Our brain is a very complex mechanism that often works without our awareness. Our subconscious mind, the deep place where all our memories, feelings, and neuro-associations are stored can be our best friend or our worst enemy.
It will take some real effort on your part and you may have to make some changes to some of your daily habits. Here are some tips and tricks from psychology that can help you develop laser-like mental focus and concentration.
1. Assess Your Mental Focus
Before you start working toward improving your mental focus, you might want to begin by assessing just how strong your mental focus is at the present moment.
Your Focus Is Good If...
- You find it easy to stay alert
- You set goals and break tasks up into smaller parts
- You take short breaks, then get back to work
Your Focus Needs Work If...
- You daydream regularly
- You can't tune out distractions
- You lose track of your progress
If the first set of statements seems more your style, then you probably already have fairly good concentration skills, but you could be even stronger with a little practice.
If you identify more with the second set of statements, then you probably need to work on your mental focus quite a bit. It might take some time, but practicing some good habits and being mindful of your distractibility can help.
2. Eliminate Distractions
While it may sound obvious, people often underestimate just how many distractions prevent them from concentrating on the task at hand. Such intrusions might come in the form of a radio blaring in the background or perhaps an obnoxious co-worker who constantly drops by your cubicle to chat.
Minimizing these sources of distraction isn't always as easy as it sounds. While it might be as simple as turning off the television or radio, you might find it much more challenging to deal with an interrupting co-worker, spouse, child, or roommate.
One way to deal with this is to set aside a specific time and place and request to be left alone for that period of time. Another alternative is to seek out a calm location where you know you will be able to work undisturbed. The library, a private room in your house, or even a quiet coffee shop might all be good spots to try.
Not all distractions come from outside sources. Exhaustion, worry, anxiety, poor motivation, and other internal disturbances can be particularly difficult to avoid.
A few strategies you might want to try to minimize or eliminate such internal distractions are to make sure you are well-rested prior to the task and to use positive thoughts and imagery to fight off anxiety and worry. If you find your mind wandering toward distracting thoughts, consciously bring your focus back to the task at hand.
3. Improve sleep
Sleep deprivation can easily disrupt concentration, not to mention other cognitive functions, such as memory and attention.
Occasional sleep deprivation may not cause too many problems for you. But regularly failing to get a good night’s sleep can affect your mood and performance at work. Being too tired can even slow down your reflexes and affect your ability to drive or do other daily tasks.
A demanding schedule, health issues, and other factors sometimes make it difficult to get enough sleep. But it’s important to try and get as close to the recommended amount as possible on most nights. Many experts recommend adults aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night.
- Improving the sleep you do get can also have benefits. A few quick tips:
- Turn off the TV and put away screens an hour before bed.
- Keep your room at a comfortable but cool temperature.
- Wind down before bed with soft music, a warm bath, or a book.
- Go to bed and get up around the same time each day, even on weekends.
- Exercise regularly, but try to avoid a heavy workout just before bed.
4. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a hot topic right now, and for good reason. Despite the fact that people have practiced forms of mindfulness meditation for thousands of years, its many health benefits are only recently starting to be understood.
In one study, researchers had human resources professionals engage in simulations of the sort of complex multitasking they engaged in each day at work.1
These tasks had to be completed in 20 minutes and included answering phones, scheduling meetings, and writing memos with sources of information pouring in from multiple sources including by phone calls, emails, and text messages.
Some of the participants received 8 weeks of training in the use of mindfulness meditation, and the results found that only those who had received this training showed improvement in concentration and focus.
Members of the meditation group were able to stay on task longer, switched between tasks less frequently, and performed the work more efficiently than the other groups of participants.
Practicing mindfulness can involve learning how to meditate, but it can also be as simple as trying a quick and easy deep breathing exercise.
Quick Tip to Regain Focus
Start by taking several deep breaths while really focusing on each and every breath. When you feel your mind naturally begin to wander, gently and uncritically guide your focus back to your deep breathing.
While this might seem like a deceptively simple task, you may find that it is actually much more difficult than it appears. Fortunately, this breathing activity is something you can do anywhere and anytime. Eventually, you will probably find that it becomes easier to disengage from intrusive thoughts and return your focus to where it belongs.
5. Take short breaks
Instead of succumbing to distraction, build it in, suggests a study from the University of Illinois. Psychologist Alejandro Lleras found that participants who were given short breaks during a 50-minute task performed better than those who worked straight through.
The study examines a phenomenon called “vigilance decrement,” or losing focus over time. Taking a short break in the middle of a long task reenergizes the brain.
“We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” writes Lleras. “Our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”
6. Make time for exercise
Increased concentration is among the many benefits of regular exercise. Exercise benefits everyone. A 2018 study looking at 116 fifth-graders found evidence to suggest daily physical activity could help improve both concentration and attention after just 4 weeks.
Another researchTrusted Source looking at older adults suggests just a year of moderate aerobic physical activity can help stop or even reverse memory loss that occurs with brain atrophy related to age.
Do what you can
Although aerobic exercise is recommended, doing what you can is better than doing nothing at all. Depending on your personal fitness and weight goals, you may want to exercise more or less.
But sometimes it just isn’t possible to get the recommended amount of exercise, especially if you live with physical or mental health challenges.
If you struggle to find time to exercise or don’t want to join a gym, try to think of fun ways to work it in throughout the day. If you get your heart rate up, you’re exercising. Ask yourself:
- Can you walk your kids to school?
- Can you get up 20 minutes earlier every morning to fit in a quick jog around your neighborhood?
- Can you split up your weekly grocery trip into two or three trips by foot or bike?
- Can you walk to the coffee shop instead of drive?
If you can, try getting exercise right before you really need to focus or when taking a mental break
The bottom line
Some ways to improve concentration may work well, while others may not seem to do much for you. Consider giving a range of approaches a try to see what helps.
Experts still debate the benefits of certain methods, such as brain training. But existing evidence suggests most of these tips can promote at least modest improvements in concentration for many people.
What’s more, these tips are unlikely to decrease concentration or cause other harm, so giving them a try shouldn’t have any negative effects.
Just make sure to talk to your doctor if you’re really having a hard time. Something else could be going on, and it’s important to rule out brain injuries or other serious issues.