Stop procrastinating! Just pay attention! Focus on what you're doing! How many times have you wanted to shout these words at a friend, co-worker or a family member? And, let's face it: how many times have you shouted these words at yourself? If you're like me, it's been a bit too many times to count. The worst part is that you can berate, cajole, chastise or flog yourself over and over, but that pesky mind just can't seem to stay on task.
People Spend Most of their Time Mentally Wandering
A 2010 study by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that we're not alone in our tendency towards distraction -- mind-wandering, it turns out, is quite often the human brain's "go to" mode of operation. According to the study, people spend more than 46.9% of their waking time thinking about what's not happening rather than being present and attentive to what is happening in any given moment.
A Focused Mind is Linked to Happiness
More importantly, their analysis also suggests that, contrary to what we might expect, a distracted mind typically makes people unhappy rather than happy. Yes, that's right: 10.8% of a person's happiness was attributable to mind-wandering, while only 4.6% of happiness was linked to the specific activity of engagement (be it fascinating or boring, relaxing or frustrating -- whatever). The study, aptly titled "A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind," points to the potentially negative side effects of absent-mindedness or task-unrelated thought. Is science starting to prove what many yogis, meditators, and philosophers have taught for thousands of years? That we should Be Here Now, as Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert) wrote in his 1971 spiritual classic?
Being in the moment isn't about "willing" yourself to concentrate, "commanding" yourself to focus, or "forcing" yourself to pay attention -- that's why all the flogging and cajoling in the world can't keep you away from your daydreams and focused on the tasks-at-hand. We're not saying that mind-wandering is always "bad." When we let our thoughts drift freely, mental creativity abounds: problem-solving, goal formation, planning the future, self-reflection, perspective, empathy, and more. It's when constructive, positive daydreaming turns aimless or gets in the way of what we're doing that it becomes an issue.
So how can you train your mind to stay focused and engaged when necessary -- working on a project, reading or writing, navigating a curvy road or skiing a black diamond trail? And how do we gently remind ourselves to "be present" when wanted -- walking the dog, listening to music, playing with the kids or preparing a family meal? How do we enjoy the moment?
Five effective ways to improve concentration and focus
Here are five effective tools to help limit distraction and make concentration more readily accessible. Remember: No matter what you're doing, you'll be happier if you stay present. Let's start by preparing you (and your environment) to invite focus rather than promote distraction:
Get Enough R and R
The first R is...Rest. This one seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised to find out how many of us don't get enough daily rest in order to function effectively during our waking hours. Track your down-time for a week; the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per day for the average adult (ages 26-64). How does your sleep week shape-up? If you're consistently short on hours, try to add a small amount of rest whenever you can -- skip the late night news and turn out the lights a half hour early (you can catch up tomorrow); grab some shut-eye while the kids are napping (the dirty dishes can wait); if you toss and turn, try a natural sleep aid (melatonin, valerian root, kava, chamomile or passionflower); use earplugs or a sleep sound app if noise tends to wake you during the night.
That second R is...Relaxation. Just as important as sleep! Eat lunch during your lunch hour instead of running errands; sit in the sunshine for a bit; converse with friends or read a good book. Don't equate relaxation with laziness -- getting your daily dose of R and R is a crucial first step to increasing your F and C (Focus and Concentration).
Create a Simple Plan and Limit Environmental Distractions
This second tip sounds so basic -- but how often do we actually make a plan and setup our environment before sitting down to work, study or concentrate? Try it! Here's a sample script:
Ok, first a plan: I have about an hour before the meeting. In that hour, I have to review my presentation, print the handouts, go over the budget, and get to the conference room a little early. Wait, I'll never get all of that done in an hour! I can keep it simple by saving the budget review for later (even though I'd rather not); that will give me enough time to adequately prepare.
Now, the set-up: Do I have a drink and snacks on hand? Have I used the bathroom? If I close the office door and turn off my phone and email notifications, can I hunker down and get this done? Is it quiet enough? Do I have enough light? Am I too warm or too cool to concentrate effectively? Make any changes you need before getting started. Next, break it down: Maybe I'll set my alarm at 15 minute intervals. Then I'll know how I'm doing for time along the way, and remember to print the handouts when I finish my review. I'll leave ten minutes to freshen up and get to the conference room a little early. Voila!
Keep it simple: make a plan; divide your task into small, achievable steps; limit your options; have adequate supplies on hand; make sure you're comfortable; leave some buffer-time at the end in case you fall off your pace.
Stay Hydrated and Eat Small, Nutritious Meals
This is another one you've probably heard a million times -- again, the trick is to do it! " The Mayo Clinic recommends drinking at least eight 8-ounce glasses of fluid a day. Keep track for a week -- are you drinking enough fluid? If you are even 1% dehydrated, you can have a 5% decrease in cognitive functioning. Get your H2O intake any way you can: If it's winter, keep a pot of warm herbal tea on hand; if you don't like "plain" water, add a splash of juice or lemon flavor; a filter can take out any harsh chemical or metallic taste that might deter you from drinking enough; have water available on your bedside table -- down a glass right when you wake up and right before going to sleep.
Now that you're hydrated, it's time to get the vitamins, minerals and lean protein your body and brain needs, while skipping the heavy stuff that can clog you up and increase fatigue. Eat a light, nutritious breakfast; have healthy snacks available during the day (so you bypass the vending machine and aren't tempted to overeat at lunch or dinner). If you're ravenous by the time you get seated at a restaurant, pass on the bread; have a glass of water before you eat instead. Remember to opt for whole meals over processed foods whenever possible. Watch your alcohol intake at night -- too much can slow you down the next day. Try eating smaller meals; overeating can cause increased insulin production and make you sleepy.
Most importantly, get to know your body: Does that piece of candy energize you or make you jittery? Is the bag of popcorn on your desk nourishing you or distracting you? Do you work better with a little "edge" of hunger, or does your concentration improve with something in your stomach? Take the time to ask yourself these questions -- it's going to be a different answer for everyone. Just a small change in your eating habits can make a big change in your ability to focus.
Skip the Chemical Stimulants, Exercise, and Move Around
Why turn to energy drinks or that third cup of coffee when exercise has been shown to improve concentration and overall brain function? It's easy...and it's free! Getting your body moving increases serotonin and endorphin levels for improved mood and memory, helps the brain's neuroplasticity, raises short-term focus and energy levels, and prompts the creative juices to flow. Your yoga practice or exercise program can also be a valuable asset when focus is important. Make it a priority to keep up with your classes or home fitness regime -- you'll stay more clear-headed and attentive with some consistent moving around. And don't forgo the exercise even if you can't get to the gym -- put on some tunes and dance in the living room after the kids leave for school; take a brisk walk at your lunch break; do a few aerobic jumping jacks for a natural mid-afternoon pick-me-up; bike home from work in the summer to energize before evening activities.
Take a Break, Be in Nature, Feel Your Body, Stretch!
You knew it all along -- there are not only physical, but also mental and emotional benefits to walking in nature. Improved creativity, elevated mood, increased self-esteem -- and yes, more focused thinking -- are all positive by-products of some time out and about in the great, green out-of-doors. A stroll in the neighborhood park or a short run on the bike path; sitting under the shade of a leafy maple tree or smelling the garden lilacs; rolling up a few chilly snowballs or dipping your feet in the local pond; listening to the birds sing or feeling to the cool breeze sail across your cheek; snapping some twigs or picking a wild raspberry: it doesn't matter the activity -- just get out there in nature!
If you can't get outside, take a break and change-up your environment. Stretch your arms overhead and rotate your shoulders as you walk down the hall. Head for the break room and chat with some friends. Power up and down a few flights of stairs. Check-in with your body: Are you holding any tension? Can you get some relief with a quick self-massage, repeated movement or gentle stretching? Don't try to get your tasks done without taking scheduled breaks; it just doesn't work. Plan your time-outs and use them to really let your mind go -- you'll be better focused when you return. Setting your intention and arranging the environment can provide some good ground for concentration. But, in order to sprout consistently better focus, you're going to need some strong fertilizer, hearty seeds, buckets of rain and plenty of sunshine! In other words, you're going to need to train your brain.
Learn to Meditate Today
Try our 14-Day How to Meditate guide and start your training today! You'll be happier and more productive with increased focus and concentration.