“Our society is sick. As a whole, we are suffering from the disease of distraction and business. We’re addicted to being overwhelmed and stretched thin. And our ability to concentrate, accomplish, and perform is suffering for it.” – Michelle Coombs, Ph.D.
We live in a society that can easily overwhelm and overstimulate our senses. And while there are many benefits to be gained from technology, the jury is still out on the long-term effects of so much stimuli.
So when a client mentioned they were struggling with memory problems, I wasn’t surprised. Who isn’t struggling to keep up with everything we’re juggling these days? Distractions surround us, To-Do lists grow longer each day, and it seems like we can never catch up.
The reality is, the vast majority have memories that work just fine! And the problem isn’t our capacity or ability to remember things, it’s actually a problem with concentration, attention and focus. In fact, I would argue that our society is sick. As a whole, we are suffering from the disease of distraction and business. We’re addicted to being overwhelmed and stretched thin. And our ability to concentrate, accomplish, and perform is suffering for it.
So without further ado, I’d like to share 8 tips for improving your concentration and attention in a world full of distractions. Try one or two on for size, and make sure you let us know whether you’re seeing improvements by implementing some (or all!) of these strategies.
Exercise – Get active! Most of us are living pretty sedentary lifestyles compared to just 50 years ago. Studies show that moderate exercise a few days per week can provide a bigger boost to memory/concentration than a cup of coffee in the short-term. The boost of energizing neurochemicals following exercise can have a pretty substantial impact on your day. So take walking breaks. Get a quick workout in during your lunch hour. Head to the gym on your way home from work. However you do it, make time and space for taking care of your body. It’s the only one you have!
Hydrate – A recent study found that even mild dehydration (so mild you wouldn’t even feel thirsty) can lead to reduced attention. So drink up! If you get tired of water, try drinking a naturally flavored seltzer water. Or try throwing in some sliced strawberries, cucumbers, or simply squeeze some lemon into your water bottle.
Reduce Distractions – Sounds impossible, right? But do whatever you can to cut out unnecessary distractions (phones, emails, people). If you carve out 2 hours to work on a report, close out your email, put your phone on silent (or better yet, put it in a drawer), and go somewhere quiet. Protect that time. Make it sacred. Another trick – stop checking emails all day long! Set designated times (say, 9:00 am, 1:00 pm, and 4:00 pm) to check emails, and then close out your email so you aren’t distracted by every single email that arrives in your inbox each day. There are some simple, quick reads on increasing productivity and efficiency to glean some simple tips from, like 52 Small Changes for the Mind by Brett Blumenthal, and The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferriss.
Quit Multitasking – Ok folks – the jury is in! The real truth is multitasking leads to less efficiency, less productivity, and a lesser quality product. We may like to brag that we can multitask, but the reality is we are not at our best when we do. Work on one objective at a time. Poor in your sustained, focused attention. Knock it out, and then move onto the next thing. Have you seen those compilations of people texting and walking at the same time? We’re just not built to do two things at once…
But Doc, those Distractions…! When you start working on a task, keep a notepad next to you. When a distraction or to-do item pops up, refrain from looking up the answer or tackling that issue right away. Practice patience and deferring gratification for a little while. Write it down and reassure yourself you’ll get back to it later. Then get back to the singular task at hand. Along the same vein, if you’re the type of person that stays up all night thinking about what you have to do tomorrow, this tip is for you too! Give yourself 20 minutes before bed to purge all your thoughts and tasks on a piece of paper. Don’t worry about making it look pretty. It may finally give your mind the space it needs to catch those very essential zzz’s.
Break Projects into Tasks – Chunking out big projects or objectives into smaller pieces makes life feel a lot more manageable. Create a plan of attack. Or if you’re a more creative thinker, design mind maps or flow charts. Breaking things into steps that are written down helps to keep things moving efficiently, and prevents a crisis (aka distraction) later on.
Take Breaks – Breaks are critical! Most of us can’t maintain sustained attention for more than 30-40 minutes without losing focus. So break up each day with moments of being mindful and unplug. Take a 10 minute walk outside. Close your eyes and meditate. Stare at the wall if you have to. But whatever you do – don’t look at any screens. This is a moment to let your brain rest (think of it as a conscious nap), and then get back at it. You’ll feel refreshed – and your mind (and work) will thank you for it.
Meditate – Yes. Meditate. The more the better. Practice mindfulness and being in the present moment (not worrying about the future or ruminating on the past). Research shows that just 10-20 minutes a day can lead to a number of awesome benefits, including improved attention and concentration. In a world where we’re so focused on doing, the brain is desperate for time to unplug and focus on being. Just like taking breaks – your brain will thank you for it!