Improve your concentration with these practices
It happens to everyone. You’ve sat down, ready and motivated to finish a project, but fifteen minutes later you’re on your phone playing Wordle or in the kitchen grabbing a snack. Maybe you went on Youtube to find the perfect background music and end up watching kitten videos.
Focus can be hard to achieve and maintain, even if you’re motivated, but taking the right steps to prepare your mind and body will help cultivate concentration and sharpen your mind.
Start with the basics
Are you more likely to be productive if you’re running on four hours of sleep and a blueberry muffin or when you’ve slept seven hours and had a good breakfast?
Concentration starts with cultivating healthy habits like getting enough sleep, eating well, and staying hydrated. And while we all love a good cup of coffee in the morning, don’t overdo it. Consuming too much of stimulating substance—like caffeine—can wreck your concentration by frying your nervous system.
Now, if it was easy to get eight hours of rest and snack on veggies, we wouldn’t have to write a whole paragraph about it. Start with small changes to your routine. Substitute one less-than healthy snack with something better like nuts or carrots. Try going to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual. Making massive changes can throw you off course and negatively impact your focus. Take it slow.
Mindfulness and meditation are essential to laying the groundwork for concentration. In fact, meditation is so calming because it encourages the practitioner to focus on one thing—usually the breath—rather than swirling thoughts. Meditating regularly—ideally once a day—will make it easier for you to still your mind and focus on the task at hand.
Refine your environment
When you sit down to work, make sure your area is free from distractions. Move any stray notes, books, packages, or knickknacks out of your line of sight so you can concentrate fully on your to-do.
Consider silencing your phone or muting email notifications for an hour. This will limit the number of times you break away from your focus to check something unrelated. Humans can’t multitask, so help yourself concentrate by blocking your calendar and turning off your messaging systems.
If you work in an open space, invest in good headphones and experiment with different types of music or white noise. Avoid playing television shows or listening to podcasts because you can’t do two things at once.
This one is a doozy. We all love our cell phones, and the internet has become critical to many aspects of our daily lives. But, if you find yourself reaching for your phone or browsing social media instead of concentrating, it’s time to set boundaries.
A good first step is tracking how you’re spending your time on your phone and computer. You can do this manually or through the myriad apps available for your devices. The purpose is to get a handle on your habits. You might be surprised at how much of your time is spent mindlessly scrolling.
When you have a baseline, start with small goals. Try to cut back your screentime by an hour or shut off your phone for part of the day so you can focus on what you want to get done. If you’re a parent or have a job that requires you to be on call, find ways to pause notifications from apps that aren’t essential to your day-to-day responsibilities. There are plenty of tools you can use to freeze applications and websites that you don’t need so you won’t be tempted to use them as a distraction.
Set your priorities
Most of us have to-do lists a mile long, and it’s challenging to know where to start. (Plenty of us have sat down, looked at our work, and decided we needed a fresh cup of coffee or a snack to avoid tackling a mountain of projects.)
Set aside five minutes to write down and review the things you need to get done. If your list is long, highlight three things you want to complete today. It’s easier to focus when you set manageable goals and don’t have an impossible task list hanging over your head. Give yourself permission to not worry about other chores and if your mind starts bouncing to all the other things you have to do, bring your thoughts back to your priorities. (This is where your meditation practice has helped prepare you to focus your thoughts! If you find yourself distracted, close your eyes and go to the quiet place of balance you find when meditating before returning to your priority.)
When you finish your tasks, you can start on a new one if you have the time or make notes for when you return to your to-do list later.
Don’t be afraid to take breaks
It’s impossible to focus on the same task for hours multiple days in a row. Burnout is a real thing and challenging to recover from, so it’s best to prevent it rather than recover from it. Plan breaks throughout the day to take a walk, read an interesting article, or call a friend.
Breaks are also a great way to motivate yourself to concentrate. Experiment with working for an hour then taking a fifteen-minute break to do something fun like visit your favorite website or read a chapter of a book. You may find it easier to focus when you know you have a set amount of time to work and something to look forward to at the other end.
Taking time away from your to-dos will also freshen your mind and allow you to come back focused. If you’ve hit a concentration wall, step away for fifteen minutes to do something completely unrelated. You’ll return with a fresh perspective.
Relatedly, set boundaries. Find your focus when you need to then free your mind to enjoy time with your friends and family in the evenings and on weekends. If you can, take a real lunch break when you set aside your work to enjoy a meal. It’s important to take time away from work altogether, whether it’s a traditional job, freelance projects, or running a household.
With these pillars, you’ll find yourself with more focus for the important things in your life, and when you’re more productive in places that matter, you’re more likely to be happy and calm. Remember not to beat up on yourself if you have a day full of distractions or drop a positive habit. Just pat yourself on the back and recommit yourself to finding your focus.