How often do you get started on a task only to find you haven’t made progress due to your lack of focus? You are not alone! As I find myself being pulled in many different directions, I wanted to find out if there is a way to improve my focus. Because let’s face it, staying focused can be difficult at the best of times, and it’s only getting more challenging by the day as more and more things are competing for our attention.
If you sometimes struggle to stay focused, read on to find out the ten ways to improve focus backed by research.
Why do our brains struggle to stay focused?
There are many reasons why your brain may struggle to stay focused. The most common causes include:
Distractions: The brain is easily distracted by external stimuli. This doesn’t bode well if you struggle with focus since you’re surrounded by distractions, from social media notifications and alerts to interruptions from family or colleagues.
Lack of motivation: There are plenty of reasons why you might lack motivation. Perhaps the task you’re trying to complete is too challenging, or it may not be hard enough, or you may not find it mentally stimulating. Either way, it will be difficult to sustain focus if you’re not interested in the task at hand.
Overstimulation: When you focus on a complex problem for a prolonged period, you will become fatigued. Too much information can overstimulate the brain, leading to mental fatigue and difficulty maintaining focus.
Stress and anxiety: We all know the dangers of stress and how it can affect your health. Unfortunately, there’s no getting away from stress altogether. Still, high levels of stress and anxiety can interfere with your focus and attention.
Poor sleep: While at busy times, you might be tempted to burn the candle at both ends, lack of sleep can impair cognitive function, including focus and attention.
Poor nutrition: A diet lacking essential nutrients can impair cognitive function, including focus and attention.
Physical discomfort: Ever feel hungry? While we are well aware of eye strain and shoulder aches caused by bad posture, hunger can also impede your focus. Physical discomfort can make it challenging to stay focused.
Multitasking: Trying to focus on multiple tasks at once can be overwhelming and can significantly decrease overall productivity.
Lack of structure: If you jump from one thing to the next yet never complete anything, you might need more structure. Without clear goals and a structured plan, it can be challenging to stay focused and motivated.
Boredom: If the task at hand is not engaging or challenging, it will be difficult to sustain focus.
With so many obstacles to remaining focused, it’s no wonder we struggle to stay on task. The good news is, according to research, you can take steps to improve your focus.
Here are 10 Researched-Backed Ways to Improve Focus:
1. Practice mindfulness:
Though mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably, they are different.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to your thoughts, actions, and feelings in the present moment without judgment. You can eat mindfully, walk mindfully, and even have a conversation mindfully.
You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, with anyone.
According to John Kabat-Zinn (1994), one of the most popular Western writers on this topic, mindfulness is “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Research has found that, among other benefits, mindfulness creates new connections in the brain. It increases gray matter in the brain, which is the part of the brain that holds most of the actual brain cells compared to the other brain structures.
An increase in gray matter density may mean an increase in connectivity between the cells. In one study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in as few as eight weeks, participants had increased density in the areas of the brain responsible for:
- learning and memory processes
- emotional salience (top priority given to certain healthy emotions)
- the ability to take on different perspectives
- emotional regulation
This ultimately led to an increase in focus over these eight weeks.
Finally, a review of over 20 studies found that mindfulness interventions can improve focus, attention, and cognitive function (Keng, Smoski, & Robins, 2011).
2. Get enough sleep
If you burn the candle at both ends, it might be time to get more sleep. According to research, sleep is essential for maintaining focus and cognitive function. Ideally, we should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
There are lots of potential negative impacts of sleep deprivation. For example, ample research has proven that lack of sleep harms cognition,
According to an article published in WebMD, scientists measuring sleepiness have found that sleep deprivation leads to lower alertness and concentration. Research has also shown that sleep deprivation can impair performance on tasks requiring focus and attention. Lack of sleep makes focusing and paying attention more challenging, so you’re more easily confused. As a result, you struggle to perform tasks that require logical reasoning or complex thought.
3. Exercise regularly
Exercise has also been shown to improve focus and cognitive function, including concentration, focus, and attention, in children and adults (Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008).
As well as reducing stress and fatigue, Physical activity improves focus and attention by boosting the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels.
4. Take breaks
Taking breaks from your work is essential. Not only will it help you refocus and recharge, but it can also improve your performance on tasks that require sustained attention (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). Also, recent studies have shown that our brains operate in bursts of attention rather than being focused for prolonged periods.
5. Minimize distractions
We all know how hard it is to get back on task and regain focus after a distraction. In fact, it can take almost 30 minutes! What’s more, research has shown that task switching, especially between very different tasks, causes us to take even longer to get back on track (Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001). Reducing distractions can therefore improve focus and productivity.
Reduce distractions by eliminating unnecessary notifications, finding a quiet workplace, and setting aside dedicated periods for focused work.
6. Use the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique has been found to be effective in increasing productivity and reducing burnout (Roberge & Tremblay, 2012).
It involves working for 25 minutes, then taking a 5-minute break.
7. Eat a healthy diet
We’ve all experienced that post-lunch lull, and let’s not forget how many of us feel before our morning coffee.
Clearly, food has an impact on our brain function.
According to an on nutritional psychiatry by Dr. Eva Selhub MD, an expert in mind-body medicine, multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function, with mood disorder symptoms also worsening.
A healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats can improve focus and cognitive function.
8. Stay hydrated
Not drinking enough water can cause many issues in the body. These range from headaches to kidney stones and more.
A healthy body comprises more than 50% water; it’s no surprise that your brain is strongly influenced by how hydrated you are.
In fact, studies show that even mild dehydration ( a loss of 1–3% of body weight) can impair many aspects of brain function.
In a study of young women, researchers found that fluid loss of 1.4% after exercise impaired mood and concentration and increased the frequency of headaches.
Dehydration can cause fatigue and impair focus. Aim to drink at least 8 cups of water per day for a sharp and well-hydrated mind.
9. Practice meditation
According to researchers at Harvard University, we are lost in thought around 47% of the time. That’s a lot of thinking! What’s more, these thoughts are often worries about the future or concerns about the past.
When we worry about the future, this leads to anxiety. When we’re concerned about the past, this can lead to depression and rumination. In short, all this thinking is not doing us any good.
According to Columbia University Medical Center, we can change the structure of our brains through meditation, and these changes can help us to:
- Reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
- Increase focus and learning concentration
- Improve memory and attention span
- Build a more robust immune system and greater physical/psychological resilience
- Allow better sleep
Remember, while meditation and mindfulness are connected, meditation typically refers to a formal, seated meditation practice, and there are many types of meditation that you could try. Some examples include:
- Breath-awareness meditation
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Mantra-based meditation
- Visualization meditation
- Guided meditation
Regardless of the type of meditation you try, you’ll experience many benefits, including increased focus.
10. Get organized
If distractions are bad for focus, then being organized is the solution. Your environment directly impacts your ability to focus.
Researchers at Princeton University have found that our visual cortex is highly sensitive. When presented with non-task-related objects, it becomes overwhelming. This means the more things surrounding you, the more difficult it is for your brain to focus.
Being organized will therefore help you stay focused by reducing distractions.
Staying focused isn’t always easy. By implementing these activities into your daily life, your levels of focus will improve, making it easier to get things done and putting you on the path to achieving more of your goals.
Now you know how to increase your focus, here are 14 Ways to Increase Creativity, Backed By Research [And Why it Matters]