Imagine you’re typing an email, and then a text message alert sounds from your cell phone. You look down to read the message and maybe even reply. A few seconds later, you return to your email. Only now, you’ve lost your train of thought, and you have to read through what you’ve already written to resume your message.
This time gap where you must refocus your attention on the task at hand after an interruption is called switching cost. Switching cost is the mental price we pay when we shift our attention from one thing to another and then back again.
This email scenario is one that most people encounter daily, if not hourly. And while this may seem like a small price to pay to be able to multitask, author and psychology professor Amishi Jha points out that we’re losing 50 percent of our lives simply because we aren’t paying attention. Fortunately, learning how to focus can help reduce switching cost and boost productivity.
Staying focused may seem nearly impossible in today’s social media-driven digital age, but there is good news. With knowledge and a few healthy strategies, you can reclaim your attention—and your life—by learning how to focus effectively.
Improve your focus by discovering:
- What focused attention means
- Reasons for losing our concentration
- 10 healthy tips for regaining focus
- Daily habits for improved overall mental health
What Is Focused Attention?
Multitasking is overrated—I’d rather do one thing well than many things badly. Quality supersedes quantity every time.stewart stafford
Having the ability to focus on one thing at a time is focused attention. Our brains are constantly detecting information stimuli. So much so, that they’re actually working at 100 percent capacity. The problem is that there’s too much information in front of us, and our brains can’t possibly process all of it. Because of this, it’s up to our “attention” to select what we want to focus on from the information that’s available.
Focus is vital, both for the success of our personal life and our professional ones. Having the ability to concentrate on one task at a time at work could mean the difference between performing your job well or not. By focusing, you can produce high-quality results, improve time management, and give your team and customers your full attention. Having this focused attention is important for the success of a company. Leaders, team members, and clients want to feel as though you’re engaged and listening. If they do, they’ll also be active and listen, which boosts the morale and productivity of the whole organization.
Not all focused attention is the same, however. There are a few different types to be aware of:
Types of Attention:
- Arousal: Maintaining overall levels of alertness and energy.
- Focalized: Harnessing our mind to focus on just one thing.
- Sustained: Being able to sustain our attention on one thing for a longer period of time.
- Selective: Drowning everything else out to focus on one thing when several other externally distracting stimuli are present.
- Alternating: Switching your focused attention between two or more things (also commonly referred to as “multitasking”).
- Divided: Focusing on two things at once.
Why We Can’t Concentrate
There are many reasons why staying focused can be challenging. Family troubles, a noisy environment, work stress, health concerns—all of these things can make it challenging to stay on task. The truth is, each day, we’re bombarded with information and thoughts that tempt our attention to wander. So, it’s not always that we’re not capable of paying attention. It’s just that we have so many options of what to pay attention to.
Top Reasons We Can’t Focus
- Personal factors: Have you gotten enough sleep? Food? Are you exercising and keeping your mind and body healthy? These all contribute to individual factors that can impair our ability to concentrate.
- Environmental factors: Are you doing your quarterly accounting during a bad snowstorm? Perhaps you’re on a call while your dog is barking at the mailman? These are examples of environmental factors that can disrupt our train of thought.
- Stimulus factors: If the stimulus you are focused on is lasting a long time, or is boring, it may not hold your attention. Or, alternatively, if there are several complex stimuli, your mind is most likely to detect and focus on the simplest one.
- Attention disorders: Disorders like ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) are prevalent. In fact, a 2016 study by the CDC estimates that 6.1 million children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with one of these disorders.
- Brain damage: If you’ve ever experienced a stroke or other kind of brain injury, this can affect your ability to focus. Fortunately, even in these cases, focus can be improved over time with healthier daily habits.
How to Focus: 10 Ways to Improve Concentration
Learning how to focus better takes time and practice. So while improved focus won’t happen overnight, these 10 strategies will sharpen your attention exponentially over time.
Our bodies need between 11 and 15 cups of water each day to stay hydrated. That’s up to 3.7 liters. Any less than that can result in dehydration, impairing cognitive function, including focus. The National Library of Medicine found that dehydration among children and the elderly can have a particularly negative impact on brain performance. Make sure your mind and body stay hydrated throughout the day by setting a daily fluid goal, carrying a water bottle, knowing how many times to refill it, and setting reminders.
2. Mindfulness and Meditation Exercises
One of the biggest hindrances to concentration is mind wandering. This might occur when we’re focusing on a task and then suddenly start thinking about a conversation we had yesterday or what we want for dinner. It’s something we all do. Fortunately, as Dr. Amishi Jha teaches, mind wandering can be tamed by practicing mindfulness. In her TEDx presentation, she explains: “Mindfulness has to do with paying attention to our present-moment experience with awareness. And without any kind of emotional reactivity of what’s happening.”
The more you practice mindfulness, the greater the benefits will be. Studies show that just by meditating for 10-12 minutes per day for five days a week, one’s ability to hold attention improves drastically.
Spending time each day to write down your thoughts can have tremendous benefits on your focus and concentration. Essentially, if you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or distracted, writing your thoughts down can help you identify the cause. Identifying the cause will then help you think through solutions and put your mind at ease. When combined with other healthy lifestyle habits, journaling has been shown to reduce depression, manage anxiety, and improve focus.
4. Daily Exercise
Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise each day can make a significant difference in cognitive function. When we start moving our bodies and even break a sweat, we boost circulation back to the brain. This circulation is vital for the health of our whole body. The World Health Organization states that adults aged 18-64 should get at least 150-300 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic physical activity weekly to see health benefits like improved cognitive function.
5. Healthy Eating
What we eat can affect how we think and feel. If we’re missing out on essential nutrients because our diets are lacking, our brains and bodies may not be getting the vitamins and supplements they need to perform at their best. Improve focus by “eating your colors” and making sure each meal has a variety of nutrients. Certain foods—like leafy vegetables, fatty fish, and berries—are specifically linked to improved brain health and clarity.
6. Good Sleep Hygiene
Having good sleep hygiene is essential for many areas of our lives and health. When we sleep, our brain cells repair and recharge. This process is what makes us feel rested and energized the next day. Improve sleep hygiene by avoiding stimuli an hour before bed, preparing your room for a calming and sleep-inducing environment, and skipping any caffeine, alcohol, or sugar beforehand.
7. Take Breaks
Taking a break is like giving our minds a moment to rest. When we’re focusing on something for a long period—like studying for a test, for example—our mind is likely to begin wandering because it’s tired. In these moments, it’s essential to take a break. Just going for a short walk, listening to music, or calling a friend can give your mind a chance to recharge so that when you return to the task, your mind is refreshed and able to focus.
8. Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals
Without having a clear plan, losing focus and direction when we have a lot to do can be easy. Returning to work after a long vacation, for example, might look like walking into a long list of unread emails, priority tasks, and conference calls. Or perhaps you’re scaling a business. Knowing where to start can be daunting. Fortunately, you can regain focus, clarity, and direction by identifying and setting S.M.A.R.T. goals—that is, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
To set a S.M.A.R.T. Goal, follow this criterion:
- Specific: What needs to be accomplished? What are the particular steps to accomplish it?
- Measurable: How will the success of the goal be measured?
- Achievable: Can the goal be achieved? Is it doable?
- Relevant: Does the priority of the goal align with other priorities?
- Time-Bound: What is the time frame for completing the goal?
9. Listen to Music
If you have an Apple Music, Spotify, or Youtube account, you’ll have no trouble finding music playlists specifically for concentration. You can type in the search field “focus music” or “study music,” and multiple playlists are likely to generate. This is because music is not only an excellent therapeutic tool in general, but the right kinds of music can help foster focus. The next time you need to buckle down, try listening to calming background or classical music. Unlike upbeat music with lyrics, which can be distracting, listening to calm music may help you stay focused.
10. Remove External and Internal Distractions
Reducing our exposure and susceptibility to internal and external distractions can be game-changing for our ability to hold focused attention. Setting habits or adjusting your routine to ensure as few interruptions as possible when you need to stay focused is critical. Maybe this means blocking out specific times during your day to keep your phone silent or not schedule any calls. Even just scrolling through social media for a moment can be internally distracting and take our brain away into faraway trips of thought. Take care to stay in the present moment by eliminating as many things that can pull your attention span elsewhere.
Improve Your Mental Health With Daily Mindfulness
Our mind cannot be freed into the present moment while we are caged by the illusion of multitasking.Mokokoma Mokhonoana
It’s common to think multitasking means higher productivity. But science shows that our brains can’t handle and process multiple stimuli simultaneously. So when we “multitask,” we’re not paying attention to multiple things at once like we think we are. We’re just switching back and forth from one thing to another very quickly and losing our efficiency in between.
Practicing mindfulness is the key to learning how to concentrate. It’s an atomic habit that will ground you in the present moment and provide you with clarity on what to focus on. When practicing mindfulness, it may be helpful to think about your overarching target goal. What is the main thing you want to accomplish? Where are you in the process of achieving it? Practicing visualization can also help you re-center your mind and your priorities. Doing so will improve your productivity and your overall mental health.