It’s hardly news that we live in an era of unprecedented, perpetual distraction. Phones chime, computers ding, and projects, people,and content constantly vie for our attention. Given the sense of urgency that’s all around us, it’s no surprise that the average attention span is only eight seconds—one second less than a goldfish’s.
Some may argue that technology—as well as other human advancements—has allowed us to do more, see more, experience more, and earn more. While this may be true to some extent, overall our lack of focus has taken a toll in the most important spheres of our life: Relationships, work, self-care and genuine accomplishment. (The greatest human endeavors, from flight to art, were likely not created with an iPhone pinging in the background.)
If you, too, are one of the many people who find themselves unsure how, exactly, they spent their day at the office (hello, YouTube holes), or aren’t deriving as much pleasure from life because you’re having an increasingly hard time staying present, then you may need to start calling on tools to help you get and stay focused. With this in mind, here are seven stellar ways for finding—and sustaining—your concentration.
1. Prioritize sleep
Remember when getting four or five hours of sleep per night was seen as glamorous and productive? Not only should we be glad that that’s behind us, but we should also pay attention to what science demonstrates: That sleep is far more essential than we once realized. Over the last two decades, an abundance of research has shown that inadequate sleep mimics the signs of aging, increases the severity of conditions such as diabetes and obesity, lowers our pain threshold and raises anxiety, Psychology Today reports. It also wreaks havoc on your ability to think clearly, rendering your ability to focus less doable. Eight hours per night is ideal—and getting it should top your list of priorities.
It may sound basic, but your brain depends on proper hydration to function optimally. Take it from Joshua Gowin, PhD: “Years of research have found that when we’re parched, we have more difficulty keeping our attention focused.” What’s more, he says, “Dehydration can impair short-term memory function and the recall of long-term memory. The ability to perform mental arithmetic, like calculating whether or not you’ll be late for work if you hit snooze for another 15 minutes, is compromised when your fluids are low.” Remember the 8 x 8 rule: Every day you need eight, 8-ounce glasses of water, and even more if you drink diuretics like coffee, tea and alcohol (or sweat excessively and/or exercise strenuously).
3. Check Your Mood
…and sometimes literally at the door. That argument with your spouse, the news article that set you off, the repercussions of a recent loss, even just good, old-fashioned hormone fluctuations: All can impair your faculty for focusing, and significantly at that. “The better you understand yourself, your personal psychology, and your emotional hot buttons, the better able you will be to hold yourself in the right emotional state for focus, while steering clear of the negative states that render sharp focus impossible,” Edward M. Hallowell reports. This is not to say that you need to be in the perfect mood or that all of your issues need to be resolved before you can sit down to get work done—after all, there is rarely a point in life when there isn’t at least something going on. It does, however, mean that you need to manage your feelings differently when your concentration is required.
To do so, sit in a quiet space, acknowledge the emotion and make a pledge with yourself to handle it later. “You want to compartmentalize but not push out,” entrepreneur Ryan Blair told Forbes. As he advises, isolate issues from all others, apply extreme focus on each compartment, and say “no” to things that don’t deserve a compartment. Which brings us to our next point…
4. Learn the art of passing
Dinner with friends, a weekend meeting with your contractor, a huge project that’s due on your boss’s desk, baking goods for your son’s upcoming fundraiser: It’s no wonder you’re having difficulty concentrating. In order to get your focus back, it’s imperative to see how you’re spending your time (as well as with whom) and if it’s worth a compartment in your life. In this sense, you will have to learn the art of saying no to invitations that don’t truly interest you and to tasks that you can’t realistically handle. You have only a finite amount of mental energy, physical energy and emotional energy per day, and that should be put towards things you value and love.
5. Avoid burnout
Say you are doing what you value and love—and still can’t focus? Chances are you’ve been pushing yourself too hard and are in a state of overwhelm. Think of it like this: Pressing the pedal to the medal won’t make your car move forward if the gas tank is empty. Refilling your own is just as vital. Step away from family, friends, clients and colleagues to appreciate nature in solitude. Attend a yoga class. Book a massage. Meditate. Escape into a novel. The more you care for yourself—and the more fuel you add to your internal tank—the abler you’ll be to manage life’s tasks.
6. Make a to-do list
Sound simple? That’s because it is—and some of the most effective things in life really are the most obvious. If you can’t concentrate because you have a litany of things itching at the back of your mind—that leaky faucet, that dermatologist appointment you need to make, that gift you need to order for your sister—then it’s time to tackle them. A friend of mine keeps an “Oh Mercy” to do list open on her desktop. Whenever a random “must-do” thought strikes her and interrupts her work—whether it’s arranging for a haircut or ordering more vitamins—she jots it down and returns to the work at hand. Each morning, she spends fifteen minutes tackling those “must-dos” that haunt her. The list may never end, but by placing it in its own compartment, she assumes some control over her life (and finds herself more productive, with greater mental clarity). While this strategy may not work for you, writing your thoughts down rather than swirling through your head will help refine your focus.
7. Set down that cup of coffee
Coffee may seem like your lifeblood when you need to focus, and the science is there to prove it: Research shows that it can promote alertness and improve performance. The key, however, is finding your sweet spot. You may be tempted to keep the coffee flowing but even a smidgen too much can cause nervousness, anxiety, and the jitters—the very things you don’t need when you want to focus. (Coffee isn’t the only culprit: caffeinated teas, chocolate, soda and energy drinks can engender the same effects.)
New research published in the European Journal of Epidemiology shows that two to four cups daily is the optimal amount (and can, in fact, reduce the risk of heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer, and diabetes). That being said, every person’s sensitivity to caffeine is different, and you may not be able to tolerate more than one. Whatever the case may be, experiment with fresh ways to reenergize. A brisk walk around the block will not only clear your head and enhance concentration—it may also add up to seven years of your life. Which begs the question: How will you focus that time?~