How to Help Patients Improve Sustained Attention

You may have patients who struggle with different types of attention. One that proves difficult for many people is maintaining sustained attention. Sustained attention refers to the ability to maintain focus for a long period of time. This skill is needed to complete tasks such as doing homework, writing a letter, cooking, driving, and many other day-to-day activities.

Our modern world has many distractions discouraging sustained attention, such as phone notifications and social media.  If you have a smartphone, you’re probably familiar with push notifications, and how easily they can distract you and derail your train of thought. Checking these notifications becomes an ingrained habit that is hard to break. When we’ve been using a smartphone for years, shifting our attention between many little stimuli from our devices becomes a normal part of the day. We may not even realize how easily distracted we are day to day! When we engage with smartphones and other distracting media regularly, we may notice a shift in our ability to maintain sustained attention.

sustained attention

Many people experience this, and it can be frustrating. Patients with autism, ADHD, or a TBI may struggle to stay focused even more than most. 

Here are a few tips for helping patients improve sustained attention skills!

Make a plan

Patients may have trouble with activities that require sustained attention. A few examples are completing work tasks, doing housework, and even participating in therapy with you. Struggling with the ability to focus can cause frustration in their lives. For example, friends or family may get impatient with them, they may fall behind at work or school, or they may not being able to achieve personal goals. 

As their therapist, one of the ways you can help them through these challenges is to make a plan for practicing sustained attention. Patients may benefit from strategies such as:

  • Limiting how often they switch tasks
  • Leaving their phone in a different room while trying to complete specific tasks, such as housework or computer tasks.
  • Setting alarms throughout the day to let them know when it’s time to change tasks
  • Planning strategic breaks – i.e. “I can take a 30-minute break once I complete this task.”
  • Aiming to focus on one screen during leisure time – for example when watching tv, avoid looking at your cell phone.
  • Completing cognitive exercises that work on sustained attention.
  • Trying meditation, which could strengthen focus when practiced regularly.
  • Limit social media time through phone settings (this way their phone will send them a warning when they’ve been on social media for a long time).

Exercise attention skills

Cognitive exercises, such as those offered by HappyNeuron, may improve a patient’s sustained attention skills when practiced regularly. Attention exercises stimulate the part of the brain involved in these skills. Of course, patients should complete these exercises regularly over time to achieve noticeable results. If completed regularly, cognitive exercises may lead to improved sustained attention skills!

Encourage self-awareness techniques 

One of the hardest parts of improving sustained attention is simply recognizing that you are distracted. A patient may not realize that they’ve gone off-task. Encouraging patients to practice self-awareness techniques and checking in with themselves can be helpful. These techniques could include paying attention to the breath, and checking back with a to-do list.

Meditation is a great way to practice self-awareness. During mindfulness meditation, the patient would try to pay attention to only their breath for as long as possible. If their thoughts drift (which is completely normal!), then they are encouraged to gently guide their thoughts back to the breath.

If patients learn to become aware that they are distracted, they can then practice ignoring the distracting stimuli, and coming back to the task at hand more quickly.

Teach breathing techniques 

Meditation is great for practicing sustained attention, but there are other breathing techniques that can be helpful in the moment. If the patient finds themselves becoming distracted, for example if they find themselves playing a game on their phone instead of completing schoolwork, they can try the following technique. Take a deep breath into your belly, and let it out slowly. Do this again a few times. Studies have shown that diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, may lower cortisol levels to decrease stress and promote improved sustained attention.


Maintaining a healthy attention span is hard for many people in the modern world, and can be especially difficult for people with cognitive conditions. If your patient is struggling with this, they certainly aren’t alone! Making a plan for how to complete tasks that can easily be derailed by distractions, in combination with exercising attention skills through cognitive therapy, self-awareness techniques, and breathing techniques may be a great recipe to improve sustained attention.

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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