It’s 9:00 am on a Monday, and you’re ready to start the week. You’ve written a to-do list, brewed yourself a nice cup of coffee, and turned on the computer.
And then, your mind starts to wander:
“Did I feed the cat?”
“Should I get takeout or eat in tonight?”
“Is it true that plants can communicate with each other?”
Why is it so hard to stay on task and stay focused, especially when you have to do something boring, unpleasant, or just plain difficult? The answer, of course, depends on specific factors like your age, health status, psychological and physiological stressors, and more.
Individuals with ADHD have distinct brain chemistry that interferes with their ability to concentrate. Older adults usually have more difficulty tuning out distractions as a result of normal, age-related cognitive decline. And conditions like depression, anxiety, and insomnia, can also undermine your ability to stay focused.
Unfortunately, concentration is not something that you can force. It’s not really about willpower, either. You can spend hours sitting at your desk, resisting every temptation to walk away from your work, and still get nothing done at the end of the day. Like any muscle, it takes time and effort to train your brain, but with some practice, you can work towards building a razor-sharp focus and attention span.
Here’re 6 effective strategies to help you get started on a path to better concentration.
Identify triggers and distractions
It may sound obvious, but the first step to improving your mental focus is to identify any distractors that may be hijacking your productivity.
It’s easy to underestimate just how many distractions keep you from staying on task. People tend to think of diversions in terms of big disruptors — like the banging hammering of a construction site across the street, or a radio blaring in the background. But even small intrusions, which often go unnoticed, can quickly do away with your attention.
Phone notifications are one concentration’s worst enemies. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers found that cell phone notifications, including banners, sounds, and even vibrations, can disrupt attention and trigger task-irrelevant thoughts. Interestingly, the researchers found that participants who received push notifications — even if they didn’t immediately respond or interact with their mobile device — were three times more likely to make a mistake on the task at hand than those who didn’t.
So, what can you do if your cell phone notifications are distracting you even when you ignore them? For one, you can permanently or temporarily disable your notifications. You could also turn off your phone while you are working. And if shutting off those pesky attention suckers is not really an option for you, consider using the “do not disturb” feature on your phone, which lets you choose when and how you want to be updated with push notifications and incoming calls while your phone is locked.
Set daily goals & deadlines
Get organized by dividing your day into goals, each with a clear purpose. Think of this as a detailed to-do list of prioritized daily tasks. Keeping a to-do list is the simplest and easiest proven tool to ensure you stay focused and increase your productivity. Set reasonable targets for each day. All you need to get organized is a pen and paper, or even just an app on your smartphone. Not every task comes with a clear deadline so you need to create your own. Deadlines are important and are especially useful to the ADHD brain. They eliminate competing priorities and boost adrenaline, making it easier to hyperfocus and stay on task. Post your deadlines where you can easily see them and set frequent reminders.
Break tasks down
Some tasks are more involved than others. When you’re faced with a complicated task, breaking it down into smaller pieces or goals may help you to feel less overwhelmed. Small goals within a larger goal can prevent a project from feeling as though it’s taking too long. Smaller goals can also help maintain a sense of accomplishment, which can help you feel motivated. When work feels insurmountable, procrastination can quickly take over and it can be hard to get started on any task at all. Breaking work down into smaller, more manageable steps helps.
Deliberately interrupting a task might help you focus on completing it. Experts theorize that pulling yourself away from a task creates a tension and fixation on the task that ultimately enhances your focus. Your brain was focused, and then the object of that focus was taken away, which can leave you feeling incomplete. While distractions can be a risk during this project interruption time, setting an alarm for short breaks may help you want to get back to what you were doing.
Use caffeine wisely
Coffee is the world’s most consumed psychoactive substance, and for good reason. The beloved beverage can infuse you with a healthy dose of energy, reduce brain fog, and boost concentration. But like any other drug, excessive use can become problematic.
The first thing to understand is that the much-desired caffeine buzz you feel after drinking a cup or two is only temporary. Just like the saying goes, what goes up must come down. And the caffeine crash that occurs a few hours after you’ve drunk more than your fair share of coffee can leave you feeling drained, cranky, and unable to focus.
To avoid caffeine’s productive-slashing effects, try making these simple modifications to your daily consumption:
- Prioritize sleep (i.e., don’t use caffeine to replace sleep. Listen to your body, if it’s telling you it’s tired, rest)
- Don’t drink coffee on an empty stomach
- Drink plenty of water
- Space out your cups of coffee throughout the day
- Set a daily caffeine cut off time (preferably 3-4 hours before bed)
Try Breathing from your Belly
Deep breathing exercises can help you become more attentive and more relaxed at the same time. Anxiety and stress can really build up when we’re trying to concentrate, to the point where it becomes difficult to focus. When working or doing a task, take occasional breaks to do a breathing exercise.
- Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit or lie down. For example, try sitting in a chair, sitting cross-legged, or lying on your back with a small pillow under your head and under your knees.
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your belly, below the ribcage. Allow your belly to relax, without forcing it inward by squeezing or clenching your muscles.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. The air should move into your nose and downward so that you feel your stomach rise with your other hand and fall inward (toward your spine).
- Exhale slowly through slightly pursed lips. Take note of the hand on your chest, which should remain relatively still.
Go for the flow
Sometimes what we need most is momentum, which lets us build up our confidence and assures us that we’re capable of getting things done. If there is a task that you already know how to start, are excited to tackle, do it. It doesn’t have to be the most urgent or important task on your list. Just getting something done and getting into the flow of things can help when it’s time to shift your attention to the more pressing stuff.
Get enough sleep
Research suggests that challenging your brain to a difficult task — like learning a new language, playing an instrument, or doing brain games — can improve neuroplasticity, improve memory, and boost cognitive performance.
Some evidence-based activities that have been shown to keep your mind sharp and agile include:
- Card games, like solitaire or bridge
- Jigsaw puzzles
- Knitting, drawing, painting, or anything that involves fine motor skills
- Mindfulness meditation
Not sleeping enough can throw your body out of whack. Classic symptoms of sleep deprivation include fatigue, irritability, moodiness, memory problems, and, of course, difficulty concentrating. Healthy sleep habits, on the other hand, can boost attention, lower the risk of chronic disease, and increase your productivity.
According to the CDC, the recommended amount of sleep for adults 18 years and older is 7 to 9 hours per night.
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