Four Proven Ways to Improve Focus
Do you ever feel as if you simply cannot concentrate? Whenever you try to focus your mind on a task, it seems to be pulled in all sorts of different directions.
Whether you are an athlete, student, or professional, concentration and focus are incredibly important. Having the capability to zero in and cancel out all distractions is a highly valued skill. But what happens if we can’t do this?
Is there any hope for us? The answer is yes! The ability to focus is a skill that we all can and should improve upon.
Importance of Focus
Focus is a skill that we all admire. Whenever someone has the strength of mind to set their mind to a task and complete it, we take notice.
However, as the world of technology increases, it seems our attention spans decrease.
In the year 2000, the average attention span was twelve seconds, which has since dropped to eight seconds. We can thank an overabundance of social media and other distractors for our low-levels of concentration.
When you think about it, our attention spans decreasing makes complete sense. For example, when scrolling through your favorite social media feed, how long do you tend to focus on one image or quote before quickly moving onto the next one?
In a day, we may never hold prolonged focus on one task for an extended period of time. That is why intentionally working to improve our focus is so important.
The ability to focus allows us to be more productive, efficient, and effective in our work. From an athletic standpoint, focus helps to quiet distractions and be completely immersed in the task at hand.
To prove the importance focus can have on an individual’s life, there is a story I would like to share about Andrew Carnegie, a famous American business magnate.
Having accumulated wealth in such a hurry, people began to become suspicious. You see, this was the late 1800’s so it wasn’t like today when people become internet millionaires in a matter of a few months.
The United States Senate commissioned Andrew Carnegie to question his business practices. After investigating him in length, the conclusion was made that there were no nefarious practices going on and Andrew Carnegie’s business was fully compliant with all laws and regulations.
Still curious, one of the Senators asked Andrew Carnegie how he accumulated such a vast amount of wealth in a short period of time?
Here was his reply,
“I can keep my mind focused on something for five minutes at a stretch.”
Five minutes? That doesn’t quite seem like a long enough time to compile a steel empire. However, this was the truth. Having heard this story, I became interested to try it out myself.
Needless to say, focusing for five minutes, while it doesn’t seem like a long time, is incredibly difficult to do. Naturally, we want to turn our attention to something else. I challenge you to try this out for yourself.
Knowing how much emphasis a successful man such as Andrew Carnegie put on focus really highlights the importance of the skill.
This story alone should kick start the desire to improve our focus. To shed even more light on the impact high levels of focus can have on our lives, here are the benefits that can be expected once we become more focused.
Benefits of Being Highly Focused:
- Increased positivity
- Improved self-awareness
- Better decision making
- Improved mindfulness
- Increased productivity
- Higher self-confidence
- Better time management
- Increased self-control
As you can see, having the ability to focus can benefit many areas of our lives.
But what about poor focus? If we know how important focus and concentration are to our success, then why do we lose focus? On top of that, how do we know if we have poor focus?
Top Focus Killers
At the beginning of the previous section, I briefly alluded to all the distractions we face on a daily basis. Along with these distractions are the increasing number of activities that require little to no focus. In fact, many of them actually have the opposite effect and work to decrease our attention span.
There are many reasons why we lose focus. Each individual deals with different circumstances and environments that all play into their level of focus. However, there are certain general reasons we can point to as being the top focus killers.
The list I have compiled includes those illustrated by Kathryn Wall on everlywell.com as well as those I have gathered in my own research and experience.
Now, this may be the most controversial of the focus killers. As soon as someone mentions social media or smartphones in a negative way, many people will immediately become defensive.
There is a lot of research that argues both sides of the argument.
One of the main reasons social media is believed to reduce focus is the nature of the platforms, as I explained earlier. Whenever we get on Facebook, Instagram, or any other site, we immediately begin scrolling, not holding focus on any one post for more than a few seconds.
Sometimes a long post may catch your eye, only to quickly lose interest and continue your search.
Not only does the act of scrolling social media itself decrease our attention span, but it serves as a major distraction.
When we are focused, there always seems to be this faint call from our phones or computers, pestering us to venture back onto the platform, forgetting about the work we must do. I personally have had to deal with this aspect a lot.
Some days I will sit down to write and I am constantly feeling to need to check my phone. Or, I’ll be working out and pick my phone up between sets, only to realize five minutes has passed.
The constant access we have to media and communication has become a major killer to our focus and concentration.
I am not advocating completely getting rid of these, as they have many positive benefits on our lives. What I am suggesting is the need to have a conscious awareness of how social media and our phones play a part in decreasing our attention and focus.
As cool as it may seem to try and eliminate as much sleep as we can from our lives, the process is vital for us to function in a healthy manner. I once tried to cut my sleep down to five hours a night. After a couple of days, I was a zombie.
I couldn’t focus on anything and it felt as if I was in a daze the whole day. There are people who claim to function on low amounts of sleep. I, for one, am not so lucky. My optimal range is about seven to eight hours. It’s important for each of us to determine what the minimum amount of sleep is that we need to function at our peak.
In her article, Kathryn Wall points to a study done in 2007 which demonstrated how sleep deprivation has a negative effect on our attention.
So, if you are struggling to focus these days, one culprit may be a lack of quality sleep.
The food we eat is fuel for our bodies. If we do not fuel ourselves properly, it can be difficult to focus and concentrate.
If your diet is too high in sugar, then you may deal with sugar highs and lows. The lows are where our focus really falls off because our bodies are not being given the proper nutrients to sustain us for a while.
Another impact of poor nutrition is vitamin deficiencies.
One of the most common vitamins that we tend to be lacking is B vitamins. When there is a reduction in adequate amounts of B vitamins in our system, we may experience brain fog. A clouded mind makes it incredibly difficult to focus on any one task for an extended period of time.
Anxiety and Stress
When we experience anxiety, our minds become flooded with thoughts of stress, fear, and worry. As a result, we may find it difficult to concentrate.
During a period of high anxiety, focusing on my work is close to impossible. Whenever I feel high levels of nervousness or anxiety, such as leading up to an interview or presentation, for example, I find it difficult to perform any other work until that event has passed.
My mind is too preoccupied with the scattered thoughts of the event to try and perform some other task. Luckily, this now only applies to specific situations that induce a nervous feeling in me.
Before I gained control over my anxiety, I dealt with generalized anxiety on a regular basis. During this time, I had constant poor focus, since my mind was caught up in all sorts of anxious and fearful scenarios.
So, if you are having trouble focusing or concentrating, look to your anxiety and stress levels as possible culprits.
"When we experience anxiety, our minds become flooded with thoughts of stress, fear, and worry. As a result, we may find it difficult to concentrate."
Signs of Poor Focus
It’s good to understand the reasons why we may be struggling to focus. This will help to locate and remove some of the distractions and causes as we get into improving focus.
But first, we must be able to identify if we do, in fact, deal with poor focus. It can seem simple enough to recognize ourselves as either having the ability to focus or not. Though, as with anything, identifying it in ourselves is not always as easy as we’d like to believe.
For that reason, I think it would be beneficial to describe some of the main signs we will present if there is a lack of focus.
- Unable to remember recent events
- Difficulty thinking clearly
- Seeking distractions when working
- Clouded mind
- Making careless mistakes
- Poor productivity
- Unable to perform difficult tasks
If you are dealing with any of these signs on a regular basis, then some attention may need to be put into improving your focus.
Now, we all lack focus from time to time, especially if the task at hand is not one we enjoy. However, no matter what we are doing, having the ability to focus and concentrate will drastically increase our productivity and chances of success.
Four Ways to Improve Focus
The first way we can increase our focus is to eliminate distractions. Whenever we are working, distractions can take on many forms. I already introduced one major distraction, which is our cell phones.
Whether you are sitting down to do some work or at the gym to exercise, it is a good idea to limit the interaction you have with your device.
I know that whenever I have my phone nearby when I am working, it is too easy for me to unconsciously pick it up. The next thing I know, I’ve wasted precious time scrolling through social media or looking at articles on the internet.
It can also be easy to become distracted with my phone while working out. As I said earlier, I’ll find myself picking it up between sets, only to realize more minutes than I would have liked have passed.
What I have begun to do is put my phone away while I am working, and only use it as a stopwatch during my workouts.
There are plenty of other distractions that deter focus other than electronics.
Noisy workspaces, friends that like to talk too much in the gym, teammates who gossip about non-sport-related topics during practices, and all sorts of other outside influences.
What you must do is locate the top distracters you have in your life. After that, do your best to eliminate them. Freeing up space for you to put all your focus into the activities and tasks that are paving the way for your success.
"The first way we can increase our focus is to eliminate distractions. Whenever we are working, distractions can take on many forms. I already introduced one major distraction, which is our cell phones."
Mindfulness is the act of being completely aware and present of the moment we are in. This occurs by being fully immersed in an activity or concentrating intently on a bodily motion, such as your breath.
Think of mindfulness as the ultimate tool for focus training. In order to be mindful, we must become fully aware of this moment, meaning, all distractions, both external and internal are blocked out.
The best and most popular way to cultivate mindfulness within ourselves is through mindfulness meditation. Practicing mindfulness meditation consists of sitting for an extended period of time, focusing fully on your breath.
I wrote a whole article going into great detail on mindfulness meditation and how it can be practiced, which you can read here.
An extensive longitudinal study was completed that supported the positive impact of mindfulness meditation. The study provides evidence that prolonged practice of mindfulness meditation greatly improves cognition and the ability to retain focus.
If your aim is to improve your focus, it may be worth your time to take up a practice of mindfulness meditation. The best part is, all you need is about five to ten minutes a day to start.
Most of us are aware that the benefits of exercise are numerous in terms of our physical health. But, did you know it can also greatly benefit our mental health, specifically focus?
Helpguide.org discusses the benefits exercise has on the symptoms of ADHD. They explain that through exercise, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels are increased. What this does is improve an individual’s ability to focus and concentrate.
Exercising works in the same manner as Ritalin and Adderall to help improve our attention.
No matter what type of exercise you enjoy doing, the important part is you get up and move. By doing so, you will see your ability to focus is greatly increased.
Take Short Breaks
The last way to improve focus is by implementing the use of short breaks.
Many times it is the mere thought of having to work for an extended period of time that deters us from concentrating. We often think of the large quantity of work that lies ahead and become overwhelmed and frustrated.
A fantastic way to alleviate this problem is by taking short breaks. These do not need to be very long, maybe five minutes in length. What this does is provide us with a target to work towards.
I have found this to be phenomenally helpful in my own work. If there is something that I know will be a struggle for me to focus on, I ensure that I take breaks regularly.
A good ratio is 20:5 meaning I work for twenty minutes and then break for five. During my break, I’ll look at my phone, get up and walk around, or do some other mindless task that takes my mind off my work.
The cool part is that a lot of times I will end up working for more than twenty minutes because I get into a flow. However, it’s the knowledge that I do have a break planned for the near future that allows me to focus and get into that flow state.
Focusing on one task for an extended period of time is a valuable skill. It allows us to be much more productive and efficient no matter what type of work we do.
There are many distractions and reasons why we lose focus, but knowing that we must improve is a vital first step.
Once you realize it is necessary to begin progressing towards higher levels of focus, there are four fantastic actions you can take.
We must eliminate distractions, begin a mindfulness practice to train focus, exercise regularly, and take short breaks. By doing so, we can greatly improve our ability to focus and concentrate.
How is your focus? Are you able to focus for five minutes at a time? I would love to hear what you think about focus and concentration so please leave a comment below.
If you have any questions about focus or any other performance psychology topic please feel free to reach out to me.
I hope that this article was helpful and you can begin to implement some of the methods I described into your own life to improve focus.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all you do.
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