Life can feel frantic. So many balls, only two eyes.
In a world short of attention, our every moment of focus is being contested by infinite distractions. Increasingly our work and study performance is decided by how well we cope. Our attention span has officially been overtaken by the goldfish, with the fly hot on its tail.
However desperate the situation may seem, there is hope. Our ability to focus is not a fixed quality, we can improve focus, exercise it like we would any muscle. Better still, the more you train, the bigger the gains. Here are 4 simple ways to improve your focus.
1. Train Your Focus with Mindfulness
Think about the last time you had a distracting thought. Perhaps you were bored at work, so you felt an urge to take out your phone and stare at beautiful people on instagram. Doing this, you effectively rewarded yourself for getting distracted. You got a hit of dopamine, and within five minutes you wanted it again. When we give in to our distractions, we reward the wrong behaviour.
What if you rewarded resisting the temptation? What if you chose instead to refocus? You would be rewarding yourself for good behaviour, and so make yourself more likely to focus in future. The key is to bring your attention back after you notice it has wandered off. When you consciously try to refocus on work after wandering, you strengthen your ability to concentrate.
Retraining your mind to focus better is the first stage of mindfulness, a powerful tool, that everyone from athletes, to executives are using for its proven ability to give them an edge. Mindful focus is by no means easy, but once you form a good habit (just like a bad habit), it is very hard to break.
2. Practice Active Reading and Listening
Most of the time we read passively, absorbing information uncritically. This feels easy, but is an ineffective way of learning from the text. You can train your concentration with active reading. By asking “Wh” questions, taking notes and drawing diagrams, you will process and integrate the new knowledge better and when you have to apply it, the information will be much more usable . Moreover, active reading trains the same focus muscel we need in the other areas of our lives.
When you listen actively, you are able to really focus on what the other person is saying rather than trying to craft your next reply or thinking about something unrelated. Listening actively is about bringing your full attention to the person you are talking to, rather than just making noises. Active listening takes time, but you will improve your concentration and see huge improvement in your work focus.
3. Manage your energy
If your mind is underperforming, your body probably is as well. We like to imagine that our minds are somehow disconnected from the rest of the robot, but good thinking depends on the health of the organism that does it.
You can dramatically improve your focus by becoming more physically active. In the short term, exercise improves attention for several hours afterwards. In the long term, exercise enhances our brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to improve itself, which is essential for retraining ourselves to focus.
The food you eat and when you eat it both affect your concentration. We are all familiar with the energy rush and crash that follows eating a candy bar. The answer to the slump is not necessarily to eat our way out with more candy; rather, by changing our eating habits, we can avoid slumps altogether. Keeping to regular, balanced meals, and a large breakfast will regulate your energy throughout the day.
4. Sleep at the Same Time
We are told that we do not get enough sleep, but often a worse problem is that we don’t get regular sleep. The regularity of our sleeping patterns impacts every area of our health. Most relevant to focus is your melatonin levels. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates our sleep, and in healthy people it is released at a similar time every day.
If you stay up too late, you can miss your hit of melatonin, and are assured a bad night’s sleep. Likewise if you wake up at the wrong time, you will suffer from sleep inertia and feel tired throughout the morning. Sticking to a sleeping pattern is therefore key to feeling alert and boosting productivity.
The beauty of these focus strategies, is that while they involve a little effort at first, they are self-sustaining and reinforcing. The more you train focus, the easier it becomes. These habits are like little butterfly wings whose flapping will transform you into a hurricane of focus.