What was I doing again?
We've all had days where we can't seem to focus, asking that question too many times to count. For some of us, those days are more common than we'd like.
Whether it's fatigue, distractions, lack of motivation, or something else entirely, our inability to focus digs a hole in our productivity and, therefore, can jeopardize our chances of success.
But you don't have to go to extremes to get focused. There are better ways. Here are 15 tips that scientists have found that enhance focus.
1. Minimize multitasking
Multitaskers might seem superhuman, but they pay a big price, according to a 2009 Stanford study. In a sample of 100 Stanford students, about half identified themselves as media multitaskers. The other half did not.
The test examined attention spans, memory capacity, and ability to switch from one task to the next — and the multitaskers performed more poorly on each test.
"They're suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them," Clifford Nass, who was a researcher for the study, said in a Stanford press release.
If the saying "practice makes perfect" is true, then meditation is a sure way to enhance focus because it takes a great deal of concentration.
Scientific experiments agree. One study at the University of North Carolina, for example, revealed that students who meditated for just 20 minutes a day for four days performed better on certain cognitive tests.
3. Exercise regularly
Exercise isn't just good for the body. It promotes brain health, too, which is important for memory capacity and concentration, according to John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
In particular, scientists think regular exercise may help stimulate the release of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which some research suggests helps rewire memory circuits to improve their functioning.
4. Establish a to-do list
To-do lists not only help you prioritize what tasks you need to get done first, but they can also serve as a record of the loose ends.
Cal Newport, a computer-science professor and author of the book Deep Work, which comes out in January, told Business Insider that having a recording of all the things you still need to do can help you stay focused on the upcoming task.
If not, he said, that incomplete work could eat away at your concentration. This stems from something called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is the tendency to remember incomplete tasks instead of completed ones.
5. Try a small amount of caffeine
If you're feeling groggy, grab a cup of joe or other caffeinated substance. Studies suggest that caffeine may, in moderate doses, help to boost focus — particularly in those of us who are fatigued.
But don't get overzealous with the coffee, or you might get the caffeine jitters, which typically reduce your ability to concentrate.
6. Take breaks
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 closing your eyes for a few minutes at a time, 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.
7. Keep work at work
Newport recommends completely separating yourself after leaving the office and having a "long separation" before the next work day.
Apart from just giving your brain a break, some research suggests that having downtime away from a problem could help you solve it. According to the unconscious-thought theory, stepping away from a difficult situation can help you come to a better conclusion than trying to resolve it in one sitting.
But this theory is a bit disputed. A 2015 meta-analysis of unconscious-thought advantage studies came to the conclusion that a diversion from a decision doesn't necessarily lead to a better choice than a decision made in a deliberation period.
8. Train your brain to focus
But which exercises work — and for how well or long their effects last — is unclear. Therefore, the purported benefits of brain training need further examination, Susanne Jaeggi — who studies the brain and memory at the University of California — told New Scientist.
9. Try to find a quiet place
Ambient noise, like cars honking or kids screaming, can stimulate the release of the stress hormone cortisol, Mark A.W. Andrews, former director of the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, told Scientific American.
Too much cortisol can impair function and hinder focus. And, unfortunately, the more we're exposed to ambient noise, the worse our bodies respond, according to Andrews.
10. Stare at a distant object for a few minutes
Many of us spend most of our waking hours staring at a digital screen, which can strain our eyes and actually make it more difficult to focus on, and therefore process, what we're looking at.
To refocus the eyes, just stare at a distant object for a few minutes. One doctor suggested the "20-20-20 rule" to a journalist at LifeHacker. It goes like this: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to stare at an object at least 20 feet away.
11. Get a good night's sleep
One of the main symptoms of chronic sleep loss is poor concentration. Getting a solid seven to eight hours ahead of a busy work day could be the difference between being frazzled and being laser-focused.
12. Work offline
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.
13. Designate your perfect study spot
Focusing requires a lot of willpower, and so does making decisions. According to a concept called ego depletion, we have a finite amount of mental energy, and both decision-making and willpower can drain it.
To save that energy for concentration, proponents of the theory suggest getting rid of excess variables that require you to make decisions, like choosing where to work. Try working from the same location whenever you need to focus, for example. That way, when it's time to get the work done, you won't have to waste time deciding where to go.
14. Embrace boredom
If you're used to needing multiple forms of stimulation while "relaxing," it may have a negative impact on your ability to focus, says Newport. So instead of checking Facebook from your phone while watching Netflix, he suggests picking one of the two activities or taking a break from stimulation.
In small doses, Newport says boredom can be helpful, especially if it keeps you from multitasking overload.
15. Devote specific hours to tasks
We've all been there. You show up to the coffee shop, the whole day's ahead of you, but you just can't focus for an hour or two.
Newport says giving yourself tighter parameters could help cut down the amount of decisions you have to make. Like picking a consistent focus spot, designating "focus hours" also helps fend off ego depletion.
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