Does this sound familiar? While trying to finish a major project, you find yourself mentally composing your grocery list, pausing to check email every three minutes and applying hand lotion—again. But if you’ve ever cursed your lack of concentration, you’re not alone.
“There are individual differences in how easy it is for people to resist distraction and dedicate themselves to a certain thing,” says Mark Fenske, a neuroscientist and 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.”
Next time you find your mind wandering, try these tips to get back in the groove. With practice over time, it should become easier to keep your thoughts on track.
Unitask. Americans are addicted to multitasking—and worse, we wear it like a badge of honor. But just because you can juggle a conference call, several spreadsheets and a pile of emails doesn’t mean you should. There’s no shame in singling out one task and concentrating on it alone. In fact, it’s how your brain works best. “Think of the brain as being like a big ship—it takes a while to get up the momentum,” says Fenske. “If you’re switching back and forth between tasks, you don’t have the time for it to start working and incubating on the one problem.” As best you can, try to block out chunks of time to work exclusively on a task. If you can’t be out of reach for an afternoon, at least designate breaks where you can check in and limit communication to those times.
Get motivated. A major factor in how well we focus is how much we actually want to work on the task at hand. “Attention follows the things that are important to us, but we can direct our attention in a voluntary way,” Fenske says. “The extent to which that happens depends on how potentially rewarding, or how meaningful that thing is.” Of course, more often than not we need help focusing on the things we’re not excited about, whether they are tedious or daunting—or both. To boost your motivation, Fenske suggests taking a minute to think about how important a task is, what the rewards of finishing it will be and the potential consequences of not doing it.
Prioritize. You probably already naturally prioritize, or you would never get through a busy day. The more systematically you do it, though, the easier it will be to focus on one task at a time. That’s partially because in the process of deciding which task is most important, you’re building in that crucial motivation by thinking about the outcome. But prioritizing can also keep you from being overwhelmed and even paralyzed by a long to-do list or large project. “By breaking things down into manageable steps, it’s no longer this great big whirling mass,” Fenske says. “Now you know where you need to start, instead of drifting from one thing to another.”
Eat. Ever notice that your mind tends to start wandering around 3 p.m.? That’s no coincidence. Not only is it near the end of the work day, but it’s typically several hours after your last meal. While snacking can be used to distract ourselves from a task, a sensible, well-timed nibble can actually help bring your attention back in line. “The effort it takes to concentrate literally uses energy,” Fenske says. “The brain cells that are firing to keep us on task use oxygen and glucose.” On days you need to be super productive, consider sacrificing a big lunch in favor of several mini meals that you can space out to deliver a steady source of energy to your brain.
Meditate. A number of studies have found that regular meditation practice—even as little as 15 minutes a day—dramatically improves focus.“What we see is that with enough practice, people get better at being able to control their attention and emotional response,” Fenske says. “It improves self-awareness, so you know that your attention has drifted off, and you can bring it back. Ongoing research at Massachusetts General Hospital has suggested that not only does meditation help train us to concentrate better, but it actually changes the structure of the brain, thickening areas that are associated with awareness and attention and decreasing the parts that are responsible for sudden stress reactions. “These sorts of practices help you approach the world in a slightly different way,” Fenske says.