Harness Your Attention Span: 8 Ways to Improve Your Focus
As the world becomes more digitally connected, more and more things are vying for our precious attention. When you're working, studying, eating, driving, even trying to fall asleep at night — the question of how to improve your focus is an important one, and effectively channeling your energies can be the difference between knocking items off your to-do list and letting it grow out of control.
An important thing to remember is that you likely won't be able to achieve extreme focus for long periods right away — concentration is a skill, and like anything, practice makes perfect. If you're willing to make a commitment to developing your ability to focus, it can help you find success, and there a few strategies that can help you along the way.
Eight Ways to Improve Focus
- Preparation: Take a moment and breathe. Relax and make sure you're comfortable — both mentally and physically — before you get to work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious, it may be harder for you to focus on what you need to accomplish.
- Choose Your Targets Ahead of Time: One of the most important things to consider when asking yourself how to improve your focus is this: what exactly do you need to focus on first? If, for example, you have three classes for which you need to study and you don't tackle one at a time, you increase the chances of your concentration getting derailed. Try to segment the things that require your attention: what do you need to concentrate on in the next hour, next day, next week, next month? After you've identified an order of tasks from most to least important, you can approach them in sequence. And it’ll feel so nice to cross those things off your list one by one.
- Disconnect: Taking a break from your social media accounts can be refreshing. Doing so also eliminates what can be a huge distraction. It's not just about Facebook or Twitter, though — try logging out of your email account, too. If you always have one eye on your email or your news feed, you can very easily have hours pass by without accomplishing your most important tasks.
- Go On a Coffee Run: We’ve heard that coffee can increase cognition, but whether or not coffee actually has cognitive benefits, it's possible that the value of going out for your favorite caffeinated drink could be beneficial. The brief time that you spend away from your task gives you a break to mentally prepare to pursue it further. Just the act of getting coffee might help you recharge.
- Make Yourself Comfortable: If you're too hot or too cold, the resulting discomfort can be incredibly distracting, so it's worth taking the time to set the thermostat to ideal conditions if possible. If you can't control the temperature, wearing heavier clothing, setting up a fan, or even going elsewhere to study may help. You'll likely be more productive if you're comfortable — a study from Cornell University indicates that the ideal temperature may be between 68 and 77 degrees, but you should go with what feels good to you. 1
- Listen to Music: Unpredictable background noise can be a distraction, alternatively, so can complete silence. Figure out what works best for you. It may be a good idea to turn on some music you like while you work. Or if that is completely distracting, find a quiet space free from distracting sounds. Successfully using music – or silence - when figuring out how to improve your focus may take a bit of trial and error, but it can be worth it if it helps.
- Take Breaks: If you’ve never jogged before, running a marathon probably sounds frightening and exhausting. Trying to power through a long study session can be akin to setting yourself up to be distracted. Taking short, periodic breaks to allow yourself to recharge can go a long way toward helping you maintain your focus when it really counts. You could go for a walk, get some coffee, or just step away for a few minutes. Mentally prep yourself for short study bursts vs. a marathon study session.
- Doodle: It may seem like doodling is indicative of a lack of focus, but that’s not necessarily true. A University of Plymouth Study indicates that "doodling while working can be beneficial because it can prevent people from becoming bored.2 For example, doodling while listening to a lecture may help you maintain focus on the lecture.
While many strategies for how to improve your focus require a bit of work, it's crucial that you don't spend so much time preparing that you have no time to accomplish anything else. Ultimately, trying to make studying fun may be the most effective strategy.
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1 Cornell Chronicle, viewed on the internet at http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2004/10/warm-offices-linked-fewer-typing-errors-higher-productivity on October 15, 2015
2 Applied Cognitive Psychology, viewed on the internet at http://pignottia.faculty.mjc.edu/math134/homework/doodlingCaseStudy.pdf on October 15, 2015