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We’ve all been there: sitting at your desk with an urgent deadline and a wandering mind. Despite your best efforts, things are not progressing. You need to focus on the task in front of you. You’re motivated to do it. But you just can't concentrate.
In this digital world, we are easily distracted. Information is everywhere and we feel the need to deal with increasing and multiple forms of information. It drags on our time and our attention.
The inability to concentrate on the task at hand is one of the maladies of our time--everyone wants to know how to focus better, how to concentrate. Yet, the benefits of improving concentration and focus make it an issue worth addressing.
What is concentration?
In Will Power & Self Discipline, Remez Sasson wrote that concentration is the ability to direct one’s attention following one’s will. Concentration means control of attention. It is the ability to focus the mind on one subject, object, or thought, and at the same time exclude from the mind every other unrelated thought, ideas, feelings, and sensations.
That last part is the tricky part for most of us. To concentrate is to exclude, or not pay attention to, every other unrelated thought, idea, feeling, or sensation. To not pay attention to the numbers, beeps, and other indicators that we have a new message, a new update, a new “like,” a new follower!
Our daily routine is dominated by switching in and out of our mobile phones and computer. We get a constant influx of messages from WhatsApp, email, Telegram, and the half-dozen other apps that are somehow critical to our job. We constantly search for information to help solve our daily problems or get our work done.
Frequent distractions affect productivity. It takes longer to finish a task. We don’t listen as well. We don’t comprehend things as well, whether with our partner or with colleagues, and end up in misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and conflict. It affects memory. We forget things or can’t recall information promptly which affects our personal life and professional image.
Factors affecting concentration
Some days it seems like our concentration is under attack from all sides. In fact, concentration is affected by both internal and external or environmental factors. If you want to learn how to improve focus and memory, it helps to understand what’s getting in the way now.
- Distraction. We are bombarded by a constant flow of information, whether new or old, during the process of doing something. Researchers have found that our brains are so primed for this distraction that just seeing our smartphone impairs our ability to concentrate. We constantly assess whether the information is useful, sufficient, or meaningless. The sheer quantity coming in muddles our assessment of whether we actually need more information to make decisions.
- Insufficient sleep. Scientists have found that lack of sleep can lead to lower alertness, slower thought processes, and reduced concentration. You will have more difficulty focusing your attention and may become confused. As a result, your ability to perform tasks especially relating to reasoning or logic can be seriously affected. Chronically poor sleep further affects your concentration and memory. Dr. Allison T. Siebern from the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Centre notes that if you cannot concentrate on what is at hand, it is unlikely to make it to either your short- or long-term memory.
- Insufficient physical activity. Have you ever noticed how vigorous exercise leaves you feeling more relaxed and energetic throughout the day? When you don’t do physical activity, your muscles can become tense. You may feel tightness in your neck, shoulder, and chest and such persistent, low-level discomfort can affect your concentration.
- Eating habits. What we eat contributes to how we feel, including our mental sharpness and clarity, throughout the day. If we don’t fuel our brains with the proper nutrients, we start to experience symptoms like memory loss, fatigue, and lack of concentration. Low-fat diets can ruin focus because the brain needs certain essential fatty acids. Other restrictive diets may negatively affect concentration by not providing the nutrients the brain needs or by creating hunger, cravings, or feeling of unwellness in the body that are themselves distracting.
- Environment. Depending on what you are doing, the environment can affect your focus. Obviously, a noise level that is too loud is a problem, but many people also have difficulty concentrating when it is too quiet. It isn’t just the overall noise level but the type of noise that matters: the high-energy, anonymous hum of a coffee shop might bring focus while the overheard conversation of two co-workers derails it. A favorite song quickly has you singing along, happily distracted, while less distinct instrumentals might keep you attuned to the task. Lighting that is too bright or too dim can affect your vision. A room that is too hot or too cold creates discomfort.
All of these elements can affect your concentration. Happily, they are also all addressable.
Conditions related to concentration
If you frequently can’t focus your thoughts and are experiencing ongoing concentration difficulties, it may indicate a cognitive, medical, psychological, lifestyle, or environmental cause. Depending on the cause, you may have to temporarily accept that your concentration is low and learn a few tricks to reduce the impact or accept the dips as they come. If you need help with concentration and think your difficulties go beyond the list above, consult with a professional.
Possible broader conditions include:
Cognitive. Your concentration may decrease if you find yourself forgetting things easily. Your memory sometimes fails you, you misplace articles, and have difficulty remembering things that occurred a short time ago. Another way your concentration may be cognitively impaired is if you find that your mind is overactive constantly thinking of multiple things due to concerns or important events. When thoughts and issues intrude in your mind, demanding attention, it prevents effective concentration.
Psychological. When you are depressed and feeling down, it is difficult to focus. Similarly, when you are recovering from the loss of a loved one during bereavement or are experiencing anxiety, you may have difficulty focusing on a single task.
Medical. Medical conditions like diabetes, hormonal imbalances, and low red blood cell count can affect our concentration. Some medication also makes you drowsy or bleary and severely impair concentration.
Environment. Poor working conditions, shared spaces, and intense or negative work dynamics may also contribute to a lack of concentration. When we are experiencing burnout or stress from work or personal life, we will find it difficult to concentrate due to emotional exhaustion. Similarly, the environment can create discomfort to our body with effects that we’re aware of (heat, light, noise) and others that don’t fully register (tension, negativity, monitoring)..
Lifestyle. Fatigue, hunger, and dehydration can derail concentration. Lifestyles that involve too many missed meals, rich foods, or excessive alcohol consumption can challenge our memory and ability to concentrate and focus.
15 Ways to improve your concentration
Now you know why you need help with concentration. What can help you to focus better? There’s no one answer for how to improve focus, but the following tips can help.
Eliminate distractions. How do we focus better if we are always bombarded with information? Make a practice to block time in your schedule to do a specific task or activity. During this time, request that you be left alone or go to a place where others are unlikely to disturb you: a library, a coffee shop, a private room.
Close social media and other apps, silence notifications, and keep your phone hidden from sight in a bag or backpack. As described in HBR, researchers found that cognitive capacity was significantly better when the phone was out of sight, not just turned off. Keep Your primary focus is to complete what you need to do. Shutting off both internal and external disturbances can help you to concentrate.
Reduce multitasking. Attempting to perform multiple activities at the same time makes us feel productive. It’s also a recipe for lower focus, poor concentration, and lower productivity. And lower productivity can lead to burnout. Examples of multitasking include listening to a podcast while responding to an email or talking to someone over the phone while writing your report. Such multitasking not only hampers your ability to focus but compromises your work quality.
Practice mindfulness and meditation. Meditating or practicing mindfulness activities can strengthen well-being and mental fitness and improve focus. During the meditation process, our brain becomes calmer and our whole body becomes more relaxed. We focus on our breath during the process so that we will not be distracted by our minds. With practice, we can learn to use our breath to bring our attention back to a particular task so that it can be done well even if we get interrupted.
Get more sleep. Many factors affect your sleep. One of the most common is reading from an electronic device like a computer, phone, or tablet or watching your favorite movie or TV show on an LED TV just before bedtime. Research has shown that such devices emit light towards the blue end of the spectrum. Such light will stimulate your eye retina and prevent the secretion of melatonin that promotes sleep anticipation in the brain. Use a filter or "blue light" glasses to minimize such blue light or avoid all electronic devices before bed. Other ways to improve sleep include avoiding exercise late in the day, staying hydrated throughout the day, using journaling or breathing exercises to quiet the mind, and creating a predictable bedtime routine and schedule.
Choose to focus on the moment. It might feel counterintuitive when you feel unable to concentrate, but remember that you choose where you focus. It's tough to concentrate when your mind is always in the past and worrying about the future. While it isn’t easy, make an effort to let go of past events. Acknowledge the impact, what you felt, and what you learned from it, then let it go. Similarly, acknowledge your concerns about the future, consider how you are experiencing that anxiety in your body, then choose to let it go. We want to train our mental resources to focus on the details of what matters at the moment. Our minds go in the direction we choose to focus.
Take a short break. This also might seem counterintuitive, but when you focus on something for a long time, your focus may begin to die down. You may feel more and more difficulty devoting your attention to the task.
Researchers have found that our brains tend to ignore sources of constant stimulation. Taking very small breaks by refocusing your attention elsewhere can dramatically improve mental concentration after that. The next time you are working on a project, take a break when you begin to feel stuck. Move around, talk to someone, or even switch to a different type of task. You will come back with a more focused mind to keep your performance high.
Connect with nature. Research has found that even having plants in office spaces can help increase concentration and productivity, as well as workplace satisfaction and better air quality. Finding time to take a walk in the park or appreciating the plants or flowers in your garden can boost your concentration and help you feel refreshed.
Train your brain. Scientific research is starting to amass evidence on the ability of brain training activities to enhance cognitive abilities, including concentration, in adults. Such brain training games can also help you develop your working and short-term memory, as well as your processing and problem-solving skills. Examples of such games include jigsaw puzzles, sudoku, chess, and brain-stimulating video games.
Exercise. Start your day with simple exercise and get your body moving. According to the May 2013 issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch, regular exercise releases chemicals key for memory, concentration, and mental sharpness. Other research found that exercise can boost the brain's dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels and all these will affect focus and attention. Individuals who do some form of exercise or sports perform better on cognitive tasks when compared with those who have poor physical health. Physical movement helps relax the muscles and relieve tension in the body. Since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better so, too, will your mind.
Listen to music. Music has been shown to have therapeutic effects on our brains. Light music may help you to concentrate better, but some music may distract you. Experts generally agree that classical music and nature sounds, such as water flowing, are good choices for concentration while music with lyrics and human voices may be distracting. Multiple apps and services offer background music and soundscapes designed for different types of focus and work needs.
Eat well. Choose foods that moderate blood sugar, maintain energy, and fuel the brain. Fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods can keep your blood sugar levels even. Reduce sugary foods and drinks that cause spikes and dips in your sugar levels make you feel dizzy or drowsy.
Your brain needs lots of good fat to function properly. Nuts, berries, avocados, and coconut oil are all great ways to get healthy fats into your diet and help your brain run more smoothly. The science on Research has found that foods like blueberries can boost concentration and memory for up to 5 hours after consumption due to an enzyme that stimulates the flow of oxygen and blood to the brain, helping with memory as well as our ability to focus and learn new information. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach contain potassium which accelerates the connections between neurons and can make our brain more responsive.
Set a daily priority. Write down what you want to accomplish each day, ideally the night before, and identify a single priority that you commit to accomplishing. This will help focus your brain on what matters, tackling the big jobs first and leaving the small stuff till later. Break large tasks into smaller bytes so that you will not be overwhelmed. Identifying true priorities can help relieve distracting anxiety, and achieving small daily goals can wire your brain to achieve success.
Create space for work. Create a calm, dedicated space for work, if possible. Not everyone can have a well-appointed office, but desk organizers, noise-canceling headphones, an adjustable monitor, and adjustable lighting can help. Clear clutter out of sight, make it as ergonomic and comfortable as possible, and try to keep your space neat and ventilated.
Use a timer. Train your brain to hyper-focus on a task by using a timer or phone alarm. First, decide what task you want to complete. Set your timer for 20 minutes (generally not more than 30 minutes) and concentrate on the task. When the alarm rings take a short break for 5 minutes. You can either take a walk and do some stretching exercise, then reset the timer and start again. This technique has shown to be effective to improve your concentration.
Switch tasks. While we may want to concentrate on a particular task, sometimes we get stuck and our brain needs something fresh to focus on. Try switching to other tasks or something you love to do. Switching tasks can help you stay alert and productive for a longer period.
Learning how to improve concentration is not something you can achieve overnight. Professional athletes like golfers, sprinters, gymnasts take plenty of time to practice (and usually have a coach) so that they can concentrate and get the right move at the right moment to achieve excellence.
The first step to strengthen your concentration is to recognize how it is affecting your life. If you are struggling to meet commitments, constantly sidetracked by the unimportant, or not moving toward your aspirations, it is time to get help with concentration so that you can focus on what matters most to you.
Learning how to concentrate at work is essential for succeeding in your career and life. By improving your concentration, you will find that you can accomplish more of what you value and feel better doing it. It’s not just about accomplishing tasks but about making time for joy and happiness so that you can achieve a meaningful and satisfying life.
BetterUp Fellow Coach, PCC, MBA, FCCA, FCA