Being able to stay focused and concentrated on a task is something a lot of us would want.
We are in a day and age where we are constantly interrupted by notifications on our phones and laptops. We are always ‘on’ and available, and have immediate access to all the information in the world.
Because of these interruptions our brains have lost the ability to concentrate on a task for a longer period. But to work efficiently – so you can spend time on other stuff besides work – you need to be able to focus.
The good news is that you can train to improve your focus. Your mind is a muscle that needs training. Just like you would train your body during a physical workout to create stronger muscles and increase stamina, you need to improve your ‘brain stamina’ too.
Here are 6 exercises to train your brain for improved focus and concentration and 4 bonus tips to optimize your workspace and make it easier to stay focused.
1. Gradually increase your focus
Just like you wouldn’t start with the heaviest weights in the gym, you can’t put your brain on an extreme focus-training right away. You have to gradually build up your concentration.
You can do this by setting a timer for a certain period and make yourself focus entirely on your task within that period.
So, for example, start with 5 minutes. Set a timer for 5 minutes and in those 5 minutes, you will do your absolute best to not get distracted. On average, we are interrupted or distracted every 7-8 minutes, so you got this!
Then after those 5 minutes, take a 2-minute break, then get back to your concentration mode for 5 minutes and so on. The next day, add 5 minutes to your concentration time and 1 minute to your break, so focus in chunks of 10 minutes, break for 3 minutes.
Keep increasing your time chunks for a few days. If you find it hard to adjust to the added time, stay on your current level. For example, if you were able to focus for 15 minutes with 4-minute breaks on day 3, but have a hard time with 20 min/5 min on day 4, just do another day of 15 min/4 min. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
A well-known technique for focused work is the ‘Pomodoro technique’. In the Pomodoro technique, you focus for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. This 25 min/5 min combination is named a ‘Pomodoro’. After 4 Pomodoros (2 hours), it’s time for a longer break of 25 minutes.
You can set timers on your phone, or you can download one of the many ‘Pomodoro’ apps.
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Meditation has several benefits, one of them being that it increases your attention span and improves focus. When you’re meditating, it’s basically a concentration exercise, as you want to keep your focus on your meditation.
According to research, you can boost your concentration by meditating 10-20 minutes a day. You can incorporate this time quite easily in your morning routine. And what’s better is that you will already see improvements in your attention span after just 4 days.
There are several apps that can help you with meditating, for example, Headspace, Calm and Breathe.
3. Build willpower
Very simply said, you will have to start deliberately ignore distractions to improve your focus. When you feel the urge for distractions, stop yourself from doing it and bring your attention back to your task.
Sometimes you might not notice the urge and will automatically reach for your distraction. You might grab your phone and open Instagram on auto-pilot. When you notice that you’re aimlessly scrolling Instagram, be strict and stop it right away.
Add time limits on your phones for distracting apps, so your phone will give you a reminder that you shouldn’t spend time on that app.
Keep score of how many times you stopped yourself from distractions and reward yourself. In the two scenarios above, I would recommend to give yourself a higher score when you’ve stopped yourself before even starting your distraction.
4. Physical exercise
As I mentioned before, you should train your mind just like you would train the rest of your body. Physical activity actually benefits your brain training as well.
During physical exercise, you’re usually not distracted and you focus on pushing through with the activity you’re doing. It teaches you discipline. This discipline builds up your willpower supply, which you can then use as mentioned in the previous point.
Whether it’s playing a team sports, jogging, playing tennis, doing yoga, weight lifting or anything else: they all help you increase your endurance, discipline, willpower and thus improve your focus and attention span.
5. Have short mindfulness sessions throughout the day
Mindfulness is the act of completely focusing on what you’re doing at that moment and observing all the sensations. For example, when you’re shampooing your hair, you would focus on how the shampoo lathers, your fingers running through your hair and the smell of the shampoo.
By incorporating short mindfulness sessions throughout the day, you teach your brain to focus on a present task. This makes it easier for you to use the same type of focus when you’re working.
Some easy mindfulness exercises you can do are:
- Eating: don’t watch TV etc., focus on the taste, texture and smell of your food
- Walking: turn your focus to the movement of your legs, hips and feet. Notice the way your feet touch the ground
- Listening to music: preferably with earphones, close your eyes and listen to all the different sounds of the instruments and the lyrics
6. Read longer texts and read it slowly
With the dazzling amount of information accessible in our hand palms, we have lost the ability to focus on single pieces of content.
Apparently, 95% of readers don’t finish an article and about 40% stops after reading a few paragraphs (if you’re still here reading this, yay well done!).
We are scrolling and scanning through texts rather than actually reading and engaging with the text. It has become harder for most of us to focus on a long text, especially when we read it off a screen.
Challenge yourself to read a long text (without ads because they’re distracting), preferably of a topic that interests you. Or even better, pick up a book and start reading uninterruptedly for 15-30 minutes per day.
Focus on really digesting the text, so you actually understand what it says, instead of just (quickly) reading words.
With the exercises above, you will train your brain and improve your focus. You can help yourself a hand and make concentrating easier with these 4 tweaks in your environment.
Have a distraction to-do list
One of the reasons I have trouble focusing is that I think of something randomly and immediately want to do it or look it up.
It’s okay to have random thoughts or a need for distraction. But don’t pursue it immediately. Write it down on a ‘distraction to-do list’, so you can get back to it once you’re having a break.
Lay down a notepad or sheet of paper with a pen next to you when you’re working, so you can write your distraction/thought down and then get back to your task at hand.
Add plants to your workplace
Studies have shown that having plants in your workplace increases productivity. Besides their air-purifying effect and natural calming effect, greenery improves your focus and attention span.
It is underlined by the theory of ‘attention restoration’. Mental fatigue can be restored when you give your direct attention a break. Sleeping does this, but when you’re awake you can refresh your attention by shifting your mind to an indirect form of engagement, such as nature.
Listen to focus-enhancing music or sounds
Music can help improve your focus because it releases chemical dopamine that makes you feel good and lowers stress and anxiety.
Several studies have shown that students perform better on tests when listening to classical music. No matter what you’re trying to concentrate on during your work: it’s best not to listen to music with lyrics.
Good options are classical music, meditation music, electronic music or nature sounds. You can find all of these on Spotify, neatly organized in the ‘Focus’ folder. I’m listening to the playlist ‘Jazz for Study’ as I’m writing this article!
Declutter your workspace
If you’re working in an unorganized place with lots of clutter around you, this automatically distracts your mind because it ‘competes’ for your attention.
Clean up your workplace and keep it tidy by cleaning every time after you’ve used it. If your surroundings are neat, it improves your ability to focus.
Let’s get started to improve your focus
These 6 exercises to improve your focus are all practical enough to start implementing them right away, so it’s up to you now to actually do it!
- Use a timer during your work
- Deliberately ignore distractions
- Incorporate meditation and reading in your daily routine
- Be physically active
- Have short mindfulness sessions throughout the day
Tweak your environment with the 4 bonus tips, to make it easier for yourself to be able to focus.
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