8 Surprising Tips for Focus and Concentration
Do you have a personal trainer exam coming up, or a looming essay deadline, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t focus?
Focus Can Seem Hard
Nowadays, focus can seem hard to come by. Some experts claim that our attention spans have been slowly eroding for years, which they postulate is a result of a collective overreliance on smartphones and our prolonged exposure to social media, internet content, and just a general overabundance of information.
For example, when you open your phone, notice how your attention is being demanded by countless stimuli: emails, texts, memes, advertisements, pictures. With more and more of us being diagnosed with ADHD and an increasing number of people reporting an inability to focus following the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no wonder that when we sit down to focus on a task, our brains are nowhere to be found.
Maybe, like so many others, you are wondering if you have ADHD. If so, please note that only a qualified physician is able to give an ADHD diagnosis. If you are really struggling, please do not hesitate to reach out to your doctor.
Whether you have been diagnosed with ADHD or if you’re just someone struggling to concentrate, there are many unique, science-based tools and strategies to help you reach that much-coveted state of pure focus and concentration.
- Binaural beats
I wanted to start the list with this tip because…wow. Binaural beats have been an absolute game changer for me and for many others who struggle with focus and concentration. 40 hertz binaural beats have been shown in multiple peer-reviewed studies to improve working memory and concentration. I describe it as scratching an itch in my brain that I didn’t know I had.
Don’t believe me? You can try them for free on YouTube or Spotify or any number of music platforms–just type in ‘binaural beats’. There are also many apps available for download, such as Binaural Beats and ExBeats. My personal favourite binaural beats playlist can be found here on YouTube: https://youtu.be/-z77ikRecGI
- Time your focus
Though every person is different and there are exceptions to every rule, studies in chronobiology have shown that our brains are most ‘fresh’ between the times of 10 am and 2 pm and between 4 and 10 pm. Unsurprisingly, studying between the hours of 4 and 7 a.m. is not a good idea (who can focus on anything at 4 a.m.?).
Whether you’re a night owl or an early bird, consider timing your bout of focus for when you know that you are at your most alert and energetic. For me, I do my best work in the morning, at around 9 a.m., and a couple of hours before bed. A couple of studies show that some people do tend to be more creative at night, and that studying at night can help to better ‘solidify’ learning through sleep. That being said: if at all possible, do not forgo sleep in favour of studying. Sleep is essential to achieving optimal focus, and which I discuss later in more detail.
- Go with the flow
It’s called ‘flow state’ for a reason. Focus is not a linear and unchanging entity–it is natural for it to drift, change directions, and lapse from time to time, even from minute to minute. So, if you find yourself losing concentration and your attention starts to drift, know that that’s normal and doesn’t mean that you are failing at concentrating.
Studies have shown that demanding more than 90 minutes of deliberate focus from ourselves is, for most, a difficult task. I suggest setting a timer for a maximum of 90 minutes of focus before taking a constructive brain break–go on a walk, wash the dishes, do some yoga. Just as it is important to rest between sets at the gym, it’s also essential that you let your brain idle between bouts of concentration.
A word of caution, though: try not to get sucked into your phone, as it can overstimulate your brain and result in increased distractibility and mental fatigue.
Meditation isn’t just for relaxing–it’s also for focus! Try this short, ten-minute meditation: start seated in an upright position. You can have your legs crossed, or on the floor if you’re sitting on a chair. Focus on a space 3 inches behind your forehead. If you’re not an experienced meditator, it’s normal for your attention to drift away from this space. The important part of the meditation is that you repeatedly return to that point of focus. Do this meditation in the morning for at least 10 minutes, and before you start studying or working, and see if your powers of concentration aren’t greatly improved. But don’t do this meditation too close to bedtime as it can keep you alert and awake for longer than desired!
Simple as that: when was the last time you drank water? To absolutely no one’s surprise, dehydration drastically reduces our capacity to focus and impairs our short term memory and critical thinking skills. While expert recommendations for daily water intake vary, a useful method for judging your personal hydration is checking your urine. What colour is it? If it’s darker than a pale yellow, you’re probably not optimally hydrated.
Caffeine is one of the most studied ingredients when it comes to focus and concentration.
Caffeine acts as a central nervous system stimulant, increasing dopamine and norepinephrine. Though most adults in the world ingest caffeine in some form every day, it may not be the most effective supplement, depending on one’s individual genetics and disposition and the task at hand. Caffeine seems to be good at improving reaction times, and facilitating learning tasks when information is presented ‘passively’, such as in a textbook, but not in ‘active learning’ situations, such as when you’re on a job site or in a lab. Caffeine is also known to increase feelings of nervousness or stress, so if you’re prone to anxiety, you might be better off reaching for a decaf.
A word of caution for those late-night coffee drinkers–studies show that caffeine will have a detrimental effect on the quality of your sleep if you ingest it too close to bedtime, even if you manage to fall asleep and stay asleep. So, give yourself at least eight hours between your last caffeine intake and bedtime.
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids (commonly found in fish oil and walnuts) have also been shown to be effective in improving brain function–not only in focus, but in mood, stress reduction, and sleep. Omega-3 fatty acids are widely available and side effects are typically minimal or non-existent. I supplement with them every day and I can attest to their efficacy in improving my mood and focus!
Apologies to all the insomniacs out there–getting good quality sleep may be the most significant contributor to our ability to retain focus. As a recovering insomniac, I feel your pain!
Sleep deficit, even a minor one, impairs our short-term memory and ability to learn and retain new information. It also makes us cranky, irritable, and ‘brain foggy’. You’ve probably heard all of the recommendations. But if you haven’t, or if you’re interested in learning more, you can check them out in more detail at this article here. I list below some of the behavioural changes that have made a huge difference in the quality of my own sleep. I recommend:
1) Never, ever hanging out in your bedroom except to sleep
2) Not eating at least an hour before bedtime
3) Supplementing with magnesium if needed
4) Reducing your alcohol intake
5) Keeping your room at a cooler temperature for sleep; I like mine at 18-19 degrees.
6) Take the pressure off–if you don’t have a great sleep, it’s okay! The pressure we put on ourselves to rest ‘properly’ can make sleep seem even more unattainable. Just know that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t sleep, and you’ll sleep well the next night.
Whether or not you have a diagnosed attention-deficit disorder, there are behavioural changes that you can make to improve your focus and concentration. We hope that these tips helped! Is there anything that we missed? Which ones are you excited to try out? We’d love to hear from you!
Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!
Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.