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Attention span


Your attention span is your ability to focus on something, like a person or a task at hand. It’s both natural and learned, and it’s something you can work on to improve and extend.

It’s very common to sometimes find it hard to pay attention. If you’ve taken a break from study, or if you’re a new student, it’s important to give yourself time to learn how to pay attention again. It’s also increasingly hard to pay attention in our modern digital world where we are surrounded by apps, screens and technologies. Distractions are everywhere!

There are other things that can affect your ability to pay attention, such as lack of sleep, stress, poor diet and stimulants (drugs such as caffeine).

Many students think they need to study for long periods of time to complete their university tasks and perform well. This can be counterintuitive – it might result in you becoming disengaged from your work. You might not actually be absorbing or processing the information (this is why cramming isn’t an effective study technique). Sometimes we need to give our brains a break – your attention span does not go on forever.

So, successful study means paying attention for short periods of time, punctuated by short breaks.

What to do

Practicing paying attention might sound silly but it’s the best way for you to improve and extend your attention span. You can:

  • Prioritise your tasks into a to-do list and then break up each task into smaller, more manageable chunks.
  • Tackle each chunk in a short burst (10-15 minutes) and then take a short break afterward.
  • Try and include some physical movement in your short break (a walk or a stretch can help!) or at least get up from your desk and do something different.
  • Eventually make the bursts of work slightly longer (20-25 minutes).

It can also help to have a study routine where you set aside time each day for your classes and unit readings, as well as the rest of your life commitments. Giving yourself a window of 2-3 hours for study each day is preferable to scheduling a whole, long day of 8-10 hours of study.

Paying attention is difficult if you are distracted. Your study space should be quiet, comfortable, well-lit and away from other people who might be noisy or distracting. You can use headphones with music or white noise when you’re studying.

It’s also hard to concentrate if you’re tired or stressed. It’s hard to overstate the importance of sleep: many students don’t get enough and try to compensate with coffee or energy drinks that are overstimulating. Aim for 8 hours per night, switch off your devices well before bed, and move your body outside in the daytime.

Getting support

In addition to the lifestyle changes suggested above, if you’d like to talk to someone, you can make an appointment with Deakin's Counselling service. Our counsellors can help you identify why you might be struggling to pay attention, and the changes you can make to your lifestyle and routine that will help you focus. There are some disorders and conditions that can make it difficult for you to pay attention, such as ADHD, autism or mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression – you might benefit from some mental health support.

You could make an appointment with the Deakin Medical Centre for a check-up and a chat.

Our Study assistance team is experienced in helping students become effective at managing their time and staying focused on their goals. They can offer advice on how to study effectively, tailored to your needs.

More help and advice

A popular study method is called the Pomodoro Technique. It can help you improve your ability to focus and complete small tasks effectively. You can search for apps online that use this technique.

There are hundreds of other apps that will help you focus and increase your productivity. Here are some suggestions:

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