What to Know About Short Attention Spans

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 09, 2021

Your attention span is how long you can focus on something or spend on a task before you need a break or get distracted. While everyone gets distracted from time to time, those with short attention spans frequently have trouble focusing on tasks and conversations.

Signs of a Short Attention Span

The main sign of a short attention span is having a hard time focusing on tasks. This can be frustrating since it may seem to others that you don’t care about the task. But having trouble focusing or having a mind that wanders is not the same as being defiant or not caring.  ‌

Signs of a short attention span also include:

  • Making careless mistakes 
  • Trouble reading long texts 
  • Seeming not to listen 
  • Leaving tasks partially done 
  • A hard time managing time or keeping materials organized 
  • Forgetting activities or appointments

Short Attention Span Causes

Sometimes a short attention span is a temporary response to extra stress or stimulation in your life. But if it lasts, it may be a sign of an attention disorder or mental health condition. Depending on how short attention span shows up, it may be a sign of one or more of these conditions:

ADHD. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD) may be the cause of your short attention span if you often feel restless, agitated, or fidgety when trying to focus on a task. Some people with ADHD also have hyperactivity, the need for movement. If you go too long without moving, you may have trouble focusing. 

Another symptom of ADHD is impulsivity, making decisions without thinking them through. You may want results immediately and struggle to wait for rewards or gratification. You may also often interrupt others during conversations.

Anxiety. If you’re often distracted by questions of “Why?” and “What if?” when you try to tackle a task, your short attention span might be caused by an anxiety disorder

Depression. If you feel blank, numb, or low- energy, depression may be the cause of your short attention span. While depression can show up in many different ways, it may cause a short attention span if your brain doesn’t allow you to focus like you want to. This can make your depression worse and lead to other symptoms.  ‌

Learning disorders. A short attention span may be a sign of a learning disorder such as dyslexia. This is because the task of reading, writing, or speaking is more difficult for you. 

Sensory processing disorder. If your short attention span is mainly due to a distracting sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste, you may have a sensory processing disorder. This makes you extra sensitive to ordinary simulation. This can make it hard to focus unless you’re in a controlled environment. 

Trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder ( PTSD) can also cause a short attention span. That’s because PTSD activates your body’s survival, or “fight or flight” mode, so your brain can’t focus on tasks.

Challenges of a Short Attention Span

A short attention span isn’t necessarily bad for your health. But it can affect your personal, professional, and social life. That’s because:

  • Overlooking details or making seemingly simple mistakes may make you seem careless to others.
  • If you have a hard time keeping up a long conversation or taking turns, you can look impatient or uncaring. 
  • Failure to finish a task may make you seem thoughtless or lazy. 
  • When you have problems with time management and organization, you may not finish projects on time. 
  • Complex tasks that require lots of focus may seem daunting or impossible.
  • You can waste time or money trying to find or replace items you misplace.‌

Addressing a Short Attention Span

If you have trouble paying attention to projects or tasks, you may need to make a conscious effort to address the problem. For starters, try to notice how long it takes before you get distracted or lose attention. 

For example, one study of university students showed that they studied for only six minutes before taking a break. For people who struggle with an attention span disorder, 30 minutes may be the longest you can truly focus on a task before you become less effective.

Instead of forcing yourself to focus on a task for a long time, take breaks as you need them. Get up and walk around, which lets you move around and get a change of scenery. Then come back to your task and commit to focusing for another short session. Over time, you can train your brain to focus for longer periods.

If any of these symptoms of a short attention span seem familiar, talk to your doctor. They can refer you to therapies or medications to help you feel more in control of your focus.

Show Sources


American Psychological Association: “APA Dictionary: Attention Span,” “Boosting productivity.”

‌Child Mind Institute: “Attention.”

‌Harvard Health Blog: “More than sad: Depression affects your ability to think.” 

‌LD Online: “Symptoms of Learning Disabilities.”

‌National Institute of Mental Health: “Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.”

‌UC Santa Cruz Counseling & Psychological Services: “Anxiety Disorders.”

‌Understood: “The difference between sensory processing issues and ADHD.”

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