We live in a world buzzing and flashing with distractions: Slack messages sidle onto screens, phones vibrate with breaking news and chats from the group chat, and worries about COVID and other threats break our concentration. No wonder staying focused can be a challenge.
A distraction-filled environment is just one factor standing in the way of focus, therapist Billy Roberts of Focused Mind ADHD Counseling in Columbus, Ohio, tells Health. The overall stress of your life can also play a role, he says. Your feelings affect your focus, too. "There are times when emotions are running high and anxiety or frustration gets in the way of concentration," Roberts says.
So how can you get to a flow state, concentrating on what you're doing at the moment and get what you need to do done? Here, experts share 7 strategies that help you get, and stay, in the zone.
Start a meditation practice
You've probably heard about the power of meditation before, but research bears it out: Taking just a few minutes a day to meditate can improve your focus. And it doesn't take long for the effects of a meditation practice to materialize. In a review of 20 studies, researchers found just a few months of meditating increased sustained attention.
"Meditation improves our focus by reducing our stress and enabling us to bounce back more quickly from distractions," Dorlee Michaeli, LCSW, an EMDR-certified psychotherapist in New York City, tells Health. This makes us react less to minor annoyances and emotional triggers, she says, so we can get in the right headspace to power through.
During meditation, you learn to bring your attention back to your breath when your mind wanders, Michaeli points out. Building up this skill "facilitates our brain's ability to return more quickly to the task at hand when interrupted by a text or phone buzzing," she says.
While focusing is a mental task, physical activity plays a role, too. Exercising can help improve your ability to concentrate and boost your memory as well, according to a 2020 review published in Translational Sports Medicine that examined the connection between physical activity and cognitive function in young adults.
How does moving around help? "Building in time-limited movement breaks helps to keep the brain stimulated and can increase your productivity on long-term projects," Scott Allen, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist with Just Mind, LLC, tells Health. Participating in regular physical activity, like a nightly jog or gym session, can also relieve stress and clear your head to make focusing less difficult.
While sustained exercise is helpful, tiny breaks of physical activity can work as well. Next time you're feeling distracted, try this: Step away from whatever it is you're doing and go for a quick walk, do a round of jumping-jacks, or complete a chore that involves being active.
Schedule activities when you’re naturally more alert
Our levels of alertness naturally spike and dip throughout the day, Allen says, and it's often contingent on whether you're a morning person or night owl.
If you're a lark, load up your morning with the most complex mental tasks on your to-do list. Night owls, on the other hand, should ease into the day, relying on the evening hours for projects that require focus. "Schedule activities requiring maximal focus during the times of day that you are most alert and focused," Allen says.
Break down big projects into bite-size tasks
"Seeing a big project ahead can create a cycle of high anxiety, procrastination, and challenges with focus when you actually get started on it," Allen says. Breaking down a major project or task into many little steps can help keep your concentration, he suggests.
For example, instead of adding a major work project to your to-do list, parcel it out into several small steps: call the client, set up a meeting, research pricing, etc. These smaller tasks have a less intimidating vibe, and it's easier to sustain your focus in a short period of time.
Schedule short timeouts
Even people who are good at focusing their attention on a task experience dips and distractions; our brains are always on alert. The solution: take an occasional short break. It's not lazy or a poor use of your time. Afterward, you'll resume your task with focus, rather than having your attention drift, according to a study published in the journal Cognition.
Try time-limited sprints, suggests Michaeli. The Pomodoro technique—where you focus on a task for 25 minutes, then break for 5 minutes—is one popular strategy, she says. Or try 90-minute sprints dedicated to a task, followed by a 15- to 20-minute break, she suggests.
Eat foods that boost cognition
Ever scarf down a sugary treat that you expected would help fuel your focus…only to experience a crash an hour later? What you eat can make a difference when it comes to how your brain and body run. Simple carbs and refined sugar lead to a burst of energy, followed quickly by sleepiness, according to the American Heart Association. It's hard to concentrate when you're fighting to keep your eyes open.
Other foods, in contrast, give your brainpower an assist. The caffeine in a cup of coffee really does help with concentration and mental function, according to Harvard Health Publishing. And cruciferous veggies, such as kale and broccoli, along with berries, help power memory, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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