Ever sit down to work on something and then suddenly realize you’ve been watching random cat videos on YouTube for the last half hour?
Don’t worry, I’m raising my hand too. The truth is, the ability to stay focused on something is in short supply for many people these days.
We have technology to thank, at least in part, for this decline in attention span over the past decade.
We’ve become accustomed to the instant gratification that comes with having the internet at our fingertips wherever we go. And between constant email notifications and social media posts, the opportunities for distraction are endless.
Yet the ability to concentrate isn’t just crucial to your productivity; it directly impacts your well-being. Focus enhances both your short and long-term memory, helps you make faster decisions, and strengthens your self-discipline.
But even if you get distracted more often than Doug the Dog from “Up”, there are ways to strengthen your concentration muscle! Check out these eight strategies for improving your focus and concentration.
1. Practice Mindfulness
Perhaps the most effective way to improve your concentration is to increase your self-awareness. Exercises that increase your mindfulness are a great way train your brain self-awareness.
So how do you do that?
Meditation is extremely effective. Contrary to popular belief, meditation isn’t about emptying your head of all thought. Rather, it’s about observing your thoughts as they come and then letting them go.
If this concept seems foreign or confusing, don’t worry! Everyone can learn how to meditate. There are some fantastic meditation apps that can help to teach you this skill. (In my opinion, Headspace is the best app for effectively explaining meditation techniques.)
If meditation isn’t your speed, you can also try journaling. Journalling is an excellent way to stay present and become aware of your thoughts by writing them out.
You can try going somewhere peaceful, like the park or your backyard, and write about the things you see, hear, smell, or feel. It might sound a little “woo-woo” but you’d be surprised at how well this exercise works!
If you’re not sure how to start, here are 10 journaling tips for beginners!
2. Nix Distractions
Distraction is public enemy number one when it comes to productivity. By far and away, the internet is our biggest source of distraction for most people. If you really struggle with the temptation to open new browser tabs and surf while you should be working, consider investing in tools that make internet distractions impossible.
For example, the Light Phone 2 (cheekily dubbed the “dumb phone”), is an elegant-looking cellphone that makes phone calls, sends texts and….nothing else.
Nothing will cure your Candy Crush addiction faster than owning a phone with no apps!
If that’s a bit too hardcore for you, consider downloading the Freedom app, which you can install on both your phone and computer. This willpower-restoring app works by blocking distracting websites for pre-scheduled segments of time.
3. Stop Overloading Yourself
If your mind is always racing and you feel like you have a million things happening at once, it will have a detrimental effect on your ability to concentrate. It could be time to start simplifying your life a bit.
This is especially true if you’re the type of person who has a hard time saying “no”. (Something I personally struggle with as a dyed-in-the-wool, “people-pleaser”!)
The human brain is not meant to multitask the way we like to think it is. The more things we have on the go, the worse our ability to focus.
Prioritize the things that really matter and zone in on those.
4. Give Yourself Breaks
Your concentration “muscle” needs to rest sometimes, just like your physical muscles. Make sure you’re giving yourself enough downtown each week or you will burn out.
Multiple breaks during the day really help too, even if they’re just ten minutes at a time. When you get back from your breaks, take a minute or two to take a deep breath and retrain your thoughts to the task at hand.
5. Exercise Your Brain
Exercise isn’t just for your body, you need to exercise your brain too! Try a fun exercise or brain teaser to help you build up mental focus.
Soduku, crossword puzzles, memorization games, or lateral thinking puzzles are all great options. Even just 15 minutes a day can help boost your cognitive functions.
Puzzles not your thing? Try an hour of playing video games! One study from the University of Arkansas found that video games can improve your ability to concentrate.
So pick something you enjoy and get thinking!
6. Use a Timer
Use the Pomodoro method to train your brain to focus for a set period of time. Think of them as exercise drills for your brain.
Traditionally, you set a timer for 25 minutes and take a few minutes of break in between each set of “Pomodoros”. But if 25 minutes is too long for you at first, you can always start with a shorter timer and work your way up.
I use this method all the time when I’m writing! One of the reasons I find it so effective is because it’s easier to focus when you know when you’re starting and stopping ahead of time. It’s much harder to keep going if there isn’t a clearly defined end in sight.
7. Look After Your Physical Health
It’s easy to forget sometimes that our mental health is directly affected by our physical health. By looking after your body, you are naturally boosting your ability to focus.
If your sleeping habits leave something to be desired, that’s the best place to start. Because without proper sleep, your brain simply can’t function properly.
Nutrition is another aspect that’s critical to your concentration levels. Vitamin B12, in particular, can stave off brain fog and keep you sharp. Eggs are one of the best sources of this vitamin so whip up an omelet once in a while and you’ll be doing your brain a solid!
Don’t forget about exercise, because it doesn’t just help your pants fit better. In fact, science suggests that you can enjoy sharper focus for a few hours after a sweat session.
8. Take a Digital Detox
Taking a break from your phone, computer, tv, or anything with a screen can help train your mind to stay in the present.
I’m not just talking about when you’re supposed to be doing work, either. Try taking an evening or even a whole weekend without screens and you’ll be amazed at the mental and physical benefits.
For example, one study found a digital detox doesn’t just improve your posture and connections with others, but it actually improves your memory and facilitates better quality sleep—which as we just established, boosts your ability to focus in and of itself.
Building Your Focus Muscle One Think at a Time
Improving your concentration and focus takes practice, just like any other skills. If getting started with these ideas seems overwhelming, try starting with one or two strategies at a time and focus on turning them into habits. (Remember, overloading your brain is counterproductive!)
It’s an effort well worth making; not only will your work get done faster, but you’ll be happier too!