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Last Updated on December 1, 2020

7 Ways to Improve Focus And Memory (Backed By Science)

7 Ways to Improve Focus And Memory (Backed By Science)

You know that feeling when you’re wide awake, but your brain isn’t? You want better focus and memory, but you just can’t seem to get there.

I call it “brain fog”—an annoying mental haze that results in difficulty focusing, trouble retaining information, and, as a result, compromised effectiveness.

For some reason, the fog always seems to sneak up on me when I need my brain power the most, like before an important presentation or on the day before a major project is due. However, with the right tools, I usually find my way back to better focus and memory in the nick of time.

Like the dense clouds that hover over city streets, brain fog can feel impossible to cut through.

Fortunately, the human brain is resilient. With a little training and redirection, it’s possible to reclaim your mind from the fog and all the frustration (and lost time) that comes with it.

Struggling to stay on task or retain information? Try these 7 science-backed methods for better focus and memory

1. Do a Short, Strenuous Workout

I had slept for a full eight hours and eaten a nutritious breakfast. I had even had an extra cup of coffee that morning. But none of it was enough to wake up my brain. (Of course, I also happened to be on an important deadline.) So, I did the last thing I could think of: I shut my laptop and hit the gym.

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There’s plenty of well-known evidence that physical activity can positively impact brain health, including a person’s memory. While many of exercise’s health benefits occur with regular, long-term activity, a single bout of exercise can also pack a significant, immediate, punch.

To improve your memory with exercise, think short bouts and high exertion. The more strenuous the workout, the better the brain boost. In a recent study, researchers found a group of people who rode on a stationary bike for 20 minutes had an improved ability to remember faces[1].

Rather than taking a long, leisurely walk on your lunch break, try running up and down the stairs a few times, or find a place to do some jumping jacks for a few minutes. You’ll not only jump start your energy and sharpen your focus, but you’ll improve your memory in the process.

2. Exercise After You Learn

If you’re starting a new job, learning a new skill, or just attending an important meeting, do yourself a favor and plan your workout for four hours afterward. Along with boosting your focus, a bit of high-intensity movement can also be a simple way to retain recently learned knowledge—but only if you exercise at the right time.

In their research, scientists had participants learn a set of picture-location associations. One group rode a stationary bike at high intensity right after learning, another group did the exercise four hours later, and the final group didn’t do any physical activity.

Using an MRI, researchers found the individuals who exercised four hours after learning retained the most information compared to the other learners[2].

3. Cut the Distractions

There’s a time and a place for a break to re-calibrate your brain, but these breaks should be intentional. Constant interruptions won’t do you any favors, except for interrupting your workflow, and they certainly won’t lead to better focus and memory.

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I find I’m most productive and focused when I don’t give myself the opportunity to mentally switch gears. That means I keep distractions to a minimum the best I can.

When I want to achieve a state of “flow,” I put my phone on airplane mode so I don’t receive notifications that will veer me off track. I also eliminate unnecessary distractions by keeping my desk and office space clear of clutter when possible, and closing all other tabs on my internet browser.

Since the brain isn’t hard-wired to multi-task, I also try not to listen to podcasts or distracting music, which compete for my attention. Instead, I opt for classical music, which has been thought to improve focus by enhancing brain activity[3].

4. Go Outside

When it comes to better focus and memory, a little fresh air and beautiful scenery can go a long way. Even if you simply sit outside for your lunch break, you’re giving your brain more oxygen, which can boost your energy levels and improve overall brain function.

Spending longer chunks of time in nature can have profound, immediate effects on the mind. One study found memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent in people who spent just one hour in nature[4].

Don’t let the cloudy or cold weather keep you from the outdoors; researchers found the same effects across the board. Surprisingly, even simply viewing nature photos had a similar effect on people.

If you absolutely can’t venture outside, temporarily move your workstation to an area with plants (or go out and buy a potted plant or some fresh stems for your home office). One study found that adding live plants to an office increased employee productivity by 15 percent and improved workers’ concentration[5].

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5. Meditate

Having a hard time focusing or remembering important details? Train your brain and body to stay in the present by practicing mindful meditation, which can also benefit your mental and physical health.

Scientific evidence shows meditating can actually change your brain structure, leading to a sharper short-term memory and an improved ability to learn[6]

Meditation can also help the brain with emotional regulation and sustained attention[7].

Luckily, you don’t have to be a pro to reap the benefits of meditation. One of my favorite ways to meditate is simply sitting with my eyes closed for five minutes and taking deep breaths from my belly, in through the nose and out through the mouth.

Whenever I get distracted by an outside noise—or more likely, if my brain wanders to whatever I have coming up later on that day—I try to shift my focus back to my breathing. Those ten minutes make a huge difference in both my focus and my overall mood.

6. Grab a Cup of Coffee (or Two)

Fortunately for me, there’s actual scientific evidence behind my favorite afternoon pick-me-up habit: a hot cup of coffee. Can’t get out for a quick bout of exercise? Simply walk to your favorite coffee shop (or your kitchen), instead.

By getting up or going out for a drink, you’ll not only glean the benefits of some exercise and a much-needed break, but the process of sipping your drink, you’ll become more productive. A 2016 study found a caffeine jolt (as low as 40 mg, which is around four ounces of regular coffee) can improve alertness, attention span, and reaction time.

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A bit of caffeine can even help with vigilance, or the ability to sustain performance on boring tasks[8].

7. Do Something Else

Training your mind to remain in the present can lead to better focus and memory. However, zoning out or doing something else completely, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, has a similar effect on the mind.

Here’s why losing focus is more productive than you think: when you’re concentrated on something, your frontal cortex is busy resisting distractions. If you stay concentrated for too long, your ability to resist distractions will become fatigued, and that Netflix show or your Instagram feed will become all the more appealing[9]

Let your mind take a break from the task at hand if you’re losing steam. Instead of forcing yourself to focus, daydream, solve another problem, or engage in an engrossing, hands-on activity, like washing the dishes.

Sure, it may feel counterproductive to take your mind (and hands) off the project you’re trying to focus on, but you’ll probably come back to the task with a refreshed mind—and maybe, if you’re lucky, a kitchen full of clean dishes.

More Tips on Obtaining Better Focus and Memory

Featured photo credit: Tim van der Kuip via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Aytekin Tank

Founder and CEO of JotForm, sharing entrepreneurship and productivity tips at Lifehack.

What Is Block Scheduling? (And How It Boosts Productivity) The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again How to Increase Attention Span If You Have a Distracted Mind 8 Surefire Problem-Solving Strategies That Always Work 9 Weekend Activities To Set You Up For Productivity the New Week

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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

How to Use the 5 Whys to Get to the Root Cause of Any Problem

How to Use the 5 Whys to Get to the Root Cause of Any Problem

Do you take long to solve career or business problems? It may be time to learn how to use the 5 Whys to make the process simpler.

Maybe you believe that you need to know 1000 techniques to solve problems faster. The truth is that there isn’t a single technique that can solve all your problems. But despite this reality, you can still solve most of your problems in an effective way.

How? By leveraging Sakichi Toyoda’s 5 Whys technique. Toyoda used this technique for the Toyota production system, but you can apply it to most of your problems[1]. So, stop trying to memorize dozens of techniques and get ready to work smarter!

What Is the 5 Whys Method?

With the 5 Whys technique, you have to ask 5 questions.

Simple, right? Whenever you’re facing a problem, ask what may have contributed to the current results. Then, continue asking 5 times, or until you reach the root cause.

The 5 Whys | Find the Root Cause of a Problem Fast

    How do you know that this technique works? Well, Toyota has successfully implemented this technique to improve their assembly line. Now imagine what it can do to help you solve common problems[2]!

    The 5 Whys process isn’t complex, but it’ll take time to get used to. If you’re like most, you tend to jump at finding solutions when solving problems. Instead, start by asking one question each time you’re facing a problem.

    It can be for anything minor such as being stuck in traffic. In this case, your first question would be why you didn’t avoid traffic. Ask a single question for all your problems, and continue adding more until you ask 5 by default.

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    Eventually, you’ll know when to ask the 5 Whys and find a root cause to most of your problems. But, you don’t always have to work alone. When you work with unfamiliar topics, work with team members to brainstorm answers.

    If you want to know how to be a great team player, check out this article.

    For example, if you’re troubleshooting a bad marketing campaign for your business, work with your marketing team to find a solution. As a business owner, you’ll wear many hats but won’t be able to find a root cause to most of your problems alone.

    How to Ask the 5 Whys Efficiently

    Before you start asking the 5 Whys, you need to prepare to get the best results. Here’s the flow process for solving a real-world problem:

    1. Get the Right Resources

    You don’t know what you don’t know. So, gather information through books and online resources before solving a problem. You’ll find yourself researching more often for topics you’re not familiar with.

    If you don’t prepare, you’ll limit yourself to an ineffective root cause.

    You can also surround yourself with people who specialize in certain areas. This way you can work together with your group to find the best root cause of a problem.

    Your goal here is to feel comfortable with the questions you’re working with. Avoid answering questions you’re unsure of because you’ll most likely end up with a bad root cause.

    2. Understand the Problem

    Before you solve any problem, it’s important to know the nature of the problem you’re solving. This will help you avoid finding an irrelevant root cause.

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    When you define the problem, you’ll also avoid confusion when working with teams. For example, when working in teams, often it’s easy to assume that everyone is working on the same problem. But this isn’t always the case and can cause teams working to solve two different problems.

    3. Ask Your First 5 Questions

    Once you’ve spent enough time preparing, ask your first question. Instead of giving quick answers, brainstorm which answers will bring the most value. Each question depends on its predecessor, so give meaningful answers.

    The rule of thumb here is to keep repeating why five times until you’ve found a potential root cause. Typically, 5 questions or less is enough to solve the most common problems, but don’t limit yourself to 5 questions if it’s genuinely necessary to ask more.

    Instead, keep asking questions until you can’t anymore.

    4. Find Your Root Cause

    The main goal for using the 5 Whys framework is to end up with a root cause for the issue you’re experiencing. You should come up with an answer that helps you understand when/why the problem occurs.

    It’s also used to address high-level issues so that you can track your progress afterward. By addressing high-level issues, you’ll solve problems quicker before addressing the root cause.

    An Example of the 5 Whys

    Learning about the 5 Whys framework is great, but having real-world examples is better. Here’s an example you can use as a template for when you’re solving real-world problems:

    Problem: Employers haven’t called me back for an interview for the past 3 months

    • Question 1: Why is my resume not getting noticed by employers?
      Because it’s too generic and not showing any special skills for the roles you’re applying to.
    • Question 2: Why is my resume too generic?
      Because I want it to appeal to many professions.
    • Question 3: Why do I want to apply to many professions?
      Because I want to increase my chances of getting hired.
    • Question4: Why would applying to several professions increase my odds at getting hired?
      Because I wouldn’t limit myself to available job openings at one specific profession.
    • Question 5: Why would I limit myself to job openings available?
      Because there is a high demand for my profession.

    In this scenario, you’d stop at question 5 because you’ve found a potential root cause.

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    Since there’s a lot of competition for your industry, your resume needs to stand out. Who do you think an employer will hire, a jack of all trades or an expert in their profession?

    Whenever you’re working with a problem, take time to brainstorm the best questions. That’s because it’ll impact the quality of the root cause you’ll end up with.

    When Do the 5 Whys Not Work?

    As you’ve seen, the 5 Whys isn’t complicated and can be used for many kinds of problems, but it takes a lot of effort to execute correctly. When done right, it can help you find the culprit to most of your common problems. The problem is that this technique isn’t suited for every situation.

    Unreplicable Results

    You won’t be able to replicate the same results. Think about it: you’re creating your own questions and answering them in a unique way. No one else would be able to replicate your results for the most part.

    This means that even two teams working in the same environment will come up with two separate answers.

    Limited by the Knowledge Available

    As mentioned before, gather enough information when solving an unknown problem. The problem is that you won’t always have the best resources available. Because of this, you’ll limit yourself to the quality of your answers.

    If you’re ever facing an unknown topic, try a different problem-solving technique.

    Focusing on a Single Root Cause

    The main goal behind using the 5 Whys is to come up with a single root cause. But all problems don’t always have a single solution. For example, a marketing campaign can have a best, good, and worst case scenario.

    These limitations don’t make the 5 Whys a bad technique to use. Instead, they let you know how to use this technique more effectively.

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    The 5 Whys works best for improving processes and solving simple problems, but it falls short when working with complex problems. That’s why you’ll need to know other alternatives.

    For example, a company’s low customer response rate may be due to several factors. In this case, you’d choose a technique that’s better suited to solve complex problems. Determine which problems you face the most to know which techniques will help you the most.

    The Bottom Line

    Imagine conquering issues most people give up on.

    People would look at you and assume that you know 1000 ways to solve a problem. The truth is that not much has changed since you’d struggled with solving problems.

    But you’re now using a proven system that’s made your life easier.

    You’re a problem-solving machine.

    If you don’t believe this can be your reality, you’re wrong. You have what it takes to solve your problems, but you’ll need to practice. Start by asking one question today as you face a problem.

    Then, keep doing the same until you’re asking several questions for each of your problems. You won’t master the 5 Whys analysis overnight, but, with enough practice, this technique will feel more natural.

    More Problem Solving Techniques

    Featured photo credit: Startaê Team via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Harvard Business Review: The Unimportance of Practically Everything
    [2] Harvard Business Review: The Five Whys for Start-Ups

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