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Last Updated on March 15, 2022

How to Train Your Brain to Focus: 17 Natural Ways

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How to Train Your Brain to Focus: 17 Natural Ways

In this fast-paced world we’ve created, we’re only going to feel more overwhelmed by the directions and distractions we are pulled toward. With increasing demands, sustaining and improving focus on things that matter is getting tougher and tougher. Therefore, it’s more important than ever to learn how to improve focus.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that overcoming the struggle to focus is no longer about trying to discover secret weapons of willpower or self-discipline. With these initial self-reflective exercises and different brain-training techniques, you’ll no longer be having arguments with yourself to get on with the job!

Here are 17 ways to learn how to increase focus that you can start applying today.

1. Have a Plan You Feel Clear About

One of the most common reasons we struggle to maintain focus is because we lack clarity about what we need to do next. The next best action step does not feel clear to us.

If you are trying to lose weight but aren’t clear on which activities you need to do to get there, you increase your chances of staggered progress.

If there are not enough clear steps early in the process, these emotional obstacles will derail you.

The amount of detail you need to feel ready and confident to move forward will differ between you and the next person. Some people require more details to feel comfortable, others less.

Work on developing enough clarity and building enough resources in order to take the steps. When you do, stepping forward will be easy and momentum will flow.

2. Set Your Mood and Environment

It’s been argued that in above-ambient temperatures, you can be more creative. You feel more relaxed, and your productivity increases. Conversely, lower temperatures have also been found to more positively influence decision-making ability and alertness.

Cornell University conducted a study of office administration workers whereby their productivity positively correlated with increased office temperatures[1]. At 77 degrees Fahrenheit, the workers were typing with 90% accuracy. However, with a drop to 68 degrees, the typing rate nose-dived, along with an increased error rate of 25%.

It’s not just temperature you need to pay attention to. Good lighting is essential. The wavelength of blue light emitted from most electronic devices generally increses our serotonin levels and keeps us awake[2].

Consider that natural light is best where possible. When your body is truly getting tired, you can honor its natural rhythms and listen to its cues for rest.

Switch off communication applications. Make it hard for yourself to access such applications and devices by physically putting them in places that are inconvenient. Specifically, try the 20-second rule and make it take more time to access them. If you have to go outside to the garden shed to retrieve your phone (and it’s cold and raining outside), you’re less likely to do it!

Maximize your exposure to visual messages that direct you to stay focused on the task at hand. Surround where you plan to execute most of your day’s work with deliberate messages that directly tell you to stay on track.

3. Impose Time Limits for Distractions

When you know you have to prepare a complex report or assignment, the temptation to get distracted will likely be stronger than ever. That story you spin yourself that you’re only spending a bit of time getting “up-to-date” becomes the only story you want to believe.

In order to learn how to improve focus, use a designated period of time to scroll through social media or make personal phone calls. However, timing here is essential.

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After pounding through a chunk of work, submit to that guilty pleasure. When you engage in it, do it fully. If you’ve been studying straight for three hours, it’s time to stand up, stretch, and stroll to your favorite coffee shop and back. Go for a walk or make a healthy snack.

Cold-turkey abstinence is hardly ever effective. Not only are you wasting time and energy resisting the urge, but you make the urge stronger by denying yourself! Learn to manage it wisely instead.

4. Schedule Planning, Review, and Recognition Periods Throughout Your Day

Peter Bregman, the best-selling author of 18 Minutes, recommends a simple plan to help train your brain to remain focused and help you track your progress.

Before the computer goes on, use the first five minutes of your day to invest in planning and write out your day’s activities. Physically writing down your activity goals for the day (using paper and pen, not electronic word processing) engages more functions within your brain (e.g. the generation effect)[3], which train it to recognize these activities as highly important.

Bregman then recommends that for one minute at the end of each of the next eight hours, you stop and recall what you have accomplished in that hour. You congratulate yourself for what you have achieved and regain focus, recalibrate expectations, and take short breaks. You slow down to speed up.

By reviewing what you have accomplished, you attach a positive emotional experience to your work and progress. This action in itself will increase your focus as you fuel your motivation to keep the wheels of your momentum rolling.

Including a weekly review can also be incredibly helpful. Learn how to do so here.

The final five minutes at the end of the day are spent in reviewing and planning the next day. Doing so makes it easy for you to build your ability to concentrate from one day to the next.

5. Create Goals That Satisfy Your Highest Priorities

Whenever you’re resisting doing something, it’s likely that it’s because it’s not topping your priority charts.

As a human being, you behave and act in ways which ultimately keep you feeling safe and comfortable. As long as we can see we will get to continue feeling safe and comfortable.

However, the moment a notion arises of your needing to do something that feels unfamiliar (and hence, uncomfortable), you can guarantee you’ll feel a sting of resistance.

The key is to examine and reframe what you need to do in a way that does satisfy your highest values and priorities.

If you believe you know what your values and priorities are, spend time looking at the results you have achieved with your goals. This is important when you’re learning how to improve focus.

For example, you may think that one of your priorities is to have a healthy bank balance. However, your balance statement shows a lack of savings. This shows that having a lot of money is actually not a high priority for you at this moment.

At this point, you need to explore the variety of activities that yield a healthy bank balance that you’re not currently exercising. Saving, reducing costs, and finding ways to increase your income are all activities you need to explore. These things might sound dull and like hard work.

That’s probably why you’re not doing them! The great news is that they don’t have to be.

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Work out which of these activities are the easiest and fun (i.e. create feelings of comfort and safety) for you.

If you are good at generating income, engage a financial adviser to set up structures that will monitor and wisely manage your spending. You can have your cake and eat it, too.

Simply work out which parts of the cake you like eating the most and invite others along who like eating the other parts.

6. Transform Information to Make Things More Interesting

According to neurobiologists’ findings, we learn better when we actively do different things with the information. Not only are our experiences of learning more enjoyable, but we activate more parts of our brain. This allows lessons and memories to be more effectively encoded into long-term memory.

You need to become clever at regularly stimulating your senses through variety.

If you’re studying and want to learn how to improve focus, engage a variety of ways to exercise using the knowledge and skills you must develop. One particularly useful way to engage with information is to teach it to others. One study suggested that this is because teaching information forces you to continually focus to retrieve it[4].

Drawing pictures and diagrams, creating voice memos about what you’re learning, and using colors and symbols activates different parts of the brain. More connections are developed in your neural circuitry to aid your recall and improve concentration.

Before you know it, staying focused no longer feels like a chore.

7. Practice Meditation and Mindfulness

If you’re yet to be convinced of how meditation can help you improve focus, there are plenty of studies you can look at. More and more of these studies are demonstrating how meditation can reduce rumination, stress, and anxiety and improve attention span, relationships, emotional stability, focus, and working memory capacity.

One scientific review found that “MBIs [mindfulness-based interventions] were moderately effective in reducing anxiety symptoms and improving mood….Moreover, improvements were sustained over an average of 27 weeks”[5].

Meditating allows you to practice regaining focus. As you practice, you learn to notice when your mind is wandering off track. You then practice bringing it back to what you should be directing your attention to.

The world, our bodies, and our minds work in rhythms. Learn to exercise your mind and focus as such. If you try to beat yourself cognitively into submission, you’re unlikely to win. You’ll be exhausting yourself in repeated attempts of trying.

Here’s a beginner guide for meditation: Meditation for Beginners: How to Meditate Deeply and Quickly

8. Work from Paper

Our society has become so glued to technology that most kids are more familiar with their iPads than books. I do love my iPhone but I also know its limitations. Working from paper is one natural way to increase focus and retention. There’s something magical about picking up a pen and writing things down.

Typing is simply hitting a bunch of keys in a seemingly random order. Writing forces us to create each letter (or character for languages such as Japanese and Thai). That movement stimulates different parts of our brains and as such improves focus.

Real pros use a pen and paper in today’s digital world.

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9. Have a Good Night’s Rest

As a society, we have become obsessed with getting ahead. We come in early, stay late, put in time on the weekends, and burn the midnight oil. We do so in order to give ourselves advantages over our peers and competition which lead to promotions and higher salaries.

Every time a new client walks through my door (metaphorically in today’s world), I run a time audit. I want to know how they invest their time, where the leaks are and how best I can serve them. Inevitably, nearly every executive that comes to me, shortchanges themselves when it comes to their sleep.

There are the sleepless elites (1 to 3 percent of the population)[6] that are able to get by on less than five hours sleep, but most of us simply can’t. Researchers have found that we need between seven and eight hours a night to operate at peak performance.[7] Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and Lebron James are just a few of the people that get a good night’s rest.

A good night’s sleep allows our body to reset itself; reducing stress and alleviating muscle wear. Our ability to focus increases and we are able to reduce our mistakes.

It isn’t rocket science – schedule your sleep as you would a meeting with an important client. It’s that important.

10. Dust Off Your Jogging Shoes

We have become a sedentary society spending an average of ten hours a day seated. Our body suffers as a result. To counter the effects sitting has on our body we need to move so it’s time to dust off your jogging shoes and get out there. It doesn’t have to be jogging, but we do need to get our blood pumping.

Martial arts such as Karate or Aikido are a great way to not only boost your stamina and improve your focus naturally, but you develop the ability to protect yourself at the same time.

Bouldering is another excellent sport which can be done alone. What’s great about going to a bouldering gym is you can listen to your favorite podcast or listen to lectures with your AirPods, killing two birds with one stone.

The benefits of regular exercise are well documented. Exercise benefits everyone, from the very young to even older adults. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), just a year of moderate aerobic physical activity an help stop or even reverse memory loss that can occur with aging.[8]

Most people fail when it comes to exercise because they try to do too much, too fast and simply give up. Don’t think of your health as a sprint, but rather a marathon. Play the long game. Experience has taught me that it’s not actually working out that’s tough, but creating the habit that’s the real challenge.

Start with just five minutes of exercise a day. Everyone can find five minutes. One the habit sticks, it’s easy enough to increase it to ten or twenty, but without the habit, your chance of success is low.

11. Befriend with Nature

When it comes to natural ways to improve focus, nature is a winner. Too many of us go through our day simply moving from one screen to another. We sit in front of our laptop and work on our upcoming PowerPoint presentation, then pick up our iPhone to skim our social media feeds, then turning on our giant 65’ TV to catch up on our favorite shows. The strain on our eyes is intense, and worst of all, we don’t even notice it.

The solution here is simple – put your smartphone away, and get outside. Even just a short walk for 15 to 20 minutes can boost your concentration. Got a writer’s block? Same thing, get outside and simply enjoy nature. A short walk around the neighborhood or wandering through a park will do wonders to get your creative juices flowing. If you’re near a beach or river, even better.

Any natural environment has benefits. In fact, according to research from 2014, there is evidence to suggest that by simply adding plants to your office space increases concentration and productivity,[9] not to mention workplace satisfaction and air quality.

It’s not just adults who benefit from natural environments either. Children with ADHD could improve concentration from a 20-minute walk in the park over a simply walk in an urban setting.[10]

Spend more time in nature. Here’s what happens to your brain when you walk in nature.

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12. Brain Training Activities

Sudoku, crosswords, chess, jigsaw puzzles are popular for a reason. Not just are they challenging, but they help improve focus and patience.

Add more games to your mental diet. Here’re 8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

13. Listen to Some Music

Studies have shown that listening to classical music improves cognitive ability.[11] Perhaps it’s the combination of a lack of lyrics with beautiful sounds that works so effectively. Our mind doesn’t get caught up trying to sing along with Taylor Swift, while at the same time, creates a sense of relaxation.

Add more classical music, nature sounds or BGM to your office space. Here’re some options for you: Productivity Music for Focus (Recommended Playlists)

14. Practice Tai Chi

Not quite a martial art, not quite meditation. Tai Chi is an ancient form of focusing the mind that includes body movement often described as “medication in motion.” This low-impact, slow-motion exercise challenges you to focus on your breathing and circular movements in which the muscles are never tensed.

If you’ve always wanted to give martial arts a try but want a lighter version, Tai Chi could be for you.

15. Improve Your Diet

I like to say, “You can only be as productive as you feel.” Our condition is linked to our mental and physical health. Much of the items on this list relate to improving our mental state, but our physical state is just as important hence why exercise was number two on this list. However, exercise is just one half of our physical condition. The other is our diet.

Too many of us fail to invest the time to create a healthy diet conducive to our focus and productivity. I was one of them, and I suffered from it. Thankfully, my wife was able to right the sinking ship and today, at age 46, I feel healthier than when I was in my 20s.

Entire books are dedicated to creating the perfect diet. I believe we don’t need nearly that much. The key to living well is simply a more well-balanced diet. The breakdown of my seven lunches and seven dinners each week is usually 40% chicken, 30% fish, and 30% meat. Except for the odd burger, every meal comes with a variety of vegetables. Lastly, and most importantly, I rarely eat till I’m full.

A well-balanced diet can work wonders to improve your focus. Check out these 15 Eating Habits to Make You Stay Productive at Work.

You can also try green tea, otherwise known as matcha. Not only does green tea contain caffeine, but it also has phytochemicals that not only improve cognitive function but also promote relaxation.

16. Declutter

De-cluttering is another way to eliminate distractions, if your desk, office and head are clear, you are minimising the possibilities for distractions. I always start my week by cleaning my office, anything that was left lying around from the past week needs to be dealt with, you need to know that there is nothing you have forgotten about or left undone. If you get into the habit of doing a weekly de-clutter or in GTD terms a weekly review, you can start the week relaxed, focused and ready for action.

17. Simplify

The more we simplify our lives and our jobs, the more work we get done. But we don’t just want to get work done, we want to get the important tasks done, the tasks that make a difference to the big picture.

Many of us busy ourselves doing tasks that are unnecessary, wasting time on things that aren’t adding value to our lives or our jobs. If you can simplify and eliminate the unnecessary from your life you will have more time to focus on what is important, and it will also become a lot easier to maintain this focus.

The Bottom Line

The need to stay focused drops when you set goals and make choices that steer you toward satisfying your highest priorities, values, and principles.

Having arduous experiences on your journey is inevitable. Using these exercises and strategies, you can forecast when distractions and boredom are approaching and transform these into some of the most effective and productive chapters ever.

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Featured photo credit: Miguelangel Miquelena via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Helen D'Silva

Performance Psychologist for Business and Entrepreneurship, Sport and Personal Development

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