Lapses in concentration and focus can be frustrating: Losing your train of thought mid-conversation, rereading a paragraph three times, finding it hard to follow a movie plot…that sort of thing.
Why is it so hard to concentrate?
Aging is one explanation. “Like a computer that slows with use, the brain accumulates wear and tear that affects processing,” note the editors ofHarvard Health. A lack of sleep can also cause problems with focus, as can conditions such as depression and some medications.
“Information overload,” says Harvard Health. “We are bombarded with information from TVs, computers and messages such as texts or emails.” In one study, office workers were found to be interrupted every11 minutes, taking an average of 25 minutes to get back on task afterwards.
One way to improve concentration is to exercise.
"There is a direct link between exercise and cognitive ability, especially attention," says Kirk Daffner, MD, director of theCenter for Brain/Mind Medicine at Boston’s Brigham and Women's Hospital. "When you exercise, you increase the availability of brain chemicals that promote new brain connections, reduce stress and improve sleep.” (Gohere for yoga poses that may help boost your brain.)
Exercise also helps you keep your weight in check…which, according toresearchers, is another way to support improved concentration.
If you find your lack of focus to be particularly bothersome, visit your practitioner for a checkup. Otherwise try these simple ways to improve your concentration.
Eat to Feed Your Brain
The style of eating favored by people in the Mediterranean region—full of fresh produce, seafood and olive oil—has been linked to better brain health.
Your concentration-support diet should also include avocados, blueberries, dark chocolate, eggs and walnuts.
Spend Time in Nature
Spending too much time at your desk? Try going outside for a while.
“A dose of nature could be just what the doctor ordered when trying to improve your attention span and ability to concentrate,” according toMedical News Today (MNT). “Research has demonstrated that glancing at greenery can markedly boost concentration levels and productivity.”
In fact, scientists have found that justhaving greenery in one’s work area is helpful. If you’d rather not put too much effort into plant upkeep, choose snake, spider or jade plants, all of which have low maintenance requirements.
Practice Mindfulness and Being Present
Sometimes we lose focus when we lose ourselves in the past or project our concerns into the future. But life is lived moment by moment…which makes mindfulness, the ability to focus your awareness on the present, helpful.
When your thoughts wander, try saying to yourself, “Be here now.” In addition, the mental health siteVeryWellMind (VWM) recommends the following exercise: “Start by taking several deep breaths while really focusing on each and every breath. When you feel your mind naturally begin to wander, gently and uncritically guide your focus back to your deep breathing.”
Create an Environment for Concentration
An orderly workspace can make it easier to concentrate.
Start by making sure your chair and desk are comfortable and that your space is lighted properly. Listening to non-intrusive background music can also help.
To deal with emails, texts and other messages, try turning the sound down or even off on your devices for a set period every day, and request that coworkers (or your spouse and/or children, if working from home) not interrupt you during that time. (It’s easier in theory than in fact, but you can at least try.) If you work in an open-plan office, invest in the best pair of headphones you can afford.
“Another alternative is to seek out a calm location where you know you will be able to work undisturbed,” says VWM. “The library, a private room in your house or even a quiet coffee shop might all be good spots to try.”
If you're a student, go here for study tips.
Take Rest Breaks
One way to concentrate at your desk is to get away from it for about 10 minutes or so. Getting a cup of coffee or green tea can help; if coffee cuts into your sleep, try drinking it in the morning only.
Another way to use your rest break is to exercise.
“When we sit for long periods, blood tends to pool in our lower body and legs,” explain the folks atKansas State University (KSU). “Our calves serve as pumps for our blood when we walk, getting blood flowing more evenly throughout the body. As a result, more oxygen is carried to the brain and you are more alert.”
Instead of forcing yourself to focus (the stick), try promising yourself a treat (the carrot).
Rewarding yourself with a healthy treat doing something you enjoy may be what you need to power through.
Specific Tips for Increasing Concentration
Here are other ways to help you maintain focus.
Play video games.Enjoy fighting monsters in cyberspace? “Researchers have discovered that video game use altered the brain regions responsible for visuospatial skills and attention, and made them work more efficiently,” says MNT.
Don’t multitask—prioritize. When it comes to multitasking, “it turns out that people are actually rather bad at it,” says VeryWellMind. Trying to do too much at once “makes it much harder to hone in on the details that are truly important.” Instead, place your most important tasks on top when creating your to-do list.
Use the spider technique. Cause a spiderweb to vibrate and the spider comes out to look; do it often enough and the spider doesn’t bother anymore. “You can learn that,” says KSU. “When someone enters the room, or when a door slams, do not allow yourself to participate. Rather, keep your concentration on what's in front of you.”
Set aside “think time.”Finding it hard to keep a concern or situation out of your mind? Set aside a half hour or so every day as “think time”; When an unwanted thought arises, remind yourself “I have think time for that” and let it go.
Keep track of when your mind wanders.Divide a 3x5” card into three sections—morning, afternoon and evening. Then make a mark in the appropriate section every time you catch your mind wandering away from the task at hand.
Change topics. Try switching between tasks, particularly those that require intense focus (such as drawing up a budget or writing an essay) and those that provide a mental break (such as filing or organizing).
Concentration Takes Practice
Like anything else, “improving concentration is learning a skill,” notes KSU. It requires practice.
The effort, though, is worth it. As KSU puts it, “You'll notice considerable improvement within four to six weeks of training your mind…and that's a short period of time considering how many years you've spent not concentrating as well as you'd like.”
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