Attention span is the amount of time that a person can concentrate on a task without becoming distracted. Most educators and psychologists agree that the ability to focus one’s attention on a task is crucial for the achievement of one’s goals.
Length of the span
Estimates for the length of human attention span are highly variable and depend on the precise definition of attention being used.
- Focused attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that attracts attention. The attention span for this level is very brief, with a maximum span, without any lapse at all, that may be as short as 8 seconds. This level of attention is attracted by a ringing telephone, or other unexpected occurrence. After a few seconds, it is likely that the person will look away, return to a previous task, or think about something else.
- Sustained attention is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. If the task is handling fragile objects, such as hand-washing delicate crystal glasses, then a person showing sustained attention will stay on task and will not break any dishes. A person who loses focus may break a glass or may stop washing the dishes to do something else. Most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 40 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to “pay attention” to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies.
Attention span, as measured by sustained attention, or the time spent continuously on task, varies with age. Older children are capable of longer periods of attention than younger children.
For time-on-task measurements, the type of activity used in the test affects the results, as people are generally capable of a longer attention span when they are doing something that they find enjoyable orintrinsically motivating. Attention is also increased if the person is able to perform the task fluently, compared to a person who has difficulty performing the task, or to the same person when he or she is just learning the task. Fatigue, hunger, noise, and emotional stress reduce time on task. Common estimates for sustained attention to a freely chosen task range from about five minutes for a two-year-old child, to a maximum of around 20 minutes in older children and adults.
After losing attention from a topic, a person may restore it by taking a rest, doing a different kind of activity, changing mental focus, or deliberately choosing to re-focus on the first topic.