The ability to concentrate for a long span of time can have a lot of benefits — if you're absorbing large amounts of information, knocking an intensive work task out of the park, or pulling a four-hour stretch on a single project, chances are that you're using your focusing skills to do just that. But what about those days where all the words on your screen seem to blur together, or you keep refreshing your social media tab, or you keep zoning out of that all-important staff meeting? If that's the case more often than not, there are ways to train yourself to improve concentration and focus.
"The brain is a programmable computer," Dr. William R. Klemm, Senior Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University, tells Bustle. And that means that if you're currently finding that your concentration level are faltering, you can train your brain to do better.
Concentration isn't just about maintaining tunnel vision on tasks. Focus, Dr. Klemm explains, helps the brain in two ways: it makes rigorous, sustained thinking easier, and it helps solidify memories. If you've ever had a long, difficult train of thought and needed to integrate many different ideas at once, your concentration has helped you keep on track without distractions. And when you learn something for the first time, explains Dr. Klemm, "you have to protect that information for a few minutes at least to give it a chance to set like cement. Any interruption that occurs during this set-up period, called consolidation, will erase the memory." Staying focused in that crucial period will keep your memory crisp and sharp.
If you've noticed that you're losing focus, experts tell Bustle that these hacks can help you keep your brain up to speed.
The first step in the journey to better concentration is to identify when you're not focusing and why. "It all begins with being self-aware of what you're thinking," says Dr. Klemm. "If you're not focusing, and you're aware of that, then you have an opportunity" to change that pattern of thinking.
People with tendencies towards anxiety may find it difficult to focus because of intrusive thoughts, which pop up and interrupt trains of thought, sometimes very urgently. Licensed clinical social worker and anxiety expert Karen R. Koenig tells Bustle, "If thoughts are intrusive enough to impede concentration, we need to assess if they’re trying to tell us something important. If so, then we need to pay attention. If not, they should be intentionally filed under unimportant and inconsequential in our brains."
If you can't concentrate because of worry — or more alarming and anxious thoughts — then you need to examine where they're coming from. If they're not important, Koenig says, we can make the choice to let them pass by. "Thoughts are like trains: we only want to get on the ones that are taking us to a desired destination," she says.
You may find pride in the fact that you can do 15 things at once, but this isn't actually helping your overall focus levels. In fact, say experts, it's damaging them. "The brain cannot do multiple things at the same time," says Dr. Klemm. "It switches rapidly between them." Your attention doesn't hold multiple ideas simultaneously; it looks at each of the tasks in turn, and that means your overall focus levels aren't operating at 100%.
"We live in a culture that encourages multitasking," Dr. Klemm tells Bustle. "If you want to stop that and learn how to focus, you need to be aware of when you are multi-tasking." Need to get a lot done? Psychologist Dr. Paola Bailey, PsyD, suggests breaking down your time into discrete sections. "Plan to work for shorter chunks of time; around 45 minutes is ideal, and then set up a 10 minute break," she tells Bustle. Systems such as The Pomodoro Method can help you figure out your time management.
Research shows that sleep and concentration are very interlinked. People with insomnia, Dr. Bailey tells Bustle, often don't realize how seriously that might affect their attention and concentration. "You have to think of attention as cognitive performance," she says. "Anything that you would do to improve your physical performance will help." If you're having sleep issues and solutions like improving your sleep hygiene aren't working, she suggests going to see a professional. They might be able to help, and that, she says, "could give you the secondary gain of improving your attention."
While what you eat can't transform the way you think, certain food choices can make concentration easier in some people. Nutritionist Neda Varbanova of Healthy with Nedi recommends a variety of different foods with science-backed reputations for improving concentration and cognitive function. Walnuts, she tells Bustle, "contain healthy fats that support good brain function as you age," while blueberries have been shown in studies to promote learning, memory and cognitive function, particularly in older people. She also recommends turmeric, because of its active ingredient curcumin, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects on the brain that help delay cognitive decline, and green tea. "The caffeine in green tea has been found to boost concentration and improve memory," she tells Bustle, "and it's also rich in antioxidants which reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s."
However, too much caffeine, particularly in coffee, can be an issue, Dr. Bailey says: "Caffeine produces a spark that's helpful in the beginning but then you crash." Similarly, Dr. Bailey advises avoiding other stimulants or drugs. "Study after study shows that pot interferes with memory," she says. She also strongly advises against using drugs used to treat ADD or ADHD if you're not prescribed them, since the side effects can be severe.
Mind wandering? Can't get yourself to knuckle down and get rid of distracting thoughts? If you're experiencing difficulties with concentration, says Koenig, you need to look at the task you're doing at the time and assess your feelings about it. "Do we want to do it? Is it absorbing? Is it so difficult, we’re putting it off and that’s why our thoughts are drifting?" She suggests improving concentration by reframing the way you think about the task in front of you. "Enhance motivation for attending to it and getting it done," she tells Bustle.
One of the major things that experts suggest for improved concentration, Dr. Klemm tells Bustle, "is not original; we've known it for millennia." The technique he recommends is mindfulness meditation, a practice that involves focusing on the breath and training the brain to ignore all other chatter. Mindfulness has been the subject of many studies about cognitive effects, and a study in 2018 found that it produced a significant boost in concentration and working memory in people who practiced mindfulness for 10 minutes a day. "If you have 15 min sessions of this kind of meditation every day, you are training your brain how to focus," says Dr. Klemm. Fortunately, mindfulness is also free to learn; if you'd like a guide, apps like Calm or video meditations by Headspace are a good start.
If you have any power over your work environment, now is the time to do some reshuffling, says Dr. Bailey. In the age of open-plan offices, it's rare to have an office door that you can shut and drown out external distractions. If that's not an option, Dr. Bailey suggests, "see if you can institute something like office hours, where you're available for interruptions between certain times and otherwise you're not available."
If that's not possible with your office structure or work schedule, there are other methods you can use, says Dr. Bailey. "Maximize your natural peaks; most people have a natural part of the day where they function a little bit better," she tells Bustle. Some people are more alert and efficient in the mornings, others in mid-afternoon. "Condense your most rigorous tasks into that time if you can," she says.
Mindfulness isn't the only brain-training exercise you can do. Dr. Bailey and Dr. Klemm both tell Bustle that the brain is like a muscle, and concentration will improve the more you focus on exercising it. Dr. Bailey suggests doing small exercises that intentionally stretch your focus.
Set aside a few minutes a day for a practice called selective re-focusing. "Several times a day, choose to focus on visual cues for a minute or 30 seconds, then move to auditory cues, then something else," says Dr. Bailey. "Jump between stimuli, but force yourself to focus on it." It may feel odd while you're doing it, but it seems to train the brain to have better focus over the long term.
If you've wondered about the calming properties of yoga, Dr. Klemm advises you may want to incorporate it into your daily regime to help expand your concentration. "You can combine meditation with yoga postures; that might sound like multitasking and in a way it is, but if you use it in a way where you're focusing not on the yoga but on your breathing, then you're accomplishing the training," he says.
A study by neuroscientists in 2018 found that regular yoga practitioners had different brain structures to people who didn't practice yoga at all, including more grey matter — the neural cells of the brain — and a shift in the activity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for things like working memory. Regular yoga practice definitely seems to have positive effects for concentration.
Being surrounded by technology can help us, but it can also hinder focus. If you're trying not to multitask, and want to block out external distractions, you'll need to be proactive, says Dr. Bailey. "The number one thing that distracts people right now is their phones," she tells Bustle. Using airplane mode or a do not disturb function on your phone, and limiting your distraction time on the internet, can be very helpful for your focus, she says. If necessary, invest in free apps that restrict your time on certain websites.
Not everybody works best in pin-drop silence. "You have to figure out what works for you," Dr. Bailey explains. "For some people, ambient noise in a coffee shop will work very well," though others won't function as well. She recommends music without lyrics or a noise machine to help concentration if you like a bit of noise in the background; machines which produce white, brown and pink noise, blocking particular frequencies of noise, are available.
Improving your concentration isn't an all-at-once thing; according to experts, it's a matter of changing habits, understanding how you focus and why, and taking on new ideas and techniques that will change your brain over time. Do them regularly, though, and you may look up from your book or task to discover that hours have passed — and you've been so absorbed you haven't noticed a thing.