Every single second, our brains take in an incredible amount of information — 11 million bits of information per second to be exact, Joseph Cardillo, Ph.D, writes in his book, Can I Have Your Attention? How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Concentration? But we actually pay attention to about 40 bits. Which is still a lot — particularly if you’re trying to complete or even start a task.
So finding focus can seem like a farfetched feat. Especially in “today’s 24/7 world,” focus is something we’re sorely lacking, according to Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time In Our 24/7 World.
But focus isn’t all or nothing. It’s not something we either have or don’t have. It’s a skill that we can cultivate. And practice makes perfect (or at least good enough). Below, various experts on attention and focus share their favorite tips for finding focus in our distraction-laden day and age.
1. Create gadget-free zones, Hohlbaum recommended. “While our gadgets are meant to save us time, many times they actually waste it.” For many of us, cell phones have become another appendage. And this can be detrimental to our attention spans (and our relationships!). Hohlbaum suggested establishing areas like your living room or your kitchen table as gadget-free zones.
2. When you’re on the computer, close your windows on the screen, she said. “If you have 20 applications open at one time, chances are you are toggling from one to the next.” Keep only the windows open you need for the task at hand. Like Hohlbaum said, this isn’t just a blessing for your brain capacity “but it also uses less computer memory.”
3. Get outside. If your mind is meandering, according to Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D, psychologist and author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, a “quick walk outdoors” is an effective short break.
Like Hohlbaum said, many of us spend a lot of time in unnatural settings, such as office cubicles. Instead, get outside and, as Palladino suggested, take “some deep breaths while focused on a beautiful object, preferably of nature — a plant, a flower, the sky outside your window.” Just, “Before you leave, write down what time you’ll return to work, and make a commitment to it.”
Exercise in general helps to sustain focus, Palladino said. (Another great way to sustain focus? Get enough sleep, she said.)
4. Assess your stimulation levels throughout the day. Studies show that a “steady level of just-right stimulation” is critical for attention, Palladino said. Too low stimulation means a task is boring. Too high stimulation signifies stress or anxiety. The goal is to make boring tasks more interesting and set limits on stressful or potentially addictive activities, she said. Paying attention helps you prevent extremes.
Think of attention as an upside-down U, a concept that’s known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, Palladino said. Stimulation boosts your attention “but only up to a point — the top of the upside-down U. After that, stimulation degrades attention, and your concentration goes downhill.”
So throughout the day, rate yourself as: “too low,” “too high,” or “in the zone.” Once you identify the problem, you can adjust (see below).
5. Adjust your stimulation levels. Again, as Palladino said, it’s key to make boring tasks more interesting. So think of ways you can psych yourself up, and make a list of options. Examples include playing upbeat music, opening a window or varying tasks, she said.
However, if you’re super stressed or anxious, you need ways to calm down. Make a list of soothing strategies, such as playing relaxing music, breathing deeply or sipping herbal tea, Palladino said.
6. Use motivating self-talk. For instance, Palladino said that you can say: “What do I need to do now?” “Stay with it; stay with it; stay with it” or “I’ve finished things that are harder than this.”
7. Keep two to-do lists. One to-do list helps you “clear your head of thoughts that pop into your mind, [such as] pick up the dry-cleaning or schedule teacher conference,” Palladino said. This to-do list can be as long as you like, but keep it out of sight, she added.
The second to-do list always contains just three items you’re going to accomplish next. “Nothing goes on the list unless something else comes off.”
8. Mind your multitasking. According to Palladino, multitasking can help boost your brain when you’re working on a boring task, but it also has a negative effect because of brain plasticity or “the way the brain changes in response to experience.” When you’re multitasking, “Your brain is changing itself to favor divided attention and fragmented thought, rather than concentration that resists distraction and rebounds from interruption.”
9. Keep reminders around. According to one study, “concentration improved when people silently repeated the names of loved ones who believed in them immediately before starting a task,” said Palladino, so she suggested having “a symbol of past success where you can see or touch it — the last article you had published; a photo of a project that you finished or of someone who appreciates your work.”
Similarly, you can use reminders to keep your eye on the prize, Palladino said. “Remind yourself specifically why it’s worth the effort to resist distraction.” You might envision “your name on a diploma or on the deed to a house, or “a golf ball going into a hole.”
10. Perform a self scan daily. A self scan is an Attention Training technique that you do before starting any task, according to Cardillo in Can I Have Your Attention? It’s designed to bring your thoughts, behaviors and situations in harmony to help you accomplish the goals at hand.
It involves asking yourself a series of questions to train your brain to focus. First, go through these questions daily. Once this becomes somewhat automatic, decrease to two to three times a week. After a while, you’ll be able to apply the technique to tasks as you’re doing them. Below are the questions, taken from Cardillo’s book:
- Where am I at the moment? (e.g., I’m at an office meeting.)
- What do I want to gain from this situation? Identify your goals in order of importance.
- What should I gain from this situation? Consider what you feel you should gain from the situation. Then examine whether this is different from your desires and how these work to modify your behaviors.
- What have I done in similar situations in the past? Identify your past actions.
- Do I want to change that? Identify any behaviors that you don’t want to repeat.
- If so, how? Identify how you can avoid these actions. Note: Any procedures you create here will, through repetition, become habit, and from there become automatic for future experiences.
- What do others expect to gain from the situation? Identify and prioritize these details.
- What attention does my environment demand from the situation? For example, I can only speak when it is my turn. I have to use professional language.
- What information that is entering my attention should be activated? For example, it may be best if I am calm at this point of a phone call or meeting and if I don’t ask questions.
- What information should be restrained? You can, for instance, hold back frustrations and irrelevant information. For example: teachers and business people may have to convey an emotion that is inconsistent to how they feel (say they are angry or on edge).
11. Focus on relevant cues. According to Brian Bruya, associate professor of philosophy at Eastern Michigan University and editor of Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action, finding focus features two critical steps and sub-steps:
- Wholeness (collection and shedding)
- Fluency (ease and responsiveness)
Collection is the ability to focus. “Find relevant cues and focus only on those,” Bruya said. Take activities that you’ve become pretty good at after much practice, and channel those concentration skills into the task at hand.
For instance, when he’s playing tennis, Bruya “might keep focus by keying on many small details, or cues, of my opponent, of myself and of my ball.” He’ll look at his opponent’s eyes to see where he might place the ball, and pay attention to this posture, and so on.
12. Limit distractions. Shedding means discarding distractions, Bruya said. That means eliminating both obvious distractions, such as “email, the phone, web searching, video watching, music listening and daydreaming,” and the “not-so-obvious, such as thoughts of reward or failure.”
Collection and shedding work together. In order words, the more you concentrate on relevant cues, the less likely you’ll become distracted with other things. Similarly, the more distractions you remove, the more likely you’ll be to focus on pertinent cues.
Wholeness then leads to fluency. As Bruya said, “Once you are able to focus on an activity, you begin to act in that activity with amazing fluidness, as if the activity is running itself and you are just flowing along with it.” Focus becomes effortless (i.e., what Bruya calls “ease” above). You’re also able to respond to relevant cues with speed and accuracy (i.e., responsiveness), he said.
“Wholeness leads to fluency, and fluency reinforces wholeness.”
Remember that focus is a skill you foster. Try out these techniques, keep what works and keep practicing!