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Published on January 18, 2021

7 Science-Backed Ways To Stay Sharp, Alert And Focused

7 Science-Backed Ways To Stay Sharp, Alert And Focused
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The average American drinks three cups of coffee per day. If you’re anything like me, that morning (and afternoon) pick-me-up is a lot like an “on button” for your brain. Maybe you’re more of a tea person. Either way, a caffeine jolt can certainly help you stay alert, and some studies even link coffee consumption to improved health outcomes.[1]

But if your goal is to improve your work performance, there are better ways to stay sharp than simply brewing a fourth cup of your drink. Adopting long-term strategies for a more focused, alert brain can equip you to be more effective and productive on the job and in life.

You’re not sure where to begin? Here are 7 science-backed tips to flip your “on” switch at work and stay sharp—and keep it that way.

1. Allow Your Mind to Wander

Staying focused is essential for getting work done and doing it well. So, why would you allow your mind to wander?

As counterproductive as it sounds, occasionally letting yourself get off track can actually improve alertness and, as a result, productivity.[2]

All tasks require brainpower, but full-blown concentration takes up a lot of headspace. If you’re always focusing on just one task, your brain will have to work harder to resist thinking about (and doing) other things.[3] As a result, your mind may grow fatigued, which will result in declining focus and productivity.

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Before you start planning what’s for dinner tonight, consider this caveat. Psychology researchers say that while intentional, planned mind-wandering can improve the ability to stay alert, accidental daydreaming can have the opposite effect.[4]

So, the best way to leverage a wandering mind is to use it as a strategic tool. For example, if you’re struggling to stay focused, take a break to do another problem-solving task, then go back to your original project. Along with gaining a fresh perspective on the task at hand, you’ll also free up mental space by checking a separate item off your to-do list.

2. Stop for a Break

Breaks don’t always come naturally to me, especially if I’m buried in work. (Ask my wife, who’s been known to tantalize me away from my desk with a delicious meal.) The problem is, working for a long time without stopping isn’t always as productive as it sounds. Your brain needs the occasional break to stay sharp.[5]

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can sneak away from the office any time the desire strikes you. What it means is that being intentional about when and how you take breaks can drastically improve your alertness and focus.

Studies show that alertness occurs in cycles, and most people can’t concentrate for longer than 90-minute increments without requiring a 15-minute break. Scientists agree that the key to a focus-inducing break is to totally distract your mind from what you were doing before.[6]

Instead of pivoting to another work task or even scrolling through your emails, do a puzzle, take a walk outside, or hop on a phone call with a friend.

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3. Train Your Brain

The good news about your brain: It’s malleable. If something doesn’t come naturally, including focus and alertness, you can train yourself.

Focusing on cognition-enhancing activities (translation: playing games that require strategic thinking) is one way to do that. According to one 2015 study, adults who spend 15 minutes a day, five days a week, on brain-training activities such as crossword puzzles experienced improved concentration.[7]

Practicing mindfulness and meditation is another way to train your brain to focus. While scientific research confirms it comes with a slew of health benefits, a 2011 review suggests mindfulness can improve attention, focus, and memory.[8]

If getting away with a yoga mat for full-blown meditation practice isn’t realistic, start small. I like to take a few deep breaths at my desk while I focus on the sensations in my body. You could also simply notice your surroundings with all five of your senses—smell, touch, sight, and so on. Even micro-mindfulness exercises like these can equip your brain to keep your brain alert and focused when it matters most.

4. Get Some Exercise

Your brain and body are intimately connected, which means that what you do physically has a direct effect on how you feel mentally. Routine exercise—even going for a brisk walk or practicing yoga a few times a week—is a fast and simple way to improve your brain function so you can stay sharp at work.

Research consistently shows people who exercise routinely and are more physically fit are also more effective at completing cognitive tasks that require sustained attention.[9] Another study found that older adults who exercised more than 75 minutes per week had better attention spans and abilities to focus.[10]

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But those aren’t the only ways exercise equips your brain for productivity. The endorphins released when you work out can also help you get better at controlling your impulses, which in turn can help you block out distractions. You’ll also notice that staying active boosts your overall physical energy levels, so you can dodge falling asleep at your desk.[11]

5. Declutter Your Office Space

If I’m having a tough time staying engaged and on a task at work, one of the first things I do is look around me. More often than not, the cluttered state of my desk and office directly reflects the cluttered state of mind.

A few minutes spent tidying up your surroundings could make a big impact on your cognitive abilities, according to scientific research. One group of researchers found that having too much clutter in one’s environment actually decreases the brain’s capacity to focus and process information by creating an additional distraction.[12]

Next time you catch yourself fighting to focus, consider your immediate surroundings. Don’t worry—you don’t have to overhaul your entire office. Instead, equip your brain to stay on task by minimizing visible clutter. You might be surprised about the impact of spending 10 minutes cleaning up!

6. Improve Your Sleep

A poor night’s sleep is a surefire way to sabotage your alertness, no matter how many cups of coffee you consume. According to one study, even one night of sleep deprivation can interfere with self-control and attentiveness.[13]

Cutting out of work early to get some rest might not feel productive to you, but ensuring you get ample sleep will only benefit your brain and work in the long-run. Remember that a well-rested body is a well-rested brain. So, if you want to stay sharp on the job, don’t burn yourself out logging hours that interfere with your ability to rest.

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If a full eight hours simply isn’t possible, sleep for a bit during the day. Studies show short power naps can improve focus and energy, which contribute to your ability to stay sharp.[14]

7. Don’t Rush

We’re all guilty of powering through our piles of work, myself included. But if you have a lot on your plate, rushing through your to-do list won’t do you any favors. To effectively work through everything that needs to get done, be as deliberate and slow as you can. Not only will you save time on cleaning up mistakes, but you’ll also sustain your ability to stay focused.

The scientific case for slowing down traces back to basic neuroscience. Our brains have two systems for thinking: an automatic and fast one, along with a slower, more logical system. As you can imagine, the faster way is linked with a more anxious state.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s adaptive to be frantic when you’re being chased down by a saber tooth tiger, but hurrying away from your predator also compromises your ability to focus.[15]

On the other hand, slowing yourself down activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which alleviates those anxious feelings and turns on the logical part of your brain.[16] So, you’ll not only be able to focus on the task at hand when you intentionally slow your mind and body down, but you’ll do a better job at coming up with creative ideas and solving problems, too.

Final Thoughts

If you’re struggling to stay sharp, alert and focused, don’t be discouraged—even the most productive people find themselves in a rut from time to time.

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The important thing is to catch yourself veering off track so you can intervene as early and effectively as possible. By implementing science-backed strategies to stay sharp, you’ll not only become more effective in your work, but you’ll also reap mental and physical benefits that could improve your entire life.

More Tips on How to Stay Sharp and Focused

Featured photo credit: Battlecreek Coffee Roasters via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Johns Hopkins Medicine: 9 Reasons Why (the Right Amount of) Coffee Is Good for You
[2] BBC WorkLife: Five Ways Science Can Improve Your Focus
[3] Nature Communications: Controllability of structural brain networks
[4] ScienceDirect: Individual variation in intentionality in the mind-wandering state is reflected in the integration of default-mode, frontoparietal, and limbic networks
[5] BBC WorkLife: Five Ways Science Can Improve Your Focus
[6] PubMed.gov: Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements
[7] PLoS One: Enhancing Cognitive Abilities with Comprehensive Training: A Large, Online, Randomized, Active-Controlled Trial
[8] PubMed.gov: Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings
[9] PLoS One: Cognitive Performance and Heart Rate Variability: The Influence of Fitness Level
[10] PLoS One: Dose-Response of Aerobic Exercise on Cognition: A Community-Based, Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial
[11] Psychology Compass: A Sustainable Formula to Improve Concentration and Focus
[12] Princeton Alumni Weekly: Your Attention, Please
[13] NCBI: Interactions between sleep habits and self-control
[14] Wiley Online Library: Benefits of napping in healthy adults: impact of nap length, time of day, age, and experience with napping
[15] NCBI: Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function
[16] Psychology Compass: A Sustainable Formula to Improve Concentration and Focus

More by this author

Aytekin Tank

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

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Last Updated on July 27, 2021

Can’t Focus? The Mistake You’re Making and How to Focus Better

Can’t Focus? The Mistake You’re Making and How to Focus Better
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What comes to mind when you think of learning how to focus better? Do you think of the attention or concentration it takes to complete a task? Do you consider the amount of willpower needed to finish writing a report without touching your phone? Do you think it requires sitting in complete silence and away from distractions so that you can study for an important exam or prepare for an interview?

I’m sure many of you can relate to the above statements and agree that the ability to focus is about staying on task for a given period of time. Breaking that concentration would mean that you’ve lost your focus, and you’re either doing something else or trying to gain back that focus to finish up the intended task.

With an ever-increasing amount of information—that is easily accessible online and offline—we’re faced with a lot more opportunities and avenues to create possibilities to experience things on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, that can make it a lot harder for us to make progress or get things done because we’re either easily distracted or overwhelmed by the constant influx of information.

That’s why many of us end up having problems concentrating or focusing in life—whether it be on a smaller scale like completing a task on time, or something much bigger like staying on track in your career and climbing the ladder of success. We’ve all found ourselves in situations where we blame our failures due to a lack of focus.

Learning how to focus better doesn’t have to be too complex. Here is some information to help you get started.

Focus Is Not About Paying Attention

What if I tell you that you’ve been doing it all wrong this whole time?

Focus isn’t just the attention span of giving 20 minutes to a task. It actually goes far beyond that.

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The real reason why we focus is because we need to do something that exceeds our existing capability. We need to devote large amounts of time and energy to move the needle in life, to make that progress and positive change.

And why do we want to do that? Because we want to spend time becoming a better version of ourselves!

At the end of the day, the reason why we stay focused on any task, project, or goal is because we want to succeed. With that success comes progress in our lives, which means we eventually become better than what we were a month ago, or even a year ago.

Let me give you an example:

Say you’ve been tasked to manage a project by your boss. You have targets to meet and favorable outcomes to achieve. Your focus and attention has to be on this project.

Once the project has been completed, your boss is happy with the results and your hard work. She rewards you with praise, a promotion, or maybe even a year-end bonus.

That’s your success right there, and you feel good about your achievements. Looking back at who you were before and after the completion of this project, wouldn’t you say you’ve become a better version of your previous self?

Focus Is a Flow

This is what focus is and how where learning how to focus better starts. It’s not a one-off, task-by-task mode that you jump into whenever needed. Rather, focus is a flow[1].

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Focus is the way in which you deliberately target your energy to push progress in something you care about. Because focus takes energy, time, and effort, whatever it is that you need to focus on should be something meaningful to you, something that’s worth shutting down phone calls, text messages, and social media for.

So, why is it that we sometimes find it so hard to focus?

Usually, it’s because we’re missing two major elements. Either we don’t know where we want to go—in that we don’t have a clear goal—or we do have a goal, but we don’t have a clear roadmap.

Trying to improve your focus without these two things is like driving to get somewhere in a foreign country with no road map. You end up using a lot of gas and driving for hours without knowing if you’re getting anywhere.

Let’s go back to the example of your boss assigning you a project to manage. The company is opening a new office, and your boss wants you to oversee the renovations and moving-in process of this new location.

Now, if you didn’t have a clear goal or end result of how the new office should look, you could be busy arranging for contractors, interior designers, or movers to come, but have no clue what to assign or brief them on.

The second scenario is that you know exactly how the new office should look and when it should be up and running. However, because you don’t have a clear roadmap to get to that end result, you end up working all over the place; one moment you’re arranging for the contractors to start renovations, the next moment you’ve got furniture coming in when the space isn’t ready. What do you focus on first?

The Focus Flow

Without a clear goal and road map, things can turn out frantic and frustrating, with many wrong turns. You also end up expending a lot more mental energy than needed. But, having a Focus Flow when learning how to focus better can help.

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Let me show you how theFocus Flow works.

  1. It starts from a clear objective.
  2. This becomes a clear roadmap.
  3. Then it manifests into a state oftargeted attentionand effort.
  4. This results in pushing your progress towards your ultimate destination.

Setting a Clear Objective

To start off, you need to set a clear focus objective. If you don’t have an objective, how can you decide on which things are worth focusing on? You can’t focus on everything at the same time, so you have to make a choice.

Like driving a car, you need a destination.

In this case, you don’t want to drive around aimlessly. You want to arrive at your destination before you run out of gas.

A good focus objective, therefore, needs to be concrete. This means that it should be something you can visualize, such as determining how the new office is going to look after you’ve completed the renovation and moving in. If you can visualize it, that means you have a clear enough picture to know what’s needed to achieve it.

Drawing a Focus Roadmap

The second step is to lay out a practical focus roadmap. Once you have your ideas, setting an objective is easy. The most difficult part is determining how you’re going to achieve your objective.

There are lots of things you can do to work towards your goal, but what comes first? What’s more valuable, and how long will it take?

That’s where having a roadmap helps you answer these questions. Like driving, you need to have at least a rough idea of which major roads to drive on, and the order in which you need to drive them.

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Yet, creating a roadmap can get tricky because you have absolute freedom on how you’re going to achieve your objective.

To create a good road map, you should include major milestones. These are targets you need to hit in order to achieve success. Your roadmap should also include feasible and realistic actions that you can achieve as you learn how to focus better.

Need a little help in drawing this Focus Roadmap? The Full Life Planner can help you. It’s a practical planner to help you stay focused and on track with your most important goals and tasks in an organized way. Get yours today!

Power Up Your Productivity

I hope you now have a better understanding of how focus truly works. By harnessing your focus using the Focus Flow, you’ll be able to work on a task more productively, not because you’re able to concentrate, but rather because you know exactly what your end goal is, and you have a game plan in place to make that happen.

Once there is clarity, I can assure you that you’ll be less likely to get distracted or lose focus on your tasks at hand.

You may think it’s going to take you extra time writing out an objective and setting out a roadmap. You may believe that you are better off getting right down to the actual work.

However, as I’ve mentioned, there’s no point in rushing your efforts that lead you to nowhere or cause you additional detours. You’ll end up expending more mental energy and time than needed.

Once you’ve made your roadmap and found your focus, follow it up with unbreakable determination with Lifehack’s Actionable Motivation On Demand Handbook.

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Featured photo credit: Paul Skorupskas via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Very Well Mind: The Psychology of Flow

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