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So You’re Having a Hard Time Focusing. 10 Small Ways to Improve Your Attention

By Steph Eckelkamp
October 22, 2020

Tell us if this sounds familiar: You have a big work project that’s due at the end of the day, and suddenly you feel the need to organize your entire closet. Or research that side hustle you’ve been contemplating. Or plan out your next week’s worth of meals.

Maybe you snap out of it long enough to refocus your attention on the task at hand for a while, but then *BAM*—you realize you’ve been looking at videos of Instagram-famous golden retrievers for the past 10 minutes.

You are not alone. Despite our best intentions, humans are highly distractible creatures. But don’t beat yourself up about it. For one, we may not be adapted to sit for countless hours at a desk and crank out top-tier work—after all, modern day office jobs are brand new in the grand scheme of human evolution.

The good news: There are a lot of little ways to tweak your habits and environment and ramp up focus and productivity. Here are 10 science-backed strategies to try today:

1. Aim for 8 hours of sleep every night — especially before big deadlines.

Lack of sleep has a huge negative impact on attention and learning. According to researchers, the more sleep deprived you are, the more erratic your ability to maintain attention and focus becomes, “with attention being sustained, lost, reestablished, then lost again.” This means that normally simple tasks could take you for-ev-er to complete, setting you up for yet another late night. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There’s only one way around this: Really, really aim to get the recommended 7-9 hours of shuteye nightly. Nudge your bedtime 15 minutes earlier every evening, and keep late night screentime to a minimum to help you unwind and fall asleep faster.

2. Start the day with protein, fiber, and healthy fats.

If you’ve ever gotten majorly tired and “hangry” an hour after eating a donut for breakfast, you’ve experienced the productivity sapping effects of refined carbs. That’s because, when your blood sugar takes a nosedive after its initial spike, your energy levels drop, your focus is impaired, and all hope for powering through your to-do list goes out the window. Not only that, but research shows that a single meal with a high-glycemic load can impair memory performance, too.

To avoid the brain drain and keep blood sugar stable, eat a breakfast with a combo of protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Try an omelet or scramble with veggies and cheese; a smoothie with greens, avocado, and berries; or oatmeal with banana and nut butter.

3. Assess how you work best + set up your environment to match (hint: get a plant!)

Everyone’s a little different in terms of their ideal work environment, but research suggests there are some key ways to set up your space to boost focus and productivity:

  • Clear up that clutter! A study found that visual reminders of disorder (think: a desk piled with empty coffee mugs) essentially drain people’s mental resources and impair focus. Other research suggests clutter prompts procrastination. So, an hour spent organizing could save you loads of time in the long run.
  • The sound of your co-workers may be distracting, but not all noise is bad. Research suggests calming natural sounds like falling rain, rumbling thunder, and crashing waves improve mood, focus, and productivity. Try this Nature Sounds playlist on Spotify.
  • Green your office with plants. Per one study, they can enhance productivity by 15%, along with concentration. Pothos and spider plants are great low-maintenance picks.

4. Try time-blocking (a form of single-tasking) to meet your goals more efficiently.

Time-blocking or time-chunking is an increasingly popular—and simple—method of getting more things done. Basically, you list out everything you have to do, then perform each task for a set period of time, typically anywhere from 15-60 minutes. When your timer goes off, take a short break, then move onto the next task. (Set a cell phone timer or use a TimeCube.)

The key: When you’re working on one task, you focus on nothing else. The point is to hyper-focus, limit distractions, and provide structure. The human brain has actually evolved to single-task, and research suggests that we almost always take longer to complete a task (and do so with more errors) when multitasking.

5. Take several mini breaks throughout the day (even better if they get your heart pumping).

A crucial element of time-blocking is taking breaks—trying to power through one task until it’s done is far worse for productivity and focus than breaking it up. In one experiment, researchers found that the ideal ratio for productivity and focus was about 52 minutes of work followed by a 17-minute break. Keep in mind, it may take some trial and error to find your ideal rhythm.

Doing something physically active on your breaks (think: a walk, a few push ups, some squats, or even a quick dance party) can amplify the positive effects—exercise helps lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and may reduce the distracting effects of stress.

6. Diffuse these brain-boosting essential oils.

Time to bust out that diffuser! Certain essential oils have been shown to stimulate the brain and lead to improvements in memory, concentration, and attention. Consider one of these scents:

  • Rosemary may boost memory and alertness, and help improve test scores.
  • Lavender has been shown to help people complete math problems faster and more accurately, and increase concentration at work.
  • Peppermint may boost concentration and alertness.
  • Lemon, especially when diffused in the morning, may improve cognitive function.

7. Use caffeine as a tool.

While too much caffeine can leave you feeling like a jittery mess, a little (think: the amount in a cup or two of coffee, depending on your tolerance) can go a long way in reigning in your focus. Research shows that caffeine improves performance on simple and complex attention tasks by influencing areas in the brain that influence your ability to sustain an alert state. Pro tip: If you drink coffee, add a dash of cinnamon—the comforting aroma of this spice has been linked to feelings of alertness and decreased frustration.

8. Sip on green tea, or supplement with its active ingredient: L-theanine.

If you’re not a coffee fan, there’s more than one reason to embrace green tea. In addition to caffeine, it contains a powerful compound called L-theanine, which has been shown to directly affect the brain in positive ways. In fact, L-theanine is often said to trigger a state of “calm alertness” because it increases activity of alpha brain waves, which relax the mind without causing drowsiness. If you don’t love the taste, consider adding a scoop of matcha green tea powder to your morning smoothie to mellow out the flavor.

9. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

Never seem to drink enough water? A research review of several studies found that even mild dehydration can seriously mess with attention, coordination, and complex problem solving. In general, the more dehydrated you are, the more likely you are to make errors during attention-related tasks. To stay hydrated and mentally sharp, keep a large water bottle at your desk and in your car to sip on throughout the day. Beverages like herbal teas and flavored seltzers will also boost hydration, while preventing palate boredom.

10. Refocus your attention with mindfulness and deep breathing.

Even with all the strategies above, your mind will inevitably wander on occasion. When it does, try not to get frustrated. Instead, mindfully redirect your attention to the task at hand and take a few deep, calming breaths to help you refocus. Consider this “box breathing” technique: Breathe in for a count of 4 seconds, hold for 4, exhale for a count of 4, hold for 4—then repeat. Mindfulness meditation can also help. Office workers trained in this practice have shown improved focus and mood, and the ability to stay on task longer.

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