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Last Updated on November 27, 2020

How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain

How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain

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 7 ways to learn how to improve 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%.

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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.

Set up your office correctly when learning how to improve focus

    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.

    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. 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.

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    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”[3].

    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

    5. 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)[4], 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.

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    6. 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.

    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.

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

    7. 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[5].

    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.

    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.

    More on How to Improve Focus

    Featured photo credit: Magnet.me via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Helen D'Silva

    Performance Psychologist for Business and Entrepreneurship, Sport and Personal Development

    How to Cope with Anxiety at Work: 5 Psychology Techniques How to Cultivate a Positive Mindset (A Step-By-Step Guide) How to Manage Anxiety: Sound Advice from a Mental Health Expert The Scary Truth About Nightmare Disorder And Top Treatments that Work How to Improve Focus: 7 Ways to Train Your Brain

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    Published on April 8, 2021

    10 Simple Ways To Refocus a Wandering Mind

    10 Simple Ways To Refocus a Wandering Mind

    Want to know what Steve Jobs thought was the ultimate key in achieving success?

    “Focus and simplicity… once you get there, you can move mountains.”—Steve Jobs

    And this belief is even more important today than it was years ago. At your fingertips is a literal world of information and entertainment. So, it’s no wonder we all have such wandering minds nowadays.

    Thanks to the internet and smartphones, attention is practically a currency we should be more budget-minded about. In fact, a person who can stay focused is not only more likely to get more done but also be more satisfied at the end of the day because of it.

    Going further, a person who’s focused will more easily achieve their goals—anything from losing 20 pounds to getting a promotion at work is within the reach of this type of person.

    So, in the spirit of that idea, here are 10 ways to tame that wandering mind of yours and turn it into a laser-focused brain that gets things done.

    1. Find Your Totem

    Remember the totem in the movie, Inception? It’s an item that reminded people they weren’t in a dream when they touched it, and it was able to keep them grounded in reality.

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    You can replicate this idea when it comes to staying focused as well. All you’ve to got to do is find something to be your “focus totem,” and it’ll remind you that you should stop daydreaming and get back to work. Ideally, it’s something you can see and touch.

    In the movie, a chess piece and a spinning top were used—both are good ideas. You could also use a picture of your family, a mini trophy, or even wear a ring to focus your mind as well. (In fact, a green lantern ring might be kind of cool for this.)

    2. Promise a Reward

    Incentives are an obvious way to go. Having gold at the end of any journey makes you want to press forward just for the sweet results. In general, rewards should correlate to the difficulty/length of the work.

    For example:

    • Finish a quick house chore = a piece of chocolate
    • Complete an annoying administrative task = 10 minutes of Youtube
    • A successful day of work = a whole movie on Netflix

    Pretty simple stuff, right? But you’d be surprised how often you forget to reward yourself for doing solid work on the regular.

    3. Make It Stupid Easy for Your Wandering Mind

    I don’t know about you, but if I perceive my work to require more effort than I care to use, I’m instantly turned off. This then leads to distraction and procrastination. But you can offset this by breaking a difficult task into a bite-sized piece.

    Case in point, what seems easier: 30 pushups or 3 pushups?

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    It’s obvious, but sometimes our brains need to be “convinced” we’re only doing a small amount of work to get things going.

    But here’s something cool about this tactic: You can (and most likely will) keep going past your stupid easy benchmark. You don’t have to, but my experience tells me once you get going like this, it’s easy to go beyond your bare minimum goal.

    4. Empty Your Mind With Journaling

    Sometimes, there’s too much stuff floating around in your brain that is making your mind wander. In that case, it can help to spill everything in your head onto a journal to free up some space. You can use a pen and pad for this or something digital like Evernote.

    There are two basic ways to go about it:

    1. Freestyle – where you just write whatever randomly flows through your brain without thinking or pausing. This is great if you’ve got a million different ideas racing through your brain.
    2. Focused – where you create prompts or an outline to streamline your thinking and you just respond to the questions or format. This is best when you want to grasp a certain topic.

    5. Use the “Just 5 Minutes” Method

    Try telling yourself that you’ll work for “just 5 minutes” and then you can stop. You’ll find that the task feels far easier to handle. And like the “stupid easy” method, this tricks your brain into thinking the task is lower effort than it really is. After all, 5 minutes for even the worst task is psychologically manageable for any person out there.

    The key is to honestly allow yourself to stop at 5 minutes—no matter what. That’s what allows your brain to accept the method as legit and also lets it overcome the mental hurdle that makes your brain want to wander around and focus on anything but your task.

    6. Recite a Focus Mantra

    I like to think of mantras as a totem you can take with you anywhere you go. They serve the same purpose—reminding you to stay focused—but can be done anywhere and anytime.

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    I find the most powerful type of mantra to be based on reality. I learned this approach from Dr. Jon Fader—a performance coach who was on “Good Morning America”—and his book Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life. He calls this “objective optimism.”

    Basically, you create a mantra that’s based on personal success in your life. That way, the mantra isn’t just a fluffy positivity statement, there’s also the weight of real-life success giving it power

    Some examples:

    • If you’re struggling to make yourself go to the gym but have technically been there many times already, you could say, “just another day of heading to the gym—easy.”
    • If you’re suffering from impostor-syndrome after accepting a promotion, just say, “I’m here for a reason” to remind yourself that your efforts were recognized by others and are the real deal.
    • If you’re nervous about an upcoming sports competition but have trained diligently for it, you could say, “I’ve done all the work possible” to remind yourself that your earlier efforts have created the best version of you for the event.

    As you can see, the most powerful mantras are evidence-based and positive. So, just find proof of relevant success in your life and transform it into a motivating mantra.

    7. Use the “Multi-Yawn” Approach

    One of the best ways to be distracted is to be tired. And sometimes, you’ll be tired in such a way that you’re “sort of” working but not realize that you’re actually constantly distracted.

    If you can notice when you do this, one thing I like to do is crank out as many big, satisfying yawns as possible. Olympic athletes sometimes do this before their big events. It calms them down and helps them perform better in the process. And it works just as well for us regular folks. I find it has a similar effect to taking a good nap (and actually works best in unison), so you can imagine how effective this can be.

    8. Find an Easy Win

    Nothing feels good like winning. So, it can help to find a few simple tasks you can do with little effort and just get them done immediately. This will create momentum and propel your productivity forward. The feeling of success will lock your focus in on the task at hand and refocus your wandering mind. Use this when you feel “resistance” to getting your work started.

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    9. Create a “Wins” List

    Feeling like a capable person who can win at life is motivating in and of itself. In light of this fact, it can help to have an ongoing “wins” list to prove you’re an able person.

    Just keep track of all your daily wins—big and small. And whenever your focus starts to wane, give that list a peek and remind yourself that you’re more capable than you realize.

    10. Add Stakes to the Mix

    If you were to lose $20 if you failed to complete a task, would you be more focused on completing it? Of course!

    Try and find ways to put something on the line when it comes to completing your tasks, and you’ll find your focus, motivation, and ability to things done to be higher than ever before.

    For example, if you’re at work, you could involve a co-worker by saying you’ll buy their food if you don’t complete a task before lunchtime rolls around. At home, you could say you’ll also mow the lawn if you don’t remember to wash the dishes before the day is over. Or you could just use something like Beeminder or TaskRatchet, which actually charges you cash for failing to complete a task or goal on time. (It’s scary but effective)

    All are viable methods, so just give one of them a shot.

    Who Else Wants More Success?

    Of the many methods of winning at life out there, focusing is definitely a top-three contender. You can’t get anything you want in life if you don’t buckle down and get your work done—a wandering mind won’t create success.

    But with these 10 focus tips, you’ll be ahead of the competition and be closer to a fitter body, higher income, and a flat-out better life than before.

    More Tips on Sharpening Your Focus

    Featured photo credit: Clay Banks via unsplash.com

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