Do you find your thoughts drifting from what you’re supposed to be working on? Are you struggling to stay focused and productive? It can be frustrating when your mind keeps wandering and you can't seem to make progress on important tasks. Whether it's a work project or an academic assignment, losing focus is a common challenge that many of us face. There are numerous strategies that can help anyone improve their focus, attention, and concentration, regardless of whether or not they are diagnosed with an attention deficit or simply struggling with focus. By understanding the role of focus and attention in our daily lives, employing effective interventions, and managing distractions, we can overcome this obstacle and better achieve our goals.
Attention is a crucial cognitive process that allows us to direct our focus toward a specific aspect of our environment, our thoughts, or an important task. This state of focused attention, also known as concentration, enables us to simultaneously exclude unrelated thoughts, ideas, and feelings that may hinder our productivity or decision-making abilities.
In the midst of constant stimuli, the brain faces the difficult task of filtering out irrelevant information and directing attention toward what truly matters. The ability to maintain focus is a significant challenge that affects individuals of all ages, and fortunately, there are various strategies available to aid in this endeavor.
Why focus is important
Focus plays a crucial role in various cognitive processes such as decision-making, problem-solving, reasoning, perception, learning, and memory. By honing your ability to concentrate or maintain focused attention, you can optimize resource utilization and approach tasks with efficiency while keeping sight of the bigger picture. Developing focus and attention skills are often instrumental in becoming an effective leader, fostering a strong work ethic, producing high-quality work, and achieving more in less time. In many professions, success hinges on one's capacity for sustained concentration, making this a highly sought-after yet elusive state of mind.
Why can’t I focus?
What influences focus and attention and what can you do about it? There are numerous factors that influence focus and concentration. Let’s examine a few:
1. Not enough sleep
People who get less sleep face increased challenges when it comes to recuperating from distractions, accomplishing tasks, and completing jobs without errors. [i] Not surprisingly, the ability to concentrate diminishes as drowsiness sets in; distractibility follows sleep deprivation. [ii] It’s crucial to implement tips to overcome insomnia and get quality sleep to improve attention and overall brain health. Discover the optimal amount of sleep for your age here.
Brain fog, lack of concentration, mental fatigue, and a headache are hallmark signs that you needed a glass of water long ago. Dehydration has been linked to decreased energy, impaired short-term memory, and diminished focus. Simply replenishing and maintaining proper hydration levels through water consumption can improve fatigue, memory, focus, and reaction time. [iii] Research also suggests that children can enhance their memory, focus, and cognitive ability simply by increasing their water intake by one glass. [iv] As a general guideline, it is advisable to drink at least half your body weight in ounces. Placing a water bottle nearby your work area serves as a practical reminder to revitalize your brain with life-giving water.
3. Nutritionally deficient diet
The brain thrives on a variety of necessary and high-quality nutrients. It is not surprising that certain foods can hinder the brain's ability to maintain focus, including processed foods, sugar sweetened beverages, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol. If you find yourself consuming tasty but nutritionally deficient foods, this may be a factor contributing to your struggle with focus.
A diet rich in a colorful selection of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds not only provides important building blocks for optimal mental health but also enhances cognitive function, including improved attention. [v] One nutrient has been specifically found to enhance memory, concentration, learning, cognitive well-being, and improved blood flow to the brain: plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. [vi] Omega-3 intake can even help alleviate symptoms of ADHD. [vii] Additionally, some supplements can also boost focus and concentration, especially in combination with a good base diet. We recommend “Focus” by Nedley Health.
Meal timing can also influence focus. If you experience sluggishness after a substantial evening meal, consider opting for a lighter dinner to give your body and brain a break from digestion and enhance your concentration. However, it is advisable not to skip breakfast. Among students, eating breakfast is linked to improved concentration, memory, and academic achievement. [viii]
If you get distracted by secondary thoughts or worries, the ding of a text or email notification, or the ringing of the fax machine, you’re not alone. Throughout the day, most individuals are bombarded with distractions that hinder productivity. While there are specific measures you can take to minimize distractions, like deactivating notifications or playing white noise, developing improved focus and concentration, as demonstrated in this article, can fortify you against distractions as you learn to reduce how much you process the distractions around you. [ix] But as you learn to improve your concentration, it helps to intentionally identify distractions and develop solutions to mitigate them.
Reducing clutter and creating a clean, organized area conducive to increased focus is beneficial. Minimizing distractions caused by excessive noise or uncomfortable room temperature is important for maintaining concentration. We recommend creating an environment that’s conducive to productivity but as free from distractions as possible.
What can I do to improve my focus?
Here are some additional strategies that can be employed to improve focus and attention:
- Practice efficient time management: The Pomodoro Method is a proven strategy centered on 25 minutes of concentrated focus followed by a 5-minute break (reward). After identifying a particular task, set a timer for 25 minutes, acknowledging that a break is approaching within a reasonable timeframe. Devote yourself exclusively to that task while the timer is counting down.
- Brain Dumping: Compile all your logical and scattered ideas, including to do lists, concerns, and choices, on paper. Organize them according to what needs action, what needs thought, and what can or cannot be controlled. Once everything is documented, it becomes simpler to concentrate on the current task without any distractions. This method promotes focused task completion and mental decluttering.
- Be Here Now technique: Although simplistic, this technique proves effective when implemented. When you realize your thoughts are wandering, say “Be here now” to yourself and intentionally redirect your attention to where you want it to be. You may need to refocus a hundred times a day, but with time you’ll notice that the periods get longer between your mind wandering and refocusing.
- Worry or Think Time: Establish a designated time each day to reflect on the matters that frequently enter your mind and disrupt your focus. When your thoughts wander, remind yourself of the predetermined time for contemplating and worrying; intentionally release that thought and redirect your attention to the task at hand. Then, devote your set worry or think time to decompressing and reflecting on your concerns, scattered thoughts, and impressions from the day. This can be a helpful time to analyze your worries for irrational beliefs and employ helpful cognitive behavioral therapy strategies.
- Get out into nature: Spending time in nature, like forest bathing, not only improves depression and anxiety, but attention as well! [v] Whether intentionally allowing your child to enjoy nature and boost their creativity or going out for a walk during your 5-minute Pomodoro Method break, nature provides a calming, refocusing balm.
- Engage in daily exercise: Physical activity immediately boosts attention (xi). Research shows that at least 20 minutes of exercise will enhance your cognition and attention. [xii] For an added bonus, exercise in nature for additional brain benefits.
- Practice deep breathing: Deep breathing signals your body’s other relaxation response, the parasympathetic nervous system. Engaging in deep breathing has been found to improve attention, anxiety, and cortisol levels. [xiii] Focus on inhaling deeply through your nose for five seconds, expanding your lungs, and filling your chest to the maximum. Exhale slowly and deeply through your mouth for five seconds. Aim for four to six deep breaths per minute.
- Establish study/work rituals: Find a place in your home, workplace, or school and consistently use this space for your dedicated task, every time. This spacial ritual provides your brain with improved self-regulation and the ability to attain goals.
- Focus on one task at a time and avoid multitasking: If you want to improve your focus, stop splitting it. Intentionally seek to do just one thing at a time and see it through to completion before beginning another task.
- Limit electronic usage: While seeking to boost your concentration, take specific actions to limit your exposure to distractions. This may mean only using your electronics at specific times during the day, removing notifications, checking email once a day, putting limits on your phone (such as the app Forest), going media free for a month, deleting social media, and finding an accountability partner.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a prevalent condition and is often treated by medical professionals using medications and some lifestyle interventions. Because lifestyle and environment play a substantial role in distractibility, we recommend making changes to lifestyle, diet, and environment alongside any prescription or supplement interventions. One insightful resource for all parents, but especially parents of children with ADHD or who are distractible, that we recommend is the book Reset Your Child’s Brain.
Distractibility is a pervasive issue that requires deliberate effort to address. By establishing routines, utilizing targeted techniques, and adopting a lifestyle conducive to cognitive success, you can enhance your focus and concentration. Embracing this lifestyle will lead to tangible achievements in concentration, although it may take time and ongoing learning to optimize brain function. We wish you great success as you intentionally work to improve your focus and attention!
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[i] Stepan, M., Fenn, K., & Altmann, E. (2019). Effects of sleep deprivation on procedural errors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(10), 1828–1833.
[ii] Miller, C., Robertson, D., Johnson, K. et al. (2021). Tired and lack focus? Insomnia increases distractibility. Journal of Health Psychology, 26(6), 795–804.
[iii] Zhang, N., Du, S., et al. (2019). Effects of Dehydration and Rehydration on Cognitive Performance and Mood among Male College Students in Cangzhou, China: A Self-Controlled Trial. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(11), 1891.
[iv] Edmonds, C. J., Jeffes, B. (2009). Does having a drink help you think? 6-7-year-old children show improvements in cognitive performance from baseline to test after having a drink of water. Appetite 53(3), 469–472.
[v] Martínez García, R., Jiménez Ortega, A. et al. (2018). Estrategias nutricionales que mejoran la función cognitiva [Nutrition strategies that improve cognitive function]. Nutricion Hospitalaria, 35(Spec No6), 16–19.
[vi] Dighriri, I., Alsubaie, A., Hakami, F. et al.(2022). Effects of Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids on Brain Functions: A Systematic Review. Cureus, 14(10), e30091.
[vii] Derbyshire E. (2017). Do Omega-3/6 Fatty Acids Have a Therapeutic Role in Children and Young People with ADHD?. Journal of Llipids, 2017, 6285218.]
[viii] Gajre, N. S., Fernandez, S., et al. (2008). Breakfast eating habit and its influence on attention-concentration, immediate memory and school achievement. Indian Pediatrics, 45(10), 824–828.
[ix] Sörqvist, P., & Marsh, J. (2015). How Concentration Shields Against Distraction. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(4), 267–272.
[x] Jimenez, M., DeVille, N., et al. (2021). Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(9), 4790.
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[xii] Andrade-Lara, K., Latorre Román, P. et al.(2023). Can 16 Minutes of HIIT Improve Attentional Resources in Young Students?. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology, 8(3), 116.
[xiii] Ma, X., Yue, Z., Gong, Z. et al. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 874.