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Our lives are full of distractions, especially in today’s tech-driven culture. Even if you know the fundamentals behind how to focus, when you’re one click away from a shopping spree or your favorite television show, staying on task and completing all of your tedious daily to-dos can be challenging.
To avoid frustration while multitasking and to help prevent procrastination, research shows practical ways to improve your attention span when you really need to focus. But first, let’s take a look at why we lose focus in the first place.
Why do you lose focus?
Most of us have no trouble focusing on things that are highly entertaining. But when tasks become tedious, even our most important tasks, our minds are more likely to zone out. Mind-wandering is a common human trait that finds blame in a person’s failure to control their own thought processes (Seli, 2018).
But if it’s a failure, then it’s a common one. One clever real-world study involving 2,250 people pinged them randomly during the day via a phone app to determine what they were doing. Nearly 47% of the time, their minds were just wandering. Interestingly, when they were zoned out, these people reported being less happy. The researchers concluded that a wandering mind is not present in the moment and comes with emotional baggage: unhappiness (Killingsworth, 2010).
How to be happy: 6 science-backed ways to cultivate happiness
Another study’s results show that our minds seem to wander more when we’re in an unhappy mood (Smallwood, 2011). Also, recent research confirms other studies that find people with symptoms of depression, or who are more likely to brood, mind-wander more often (Nayda, 2021).
How to focus and improve concentration
While some psychologists say mind wandering is not only normal and common but important for a healthy brain—because it allows the mind to think about past and present experiences to help with future planning—it can still be a nuisance when you have a lengthy to-do list to get through (Ottaviani, 2013).
There are several things you can do to improve your ability to focus, from simple tips to more challenging lifestyle changes. First, let’s focus on tips that are easier to implement:
1. Remove distractions
It may seem obvious that to focus on one thing, you might want to remove other distractions. Typical advice includes ignoring phone calls and text messages, listening to background music, or shutting yourself into a quiet room to eliminate background noise. But what does science say?
It’s no surprise that when people try to concentrate on reading while at the office, they do better if it’s silent than if other people are talking (Sörqvist, 2015). But how well any of us can focus partly depends on how hard a task is. If something is easy, we’re easily distracted by other sounds. If a task is difficult, our attention is drawn in, and we can effectively become deaf to outside sounds (Raveh, 2015).
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How you remove distractions will depend on the environment you’re in, but here’s a great tip: Consider batch-processing emails and other electronic messages (i.e., reading them all at once) rather than dealing with them as they come in.
The pressure to multitask at work, particularly the constant juggling of emails among other tasks, creates an “onerous mental load,” according to one study, and people who work this way have higher levels of stress and sadness in comparison to those who multitask less (Blank, 2020).
2. Take short breaks
Distractions have their place, however, as long as you focus on the right sort of distraction—like short breaks—at the right time.
Working on one thing for a long time leads to less productivity. Scientists are still working out why, but one idea is that the brain stops registering constant inputs from the same thing you’re looking at or dealing with.
The results of a study on the effectiveness of taking short breaks show that after splitting people into two groups, the group that did a task for 50 minutes saw a decline in performance, but the other group, which took two short breaks, saw no performance decline (Ariga, 2011).
What to do during your breaks? Step away from the screen and consider taking a brisk walk or engaging in another form of physical activity—more on that in a second.
Walking meditation: what is it, benefits, techniques
3. Get more physical activity
Physical activity improves physical health and mental well-being. Just about any sort of exercise that gets your blood pumping and your breathing going improves mood, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves the quantity and quality of sleep (American Heart Association, 2017; Chekroud, 2018).
One study’s results, in particular, illustrates the power of exercise on the ability to focus and get things done:
Researchers split 132 sedentary people, ages 20 to 67, into two groups. One group did moderate aerobic exercise four times a week for six months, while the other did not. Then they were all tested on executive function—the ability to focus attention, remember instructions, multitask and make plans.
Across all age groups, those who exercised did much better. Amazingly, the exercisers who were about 40 years old tested as though they were roughly 10 years younger, and the 60-year-old exercisers tested as if they were 20 years younger (Stern, 2019).
And you don’t need six months for the positive effects of exercise to pay off. Even short bouts of exercise can have an immediate impact. A review of research on the effects of exercise on young adults shows that just two minutes of walking, running, or bicycling improved their ability to learn and remember things on various mental tests (Blomstrand, 2021).
10 benefits of regular exercise
4. Sleep better
Physical activity will also help you sleep, another thing that’s very important for concentration. Getting enough sleep is crucial for allowing your brain to combine what it’s learned and form long-term memories (Diekelmann, 2014).
The negative effects of a lack of sleep are well established. In fact, according to the results of one study, skipping sleep for just one night can make it hard for you to focus on information when you are faced with distractions (Wiggins, 2018). Another recent study backs up that research and shows that people with insomnia find it more difficult to focus (Miller, 2021).
The many ways to improve your sleep include exercising more, avoiding alcohol and caffeine at the end of the day, skipping highly stimulating or violent movies or books before bedtime, and eating well.
5. Eat well
There’s no shortage of “brain food” articles that promise to boost your wits and help you focus. But in reality, there’s little, if any, research to suggest that a handful of blueberries or a salmon dinner will suddenly improve your focus. Instead, experts say, it’s important to eat a balanced diet that supplies the many, many nutrients the brain needs to function well (Martínez García, 2018).
In particular, research shows a style of eating often referred to as the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes and light on animal fats, improves attention and boosts overall brain health. The typical Western diet—high in saturated fats and refined sugars, and low on fruits and vegetables—is thought to be bad for the brain (Martínez García, 2018).
Mindfulness: what it is, types, benefits
6. Try some mindfulness exercises
The very idea behind mindfulness exercises and mindfulness meditation offers a clue to how they can help with focus: Mindfulness is all about focusing your attention in the present moment by getting into a relaxed state of being aware of yourself and the sounds and other sensations inside and around you.
A range of mindfulness exercises, from simple DIY strategies to expert-led sessions, can reduce stress and improve overall mental wellness. Mindfulness training can also improve overall ability to pay attention, with one study showing that 10-minute mindfulness meditation sessions improve attention skills among people who have never meditated before (Chiesa, 2011; Norris, 2018).
Finally, let’s look at one of the best ways to improve focus, even if mastering the skill might be challenging.
7. Avoid multitasking
A lack of focus might involve daydreaming or general distractedness. But because of things like social media, purposeful or unintentional multitasking can cause a serious lack of focus.
The hard truth is that most of us can’t really multitask well—our attention shifts rapidly from one thing to the other and back, rather than successfully doing two things at once. Putting this idea into practice, researchers put people in a driving simulator and asked them to do a second task while driving. Only 2.5% of them did both tasks without some performance loss, and most showed significant performance decline (Watson, 2010).
Additionally, brain scans reveal that when we try to do two things at once, the brain divides its resources in half—each hemisphere focusing on one task—and does not give full attention to either. And a third task causes people to keep forgetting one of the three tasks (Charron, 2010).
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So, while it may feel like you’re getting a lot done, it’s likely that your work is actually taking you longer when you multitask due to a lack of focus.
Let’s end on a positive note, too: People might be able to learn to multitask more successfully. After a week of multitasking practice, some of the 100 people in a lab setting improved their ability to do two things at once. Whether each person did better depended on how effectively an area deep in their brain called the putamen (which is involved in habitual behavior) communicated with outer regions of the brain (Garner, 2020).
When a lack of focus is a serious problem
The inability to focus may indicate an underlying physical or mental health condition like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If you experience any of the following symptoms—especially if they start or worsen rather suddenly— consider seeing a healthcare provider (Magnus, 2021):
- Struggle to finish routine tasks and chores
- Regularly misplace important things
- Make more errors on routine daily tasks
- Make frequent bad decisions
If you think you’re good at juggling tasks simultaneously and you’re happy with your results and your mental health, multitasking may continue to serve you well. But if you find the constant starting, stopping, and switching of tasks exhausting, then using one (or more) of the tips above may be the secret to helping you focus better.
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.