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. 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.
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.
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.
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”.
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), 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.
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.
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.
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.