In a culture of near constant distractions, focus can be elusive. But there are ways to improve your concentration. Turn off that ringer, and read on.
By: Jennifer B. Slaton
So we got your attention! Even though the secrets to having better focus are only a few paragraphs ahead, research shows that after just eight seconds, you’ll be distracted, maybe by an email notification, a text message, or that stack of snail mail that needs tending to. But there are benefits to becoming truly engrossed in something, whether that’s an observation-filled nature walk, a good novel, or this short article. Focus is your friend, says Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated licensed professional counselor and family therapist David Bethany, who shares the goods on why and how to better harness the power of concentration.
First, Focus 101
Because concentration can be so elusive, let’s start by pinning it down with a definition: “Concentration is the intentional control of attention to some purposeful end,” explains Bethany. When we’re willfully concentrating, we’re engaging the brain’s prefrontal cortex (located directly behind the forehead) with what’s called “working memory.” At the same time, we trigger a mix of neurotransmitters and hormones, in particular the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps keep us engaged and focused. And the more you can put that focus into practice, the more benefits you’ll enjoy, says Bethany, including improved memory, better emotional and mental health, and more efficient work patterns. To achieve those benefits, however, humans must conquer the many disruptions and concentration killers that we encounter every day.
Threats to Concentration
“Social media in particular is a distraction machine,” says Bethany. “It trains us to pay attention only for short bursts of time and to always be looking for the next click. You couldn’t have designed a better system for interrupting the ability to think deeply. It keeps you from engaging in that sort of steeping process, like a tea bag steeping, that allows thoughts to sink in.” What’s more, the brain constantly adapts to conditions, so if you’re endlessly clicking through meme after meme, you are actually teaching your brain to employ only those short attention bursts, adds Bethany.
There’s another concentration killer that comes in fragmented form: interrupted sleep, or the failure to get deep, restorative ZZZs. “When you’re sleep deprived, the executive functions which involve attention control and working memory sort of go out the window,” says Bethany. If you then spend your day as a couch potato, concentration can suffer without the boost of focus-sharpening dopamine that exercise can bring. Although working out has been shown to promote brain vitality, don’t exercise to the point of dehydration. The parched state impairs cognitive function, according to research.
How about the effect of time’s creep when it comes to concentration? You may be surprised. While some cognitive abilities are affected by age, such as short-term memory, others tend to be preserved in older age, including focused attention and recall of past events. And the even better news: research shows there are ways to improve concentration, no matter how old you are.
How to Harness Brainpower
Exercise isn’t just a boon to brain health when you’re young; older adults with greater aerobic endurance showed increased activation in the prefrontal regions responsible for attention control, according to research. Even moderate exercise, such as walking for 40 minutes three times a week, has been shown to enhance cognitive function.
It’s possible to get a mental boost from relax-mode, too. Regular meditators benefit from better concentration, memory, and sleep, studies show. “As someone who’s been meditating for more than 25 years, I can attest to the fact that it definitely builds your ability to let go of distractions,” says Bethany. “It’s good for anyone at any age; studies have shown physical changes in the brain for folks who meditate regularly. It really is a method for training the brain.”
Simply being mindful throughout the day makes a difference, too. “What wears us out, and can wear away concentration, is automatic, somewhat obsessive, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of work—for example, grinding through loads of emails,” says Bethany. “But taking a short mindfulness break to stretch, wiggle your toes, and pay attention to your breathing helps.” Try a five-minute break for every 25 minutes of work, he suggests.
There are still more tools at the ready to sharpen focus, including the tasty type. Fruits and vegetables deliver antioxidants and phytonutrients that your brain needs, while omega-3 fatty acids (found in wild salmon, walnuts, and grass-fed beef) play a key role in cognitive health, including improving learning and memory. In addition, Bethany recommends trying a “slow food” approach—engaging all your senses, paying attention to each meal prep step rather than rushing through, and treating mealtime as a mindful meditation.
What if you’ve tried all of the above and you still can’t stay focused? For some adults and children, an attention deficit disorder may be the cause. The National Resource on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder estimates the disorder affects 11 percent of school-age children and approximately 10 million adults. “If lack of focus is really interfering with your ability to function, if you can’t get things done and you constantly fail to meet deadlines, or if there’s a pattern of problems, that’s the time to see a doctor for a formal assessment,” says Bethany. If you have a diagnosable disorder, certain medications may help, he says, so it’s important to seek treatment.
For many people, one or more of the methods here may offer the desired edge in filtering out distractions and honing concentration. “Meditation is more of a formal practice, but doing any activity that requires paying attention will provide benefits for your brain—playing a musical instrument, sewing, playing chess—any kind of hobby that engages you for longer stretches of time,” says Bethany. “It’s so novel these days, no pun intended, to read a book, yet these types of engaging, enjoyable activities are great exercise for your brain.”
- DO focus on your breathing. Sit comfortably and pay attention to the sensation of your breath in and out—coming in cool, going out warm. As thoughts or emotions come up, gently let them go.
- DON’T have a goal. Simply count exhalations up to 10 then start over. If you lose the count, and you inevitably will, simply start over at one.
- DO start with as little as five minutes.
- DON’T judge your meditation. It’s common for people to say, “I tried to meditate, but I couldn’t. My mind wandered. I got distracted.” Everybody’s mind wanders. Everybody gets distracted, even seasoned practitioners. To say, “That was a waste of time, I don’t think I’ll do this anymore,” is a real loss. Even if we’re distracted thinking about Game of Thrones or another random topic, there’s still something happening, and persistence can yield surprising benefits.