Read on if you find it difficult to focus and concentrate…
In my previous article of this series I have explained what causes the brain to focus on something and what distracts it. In this article I will describe how to improve concentration and focus by minimizing distractions, training your brain to focus better and some simple quick fixes.
Minimise external Distractions
A lot of different ways exist to easily block external distractions. A lot of gadgets and apps are built to minimize loud noises and blinking lights. Here are a few simple suggestions to limit these common distractions:
Wear headphones or earplugs: If loud noise is breaking your focus then the most logical approach is to remove them from the equation. Noise cancelling headphones or earplugs can do the job. If you want to block all outside cues, consider recording your entire day on a digital recorder to find from where and when those sounds are coming so you can reschedule your day according to them.
Strap on your digital blinders: Block audio and visual notifications as they can wreck serious havoc or our concentration. Try to set up timed internet blocks that can block your emails or Facebook notifications or you can use browser extensions to keep you on track. You can use apps like unroll.me that takes all your email notifications and rolls into a single daily email digest, so that you don’t get notifications throughout the day.
In addition to its effects on physical and mental well being, regular physical activity has been linked to improved concentration, memory and learning abilities.
Nancy Hellmich of USA today reports her findings on effect of exercise on youth academic performance in 2010 article. She reported that breaks for physical exercise improves attention and concentration and scores on standardized academic achievement tests than extra lessons
As little as 15 minutes of aerobic activity has been reported to improve concentration and classroom attentiveness in children of elementary school, as reported by Dr. Stewart Trost of Oregon state university.
Exercise has also been shown to improve focus in people with ADHD, as it triggers the release of chemicals in the brain that affect memory and concentration.
A report from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that aerobic activity improves immediate and long-term functioning of the brain regions controlling attention.
Drink more Water
A 2012 study published in The Journal of Nutrition claimed that even the mild dehydration can affect our concentration. In the study when the participants were less than 2 percent dehydrated (in this study, from not drinking enough water after exercise), their ability to concentrate on a series of cognitive tests was affected. “When the brain detects even the smallest changes in physiology, it may begin operating at a suboptimal level to get your attention,” said study coauthor Harris Lieberman. “Thirst is not the best measure of hydration, so a decrease in your ability to focus is an early warning signal that it’s time to drink up.”
Our sleep routine, in particular lack of delta sleep can seriously affect our ability to concentrate as explained by Vatsal G. Thakkar, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine
Delta sleep is that stage of sleep that precedes REM sleep; it is the time when brain powers slow down, cognitive functions consolidate and strengthen.
“If you’re regularly dipping below seven hours, you’re likely cutting into the delta phase, and this can make it difficult to focus when you’re awake,” says Dr. Vatsal.
If you find it difficult to concentrate try to get a solid seven to nine hours of sleep for at least two weeks. After this if your concentration doesn’t improve, visit a sleep specialist to determine any underlying pathology (like sleep apnea).
Meditation as a Focusing Boot Camp
People who regularly meditate can improve their concentration by altering mental function. Compared to non meditators, they can quiten their wandering brain more efficiently as proved by a new study published in the journal of neuroscience.
The study by Giuseppe Pagnoni, neuroscientist, suggest that meditation by changing brain patterns confers advantages in mental focus and cognitive performance.
When compared to non-meditators, meditators showed greater stability in their ventral posteromedial (vPMC) cortex. It is the brain region that is linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering.
Pagnoni suggests that vPMC might be important for mental concentration as in most people it is always active. Constant activity of this brain region has led to the conception of default mode network- that is the brain activity that runs in the background constantly. Meditation by controlling default activity of the brain helps us to focus better.
Practice Hatha Yoga
Hatha Yoga can enhance brain function even more than doing physical exercises. A study published in the journal of physical activity and health showed that Just a single, 20 minute session of hatha yoga was found to significantly improve participants speed and accuracy on tests of working memory: measures of brain function associated with ability to focus.
All the participants performed significantly better after yoga than after aerobic exercises.
“Enhanced self-awareness that comes with meditational exercises is just one of the possible mechanisms. Besides, meditation and breathing exercises are known to reduce anxiety and stress, which in turn can improve scores on some cognitive tests,” explained researchers.
Yoga poses for better concentration include the prayer pose, the eagle, warrior 2, plow, camel, tree pose, neck rolls, eagle arms, seated spinal twists, sun breath, sun pose and knee-to-chest cobra pose.
Eat a controlled and balanced Diet
Food not only affects our bodies but our mind too (especially our gray matter). Chronic stress that is inevitable in today’s work culture, leads to production of inflammatory cytokines. These chemicals prompt immune system to kick start inflammation that is linked to anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes and what not.
- Healthy food helps to keep immune responses and inflammation under control. Additionally foods rich in antioxidants, good fats, iron, folate, vitamin B12, aids in better concentration.
- Avocadoes are the powerhouses of monounsaturated fats that keep blood sugar and blood pressure steady. It also contains vitamin k and folate that help in improving cognitive function especially memory and concentration
- Beets reduce inflammation and are rich in antioxidants. It also contains nitrates that boost blood supply to the brain, helping you to focus better.
- Blueberries are the excellent source of antioxidants, vitamin C and K. Gallic acid present in blueberries helps to protect brain from degeneration and stress.
- Bone broth contains high level of collagen that reduces inflammation and healing aminoacids like proline that boost immune functioning , concentration and memory
- Broccoli is a good source of vitamin K and choline. Vitamin K strengthens cognitive abilities while choline improves memory and focus.
- Dark chocolate Is chockfull of flavonols that have antioxidants and ant-inflammatory properties. It also helps to lower blood pressure and improves blood circulation to the brain.
- Extra virgin olive oil Is full of antioxidants called polyphenls that may improve learning and memory
- Other than the above mentions foods, walnuts, turmeric, salmon, rosemary, green leafy vegetables, whole grains, egg yolks, coconut oil and celery are also excellent to boost your brain power.
Try to wiggle your toes
“The frenetic nature of our society — constant updates via e-mail and Twitter, for example – provides some sort of excitement every few minutes, and we’ve become trained to expect that,” says author of the charisma myth, Olivia Fox Cabane. “If we’re not stimulated after a short period of time, we look around for something that will do the job. This is true whether we’re reading a dull news story or involved in a conversation.”
To bring your focus back to the present, Cabane recommends taking a break to focus your attention on your toes. This mindful wiggling of toes will instantly bring your concentration back to the track.
Try some simple training exercises: Get lost in the good story
You can use entertainment in the form of reading a book, or playing a sport, which demands concentration for improving your focus.
Dr Perry suggests one can use any type of entertainment to utilize your escapism as a means to calibrate your brain to focusing but it should be challenging and you should be doing it actively.
This kind of training exercise won’t simply allow you to run off and start working on the project without having to worry about distractions but by training you will get used to the feeling of being focused and this feeling transfers over across everything you do.
Increase the relevance of the Task you need to Complete
Have you ever noticed that you have managed to complete a homework assignment in a single evening when you have a deadline? The idea here is pretty simple. The relevance of the task and deadline are crucial for forcing yourself to focus.
To increase the relevance of the task, always give a due-date and offer a reward upon completing the task. This will give a tap to the reward center of your brain. So your goal should be to prioritize your to-do list, organize everything and add weight to the most important task you want to focus on so that it’s easier to do.
Chewing gum boosts reaction time and accuracy rates along with enhancing ability to focus as proved by the study published in British journal of psychology.
The researchers believed that chewing gum by increasing blood supply to the brain improves oxygenation of the brain areas responsible for attention and focus.
Doodling is not only a good brain exercise but it has been proved to help us to focus better, grasp new concepts and retain information.
According to the study published in the medical journal The lancet, doodling engages brain defaults networks- the brain regions that maintain a baseline brain activity even when the outside stimulus is not present
Don’t forget to Breathe
Your brain needs constant supply of oxygen to concentrate better but many people hold their breath while trying to focus. 80% of us forget to breathe while writing our emails or using electronic gadgets which can lead to apnea, called commonly as email apnea.
Email apnea is the term first coined by former Apple executive Linda Stone and she has offered few advices to deal with it, including monitoring breathing, trying to become aware of anxious feeling, using a heart rate monitor and most importantly breathing while emailing.
Try the five-more Rule
Whenever your mind wants to quit or lose concentration, convince yourself to do it for five more minutes of whatever task you were doing. If you are solving a math problem do five more problems, if you are reading, read five more pages and you will feel the energy deep within to do what you were doing.
Try to do one thing at a time, and do it with completion
If you start doing a new project before completing the last one, you are sending the information to your brain that it’s ok to switch from one thing to another and this can seriously impact your concentration.
So to improve your focus, convince your brain for finishing the present task no matter how small that is. As even the smallest uncompleted task can have reverberations over the task you want to accomplish.
Try the above mentioned tools to improve your concentration. But if you feel you have tried everything but still you can’t focus, you may be having an underlying medical condition.