9 Ways to Boost Focus and Concentration in Challenging Times
It’s August. And, the state of things is still way up in the air. While there is much to remain deeply grateful for, this unsettledness can be emotionally distracting. And still, amidst the uncertainty, we have our daily responsibilities. There are our families to care for, work to be done, and homes to maintain. A number of mindfulness and other actions can help you improve your focus and concentration:
GIVE YOUR BRAIN REGULAR BREAKS
The first thing to keep in mind is that your brain can only focus for so long. A study led by researchers from the University of Illinois (2011) at Urbana-Champaign found that a short break could improve focus. Your attention span taps out after around 20 minutes. Concentrate for a period of time and then give your brain a 5-minute break. The break could be a short walk, viewing nature from a window, doodling, a funny conversation, a different task to focus on, or a time to do absolutely nothing. Do this throughout the day. It helps beat fatigue and improves concentration. If a 5-minute break isn’t working for you, a 30-second mindful breathing exercise is helpful too.
IMPROVE YOUR ATTENTION WITH MOVEMENT
Exercise improves brain function. Exercise in healthy adults brings behavioral benefits, including significant increments in memory, attention, processing speed, and executive functions (Smith et al., 2010). A quick exercise burst can be one way to spend your regular break. It will increase blood flow to the brain, give your brain a break, and help improve your attention span.
Get away from your desk and do 25 jumping jacks or some light calisthenics. Mindful movement in the form of a walking meditation, yoga, or qigong can help calm the nervous system and increase energy as well. Move in any way that is safe for you. Get medical advice if you need guidance on what moves are right for you.
CULTIVATE FOCUS AND CONCENTRATION WITH MEDITATION
No surprise here that I would highlight meditation, right? Meditation during your regular breaks or at other points in your day can enhance your focus and concentration. Mindfulness meditation is all about learning to be in the moment. What better way to boost your focus and concentration than by bringing your attention to the here and now. A regular meditation practice can be really helpful here. You can do this through a sitting meditation or a moving meditation, like Tai chi. Or, you can engage in mindfulness practices without meditation. Each approach can benefit you.
ORGANIZE AND GET RID OF THE CLUTTER
There’s a pile of clean laundry in the corner, magazines littering the coffee table, books stacked next to the couch, scattered toys, random piles of mail and paper on your desk, and maybe just a mess in general. For some, this might not be a difficult environment to work in at all. For others though, a scattered environment means a scattered mind. It overloads the brain and makes it difficult to focus and concentrate, shortening your attention span. Clutter is also associated with procrastination. If that’s you, to the extent possible under these circumstances, assign everything a home and ensure that everything is in its place unless it’s in use.
ELIMINATE SOUND DISTRACTIONS
How many times a day are you distracted by the ubiquitous sounds from your mobile phone? When circumstances allow, turn off the notifications. If you need to keep your notifications on, an informal mindfulness practice could involve observing your response when you hear the notification. Do you reflexively reach for the phone when you hear it? (You might even notice that you reflexively reach for the phone when by a certain thought, person, or situation triggers you.) On the other hand, do you carry on with what you are doing and get to it in due time?
Training yourself not to react automatically to electronic distractions could reduce interruptions in your day and increase your focus and concentration. What about the noise from the room or the office next to you? A white noise machine or headphones might be helpful when there is so much noise around you that it is distracting you from your work or other tasks.
DISCERN WHAT’S WORTHY OF YOUR ATTENTION
Do you know what’s important about focus? Knowing what is (or isn’t) worth your attention (or distraction). Setting priorities and boundaries can help you decide what is worthy of your attention or not. Be mindful of whether your attention is focused on your agenda or someone else’s agenda. If it is focused on someone else’s agenda, is that a conscious decision on your part? Of course, in many cases, when we are focused on someone else’s agenda, it is because we are being paid to do so. Nevertheless, even within that context, there are myriad ways in which we can (without realizing it) unnecessarily abandon our own agency and priorities. Click here to read more about what I’ve said on setting priorities and boundaries.
FOCUS YOUR ATTENTION ON WHAT YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH
As you’re deciding what is worthy of your attention, set daily goals. Setting daily goals can help you identify where you should focus and concentrate. Most people focus on setting long-term goals and don’t give much consideration to what they want to get done in the short-term. To improve focus and concentration, have daily goals as well. You could start your day writing down for yourself your key priorities for the day or end the day writing down your intentions for the next day.
If the activities of your day tend to be dictated by someone else’s priorities, you are more likely to get to some or all of your priorities if you have a clear idea of what they are at the outset of the day. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to focus on them. Be realistic though. You set yourself up to succeed when you learn to focus on what you can accomplish in a day.
ADJUST THE ROOM TEMPERATURE TO INCREASE COMFORT
Are you uncomfortable? It can be really hard to concentrate when the room temperature is too warm or too cold. The ideal temperature for productivity is not the same for everyone. If you can’t control the thermostat, then dress appropriately – pull out the fan or a warm sweater.
GET A GOOD NIGHT SLEEP
Last but certainly not least, get a good night sleep. If you don’t, you are not alone. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 2013) estimates that at least one-third of adults in the United States do not get a good night sleep. Lack of enough sleep affects brain function, memory, and ability to concentrate. When you are sleep-deprived, your ability to listen attentively or to make sound decisions is also impaired.
My upcoming mindfulness courses below can also help you slow down, manage your stress, and improve your focus and concentration.