Get a Mental Edge

Featured Article, Healthy Aging, Healthy Living
on June 1, 2012
Media Bakery

Olympic fencer Tim Moorehouse visualizes the color blue. Decathlete Trey Hardee mentally homes in on a blade of grass. Such single-minded focus has brought these elite athletes this far, and in the heat of competition it may give them the edge they need to win. 

“There are differences in how easy it is for people to resist distraction,” says neuroscientist Mark Fenske, co-author of The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success. “But we all have the potential to improve our focus.”

You may not be competing in London this summer like Moorehouse, Hardee and or swimmer Dara Torres, but you can still boost your mental discipline to help you excel at work and other interests. Here’s how.

Unitask. Multitasking may seem like a valuable skill, but the brain actually works best on one issue at a time. “Think of the brain as being like a big ship—it takes a while to get up momentum,” says Fenske. Switching back and forth between tasks doesn’t give it enough time to address any particular problem.

Get motivated. How much we actually want to work on a task greatly affects focus. Boost your motivation by thinking about how important the task is, the rewards of finishing it and what might happen if you don’t.

Prioritize. You probably already prioritize, or you would never get through the day. The more systematically you do it, though, the easier it will be to focus on a particular chore. That’s partially because in deciding which task is most important, you’re motivating yourself by thinking about the outcome, Fenske says.

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Eat. A well-timed nibble can help bring your attention back in line. “The effort it takes to concentrate literally uses energy,” Fenske says. On super-intense days, consider several mini meals (instead of one big one) for a steady source of energy.

Meditate. As little as 15 minutes of meditation a day can dramatically improve focus. Meditation, Fenske says, “improves self-awareness, so you know that your attention has drifted off, and you can bring it back.”