minutes longer every day. Repeat, and in a few weeks you will be impressed with your progress.

Your attention span is like a muscle. You train it and it gets stronger with time. In the beginning, progress is fast, then it slows down and at some point you reach a plateau.

The good news is that the plateau can be doing a thing from the moment you wake up until late hours for weeks or even months in a row. But you don’t need that. If you learn to concentrate for a few hours daily, you are already 10 – 30 times more capable than the average person.

There are so many ways how you can train attention span muscle. Here are only the most popular ones, you can try to:

  • Read or listen to books
  • Play brain games or chess
  • Perform a new cognitive demanding skill (programming, writing, designing etc.)
  • Meditate
  • Play an instrument
  • Practice yoga
  • Practice observing or mindfulness skills
  • Cook healthy meals

4. Other things that will help you with your attention span

Things that hinder your cognitive abilities also hinder your attention span. Not taking good care of your body and brain hinders your cognitive abilities and consequently your attention span. So take good care of your body and mind, and you will be rewarded with a better ability to focus.

  • Learn to manage your emotions better
  • Use a timer for starting and stopping a certain task
  • Get enough sleep
  • Regularly exercise
  • Drink enough water, at least 2 – 3 liters per day
  • Make sure you don’t get sugar crashes (by overeating sugar or not eating food at all too long)
  • Eat brain foods like nuts, berries, eggs, spinach, salmon and oatmeal
  • Research supplements like Omega 3 Fatty Acid, Ginkgo Biloba and others
  • Have no-interruption days in your calendar

Now, these things are only aids, they won’t do miracles for you, but they absolutely help. They are like food supplements in general, they can’t save a poor diet, but they are a valuable addition to a healthy diet. The good news is that not only your attention span will get better if you follow these suggestions, your overall health and productivity levels will improve as well.


Commit to building the longest attention span in the world

Go into a different direction than everyone else. When people are getting more and more lost in distractions and can’t read or create for 8 minutes straight, do the opposite. Be smarter, work smarter and don’t get seduced by the “fast food” paradigm. It doesn’t do any good with years.

  • Train your attention span so you can easily read a book in a day. And do that several days in a row if necessary. Make sure you have no problem reading a 20-minute article on the internet, like this.
  • Train your attention span so you can work in the flow on a complex task for days or even weeks from early morning until you go to sleep.
  • Train your attention span so you can easily put effort into learning a new skill, even if it takes months of daily hard work and practice.
  • Train your attention span to the point of meditating as long as you want, being completely focused on your body when training and being aware of your emotions all the time.
  • Train your attention span to the point where you can easily talk with a person for hours, completely aware of their words, feelings, movements, actions and other body language responses. Communicate with people not to respond, but to understand.

Commit to building the longest and the strongest attention span of all humans in the world. Regularly train your discipline and regularly train your attention span. Constantly improve. Make sure you can focus proactively on different tasks and activities for as long as you want; all the way until you earn some rest and you can go into a passive mode for a while. But not for too long.

You aren’t a special snowflake. Work hard if you want results in life. And it all starts with the ability to focus.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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