7 Useful Tips for Improving Your Mental Focus
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Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change.
Staying on task can be difficult, but it can be particularly challenging when you are surrounded by constant distraction. In today’s always-connected world, diversions are nothing more than a click away.
The ability to concentrate on something in your environment and direct mental effort toward it is critical for learning new things, achieving goals, and performing well across a wide variety of situations.
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.
Press Play for Advice On Staying Motivated
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.
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.
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.
Try a small amount of caffeine
But don’t get overzealous with the coffee, or you might get the caffeine jitters, which typically reduce your ability to concentrate. You can also try a cup of tea, which won’t give you the quick buzz like coffee but can provide you energy for a longer period thanks to the L-theanine chemicals in it that our bodies metabolize throughout the day.
You might have heard that watching cat videos on YouTube can improve productivity. Well, that’s true . sort of. Whether it’s watching cat videos, taking a walk, or a brief nap, it is critical to take the occasional break from work.
In one study, 84 subjects were asked to perform a simple computer task for one hour. Those who were allowed two brief breaks during that hour performed consistently for the entire time whereas those who weren’t offered a break performed worse over time.
Another widely-noted 2011 study analyzed the decision making process of 1,112 judges and found that more “favorable rulings” were made by judges during the beginning of the day and after they took periodic food breaks. Essentially, this study explored how “decision fatigue” (i.e. how fast and accurately we make decisions) was alleviated by semi-frequent breaks.
Get a good night’s sleep
If you can disconnect from the internet, there are fewer things to distract you from the work at hand. Experts think that every time you flip between tasks — whether it be responding to a friend on Facebook or checking your inbox — a little bit of your attention remains with the task you just left.
Sophie Leroy, a professor at the University of Washington at Bothell, coined the term “attention residue” as the reason for why it’s so hard to change tasks. Eliminating those online distractions can keep you from finding tasks to flip between and help you focus.
Disconnecting from the internet may mean unplugging from social media too. If possible, try limiting or all together getting rid of social media use during your work day. Designating time to look through social media, rather than checking it constantly throughout the day, can help you stay on task.