Finding yourself easily distracted and prone to daydreaming? You have plenty of company; many people find it difficult to maintain steady focus.
Aging is one explanation for an inability to concentrate. “Like a computer that slows with use, the brain accumulates wear and tear that affects processing,” note the editors of Harvard Health.
A lack of sleep can also cause problems with focus, as can conditions such as depression and some medications. Another factor? “Information overload,” says Harvard Health. “We are bombarded with information from TVs, computers and messages such as texts or emails.”
If you find your lack of focus to be particularly bothersome, visit your practitioner for a checkup. Otherwise, you should first make any needed lifestyle improvements.
You may need to exercise more. "There is a direct link between exercise and cognitive ability, especially attention," says Kirk Daffner, MD, director of the Center 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.”†
You may also want to change your diet. 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, as have eggs and blueberries. Staying hydrated helps, too.†
Have you tried lifestyle changes and still need help? Fortunately, you can build focus like you build muscle—by working at it. Here’s how.
Order Your Environment
The way you set up your workspace can have a big impact on your ability to focus.
“Start by ensuring that your chair and desk are at the right height for you to work comfortably,” advise the folks at MindTools.com. “If your chair is too high or your desk is too low, you'll be uncomfortable.” They also suggest putting up some pictures: “Viewing a natural scene or watching wildlife can help improve concentration.”†
Research suggests that listening to nature sounds or music (specifically Baroque classical, at least in one study) may also help you concentrate.† If classical isn’t your thing, go with something like ambient music, which is designed to be unobtrusive, and keep it low and in the background.
The modern workplace (or even the modern home) is rife with distractions, from endless emails to noisy corridors.
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 the team at VeryWellMind.com. “The library, a private room in your house or even a quiet coffee shop might all be good spots to try.”
Sometimes, however, the biggest source of distraction is your own mind.
“Many of us have trouble concentrating during the day because we're constantly worrying about other things,” says MindTools. “If you find yourself distracted by worries, then note these down so that you don't need to hold them in your mind. Then schedule time to deal with these issues.”
Think you’re good at doing a lot of things at once? You may want to reconsider.
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.”
So how do you get everything done?
“Take 10 or 15 minutes to prioritize your to-do list,” suggests MindTools; you should schedule those items that require the most effort for when you’re feeling most alert.
Try switch between tasks, particularly those that require intense focus and those that provide a mental break.
“For instance, if you spend two hours working on your department's budget, you'll probably feel tired afterward,” says MindTools. “You can recharge your energy by working on a low-attention task, like filing, for 15 minutes before going back to your budget.”
Take a Break
One way to concentrate at your desk is to get away from it for about 10 minutes or so.
VeryWellMind notes that it’s difficult to maintain intense focus for long periods because of “the brain's tendency to ignore sources of constant stimulation. So the next time you are working on a prolonged task, such as preparing your taxes or studying for an exam, be sure to give yourself an occasional mental break.”
The best breaks include movement. “If you're like many people, you probably don't move around enough,” says MindTools. “Research has shown that regular walking can help increase your focus during the day.”†
Have Black Coffee or Green Tea
If you’re going to get up anyway, try walking to the kitchen or break room for a cup of coffee or tea.
Research suggests that caffeine really does help sharpen focus.† If it cuts into your sleep, you can either skip it or have it only in the mornings. (Caffeine is also found in dark chocolate.)
One advantage of green tea is that, in addition to caffeine, it contains a substance called L-theanine, which has been found to enhance relaxation without inducing drowsiness.†
Spend Time in Nature
Is there a spot of greenery near your workspace? Consider taking a walk there: Research indicates that spending time in natural settings helps ease brain fatigue while bolstering concentration.†
In fact, scientists have found that just having 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.
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—a way to gently lead yourself out of daydreams and back to the task at hand.
Research indicates this approach is helpful. VeryWellMind cites a study in which people were asked to “engage in simulations of the sort of complex multitasking they engaged in each day at work.” Participants who received eight weeks of training in mindfulness meditation not only “showed improvement in concentration and focus” but also “were able to stay on task longer, switched between tasks less frequently and performed the work more efficiently.”†
Not interested in taking eight weeks of mindfulness training?
VeryWellMind recommends the following simple 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.”
You can also try deliberately training yourself to focus. For example, neuropsychologist Kim Willment, PhD, of Brigham and Women's Hospital suggests reading “something for 30 minutes, setting a timer to go off every five minutes. When it goes off, ask yourself if your mind has wandered. If so, just refocus on what you're reading.”
Play a Game
Many people work crossword, jigsaw or sudoku puzzles, play chess or decode word scrambles or searches in an effort to maintain concentration and memory, and evidence suggests these activities may be helpful.†
Video games may also aid concentration. One review of 116 studies found that gaming led to changes in brain structure and function that included increased focus and attention.†
†The information provided is not an endorsement of any product, and is intended for educational purposes only. NaturesPlus does not provide medical advice and does not offer diagnosis of any conditions. Current research on this topic is not conclusive and further research may be needed in order to prove the benefits described.
The conditions and symptoms described may be indicative of serious health problems, and therefore should be brought to the attention of a qualified healthcare practitioner.
Like this article? You’ll love our weekly newsletter
sign up here!
**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.