The inability to pay attention to things for a period of time is frustrating—and common. Some adults are easily distracted, and cannot focus for too long on one task or idea. Luckily, mental training can improve your ability to concentrate, just as physical training strengthens your body. Here are some techniques to help increase your attention span:

1. Stop Multitasking

For some people, doing several things at once is a point of pride. But it shouldn't be, according to Barbara Ensor, PhD, a Baltimore psychologist who frequently assesses older adults to see if they have the memory and attention span to live alone safely. Beyond simultaneously chewing gum and walking, our brains are not designed to perform multiple tasks at once—and certainly not designed to perform them well. "You're going to do a much better job if you focus on doing one thing, put it down, and [then] go to the next thing," she says.

2. Give Your Mind a Break

As you would rest a muscle after a period of intense exercise, so should you rest your brain. "If you're doing something at the computer, every 20 or 25 minutes do something completely different," Ensor urges. This might be going to get a glass of water, standing and stretching, or reading a poem. "We think the mind can keep on going and going and going, but in truth it can't." When you return to your original task, you'll see your work much more clearly—and may even notice some errors you overlooked.

3. Get Comfortable With Observing

Maybe you feel guilty if you're not doing something "productive." But Ensor insists that it's healthy to simply absorb things, whether it's the sight of a bird building a nest or a really good sporting event on TV. "Allow yourself to sit and look at things," she says. "You're noticing things and paying attention to the here and now. Stop saying, 'I should be doing this or that.' Relaxing and enjoying are part of being healthy."

4. Get Game

Games, in addition to being fun, serve a purpose—they force you to learn and pay attention to rules and regulations. Ensor suggests doing a jigsaw puzzle or playing a board game with others. The key is to find something you enjoy that also offers a bit of a challenge.

Barbara Ensor, PhD, reviewed this article.