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Published on July 15, 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

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Aytekin Tank

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

7 Ways to Improve Focus And Memory (Backed By Science) How to Take Good Notes at Work: 6 Effective Ways 9 Positive Affirmations to Boost Your Work Morale How to Negotiate With People Who Won’t Negotiate Effectively How to Boost Your Productivity with Block Scheduling

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Published on July 29, 2020

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

How to Build Strategic Thinking Skills for Effective Leadership

Have you been thinking of how you can be a more strategic leader during these uncertain times? Has the pandemic thrown a wrench at all your carefully laid out plans and initiatives?

You’re not alone. The truth is, we all want some stability in our careers and teams during this disruptive pandemic.

However, this now requires a bit more effort than before and making the leap from merely surviving to thriving means buckling down to some serious strategic thinking and maintaining a determined mindset.

Is There a Way to Thrive Despite These Disruptions?

Essentially – yes, although you need to be willing to put in the work. Every leader wants to develop strategic thinking skills so that they can enhance overall team performance and boost their company’s success, but what exactly does it mean to be strategic in the context of the times we live in?

If you happen to be in a leadership position in your organization right now, you are most probably navigating precarious waters given the disruptions caused by the pandemic. There’s a lot more pressure than before because your actions and decisions will have a much greater impact these days not just on you, but also to the people who are part of your team.

Companies often bring me in to coach executives on strategic thinking and planning. And while pre-pandemic I would usually start by highlighting the advantages of strategic thinking, nowadays, I always begin these Zoom coaching sessions by driving home the point that this pandemic has now made strategic thinking not just an option but an absolute must.

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Assessing and making plans through the lens of a good strategy might require significant work at first. Nevertheless, you can take comfort in the fact that the rewards will far outweigh the effort, as you’ll soon see after following the 8 strategic steps I have outlined below.

8 Steps to Strategic Thinking

As events unfold during these strange times, you’re bound to feel wrong-footed every now and then. Being a leader during this pandemic means preparing for more change not just for you, but for your whole team as well.

As states and cities go through a cycle of lockdowns and reopening, employees will experience the full gamut of human emotions in dizzying speed, and you will often be called on to provide insight and stability to your team and workplace.

Strategic thinking is all about anticipation and preparation. Rather than expending your energy merely helping your company put out fires and survive, you can put the time to better use by charting out a solid plan that can protect and help you and your company thrive.

Take the following steps to build solid initiatives and roll out successful projects:

Step 1: Step Back, Then Set the Scope

One of the things that leaders get wrong during their first attempt at strategic thinking is expecting that it is just another item on a checklist. The truth is, you need to take a good, long look at the bigger picture before anything else. This means decisively prioritizing and stepping away from tasks that can be delegated to others. Free up your schedule so you can focus on this crucial task at hand.

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Then, proceed with setting the scope and the strategic goals of the project or initiative you plan to build or execute. Ask yourself the bigger question of why you need to embark on a particular project and when would be the right time to do so.

You need to set a timeline as well, anywhere from 6 months to 5 years. Keep in mind that your projections will deteriorate the further out you go as you make longer-term plans.

For this reason, add extra resources, flexibility, and resilience if you have a longer timeline. You should also be making the goals less specific if you’re charting it out for the longer term.

Step 2: Make a List of Experts

Make and keep a list of credible people who can contribute solid insight and feedback to your initiative. This could range from key stakeholders to industry experts, mentors, and even colleagues who previously planned and rolled out similar projects.

Reach out to the people on this list regularly while you work through the steps to bring diverse insight into your planning process. This way, you will be able to approach any problem from every angle.

Bringing key stakeholders into this initial process will also display your willingness to listen and empathize with their issues. In return, this will build trust and potentially pave the way for smoother buy-in down the line.

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Step 3: Anticipate the Future

After identifying your goals and gathering feedback, it’s time to consider what the future would look like if everything goes as you intuitively anticipate. Then, lay out the kind and amount of resources (money, time, social capital) that might be needed to keep this anticipated future running.

Step 4: Brainstorm on Potential Internal and External Problems

Next, think of how the future would look if you encountered unexpected problems internal and external to the business activity that seriously jeopardize your expected vision of the future. Write out what kind of potential problems you might encounter, including low-probability ones.

Assess the likelihood that you will run into each problem. To gauge, multiply the likelihood by the number of resources needed to address the problem. Try to convert the resources into money if possible so that you can have a single unit of measurement.

Then, think of what steps you can take to address these internal and external problems before they even happen. Write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Lastly, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different possible problems and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

Step 5: Identify Potential Opportunities, Internal and External

Imagine how your expected plan would look if unexpected opportunities came up. Most of these will be external but consider internal ones as well. Then, gauge the likelihood of each scenario and the number of resources you would need to take advantage of each opportunity. Convert the resources into money if possible.

Then, think of what steps you can take in advance to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and write out how much you expect these steps might cost. Finally, add up all the extra resources that may be needed because of the different unexpected opportunities and all the steps you committed to taking to address them in advance.

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Step 6: Check for Cognitive Biases

Check for potential cognitive biases that are relevant to you personally or to the organization as a whole, and adjust the resources and plans to address such errors.[1] Make sure to at least check for loss aversion, status quo bias, confirmation bias, attentional bias, overconfidence, optimism bias, pessimism bias, and halo and horns effects.

Step 7: Account for Unknown Unknowns (Black Swans)

To have a more effective strategy, account for black swans as well. These are unknown unknowns -unpredictable events that have potentially severe consequences.

To account for these black swans, add 40 percent to the resources you anticipate. Also, consider ways to make your plans more flexible and secure than you intuitively feel is needed.

Step 8: Communicate and Take the Next Steps

Communicate the plan to your stakeholders, and give them a heads up about the additional resources needed. Then, take the next steps to address the unanticipated problems and take advantage of the opportunities you identified by improving your plans, as well as allocating and reserving resources.

Finally, take note that there will be cases when you’ll need to go back and forth these steps to make improvements, (a fix here, an improvement there) so be comfortable with revisiting your strategy and reaching out to your list of experts.

Conclusion

A great way to deal with feelings of uncertainty during this pandemic is to anticipate obstacles with a good plan – and a sure road to that is practicing strategic thinking.

In the coming months and years, you’ll need to continue navigating uncharted territory so that you can lead your team to safe waters. Regularly doing these 8 steps to strategic thinking will ensure that you can prepare for and adapt  to the coming changes with increasing clarity, perspective, and efficiency.[2]

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Featured photo credit: JESHOOTS.COM via unsplash.com

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