Staying on task can be difficult, but it can be particularly challenging when you are surrounded by constant distraction. In today’s always-connected world, diversions are nothing more than a click away. Even during quiet moments, distraction is literally at your fingertips as you find yourself checking your Facebook or trying to catch that elusive Pokémon.
Fortunately, focus is a lot like a mental muscle. The more you work on building it up, the stronger it gets. Why is focus so important? The ability to concentrate on something in your environment and direct mental effort toward it is critical for learning new things, achieving goals, and performing well across a wide variety of situations. Whether you are trying to finish a report at work or competing in a marathon, your ability to focus can mean the difference between success and failure.
Improving your mental focus is achievable, but that does not mean that it is necessarily quick and easy. If it was simple, then we would all have the razor-sharp concentration of an elite athlete. It will take some real effort on your part and you may have to make some major changes to some of your daily habits.
Here are some tips and tricks from psychology that can help you develop laser-like mental focus and concentration.
Start by Assessing Your Mental Focus
Before you start working toward improving your mental focus, you might want to begin by assessing just how strong your mental focus is at the present moment. Consider the following statements and select the ones that seem to best describe you:
I find myself daydreaming often when I need to be working on an important task.
I find it difficult to tune out distractions.
I often lose track of what I was working on and have to start over again.
I tend to focus on difficult tasks during times of the day when I know I will be the most alert.
I like to set goals and break tasks up into more manageable segments.
If I find my mind wandering, I’ll take a short break and then come right back to what I was working on.
If you identify more with the first three statements, then you probably need to work on your mental focus quite a bit. If the second set of statements seems more your style, then you probably already have fairly good concentration skills, but you could be even stronger with a little practice.
Admit it, you saw this one coming. While it may sound obvious, people often underestimate just how many distractions prevent them from concentrating on the task at hand. Such intrusions might come in the form of a radio blaring in the background or perhaps an obnoxious co-worker who constantly drops by your cubicle to chat.
Minimizing these sources of distraction often sounds easier than it really is. While it might be as simple as turning off the television or radio, you might find it much more challenging to deal with an interrupting co-worker, spouse, child, or roommate.
One way to deal with this is to set aside a specific time and place and request to be left alone for a period of time. Another alternative is to seek out a calm location where you know you will be able to work undisturbed. The library, a private room in your house, or even a quiet coffee shop might all be good spots to try.
Another important thing to remember is that not all distractions are external. Environmental noises and interruptions are often easier control than the internal distractions that might make it difficult to focus your attention. Exhaustion, worry, anxiety, poor motivation, and other internal disturbances can be particularly difficult to avoid.
A few strategies you might want to try to minimize or eliminate such internal distraction are to make sure you are well-rested prior to the task and to use positive thoughts and imagery to fight off anxiety and worry. If you find your mind wandering toward distracting thoughts, consciously bring your focus back to the task at hand.
Focus on One Thing at a Time
While multitasking sometimes seems like a great way to get a lot done quickly, it turns out that people are actually rather bad at it. Juggling multiple tasks at once can dramatically cut down on productivity and makes it much harder to hone in on the details that are truly important. Why? Because our attentional resources are limited so it is important to budget them wisely.
Think of your attention as a spotlight. If you shine that spotlight on one particular area, you can see things very clearly. If you were to try to spread that same amount of light across a large dark room, you might instead only glimpse the shadowy outlines.
Part of improving your mental focus is all about making the most of the resources you have available. Stop multitasking and instead give your full attention to one thing at a time.
Live In the Moment
It’s tough to stay mentally focused when you are ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or tuned out of the present moment for some other reason. You have probably heard people talk about the importance of “being present.” It’s all about putting away distractions, whether they are physical (your Smartphone) or psychological (your anxieties) and being fully mentally engaged in the current moment.
This notion of being present is also essential for recapturing your mental focus. Staying engaged in the here and now keeps your attention sharp and your mental resources honed in on the details that really matter at a specific point in time.
It may take some time but work on learning to truly live in the moment. You cannot change the past and the future has not happened yet, but what you do today can help you avoid repeating past mistakes and pave a path for a more successful future.
Mindfulness is a hot topic right now, and for good reason. Despite the fact that people have practiced forms of mindfulness meditation for thousands of years, its many health benefits are only recently starting to be understood.
In one study, researchers had human resources professionals engage in simulations of the sort of complex multitasking they engaged in each day at work. These tasks had to be completed in 20 minutes and included answering phones, scheduling meetings, and writing memos with sources of information pouring in from multiple sources including by phone calls, emails, and text messages.
Some of the participants received 8 weeks of training in the use of mindfulness meditation, and the results found that only those who had received this training showed improvement in concentration and focus. Members of the meditation group were able to stay on task longer, switched between tasks less frequently, and performed the work more efficiently than the other groups of participants.
Practicing mindfulness can involve learning how to meditate, but it can also be as simple as trying a quick and easy deep breathing exercise. To accomplish this, start by taking several deep breaths while really focusing on each and every breath. When you feel your mind naturally begin to wander, gently and uncritically guide your focus back to your deep breathing.
While this might seem like a deceptively simple task, you may find that it is actually much more difficult than it appears. Fortunately, this breathing activity is something you can do anywhere and anytime. Eventually, you will probably find that it becomes easier to disengage from intrusive thoughts and return your focus to where it belongs.
Try Taking a Short Break
Have you ever tried to focus on the same thing for a long period of time? After a while, your focus starts to break down and it becomes more and more difficult to devote your mental resources to the task. Not only that, but your performance ultimately suffers as a result.
Traditional explanations in psychology have suggested that this is due to attentional resources being depleted, but some researchers believe that it has more to do with the brain’s tendency to ignore sources of constant stimulation.
So what’s the solution?
Researchers have found that even taking very brief breaks by shifting your attention elsewhere can dramatically improve mental focus. So the next time you are working on a prolonged task, such as preparing your taxes or studying for an exam, be sure to give yourself an occasional mental break. Shift your attention to something unrelated to the task at hand, even if it is only for a few moments. These short moments of respite might mean that you are able to keep your mental focus sharp and your performance high when you really need it.
Keep Practicing to Strengthen Your Focus
Building your mental focus is not something that will happen overnight. Even professional athletes require plenty of time and practice in order to strengthen their concentration skills. One of the first steps is to recognize the impact that being distracted is having on your life. If you are struggling to accomplish your goals and find yourself getting sidetracked by unimportant details, it is time to start placing a higher value on your time. By building your mental focus, you will find that you are able to accomplish more and concentrate on the things in life that truly bring you success, joy, and satisfaction.
By Kendra Cherry, Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD