After suffering a traumatic brain injury in my mid-twenties I learned how to improve focus out of necessity. I can still remember (if vaguely) how easy it was for me to concentrate for long periods of time before my brain injury. I could sit down at my computer and “zone out” on a project, emerging hours later with a massive amount of work completed. These days, that level of focus requires a well-coordinated effort on my part.
Want to know how I convince my mind to concentrate while writing these long-ass blog posts? I’ve broken it down into eight healthy habits that you can embrace starting today.
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If you have any questions or want to add anything, I hope you’ll comment on this post or reach out to me on social media. I’ll be updating this post perpetually with any new information that comes to light.
Make Plans and Perform Self-Assessments Regularly
This is one of the steps that I still struggle with, but it’s an important factor in improving focus. Anytime you want to improve at anything, a good strategy is to start with a self assessment. Once you know where you stand in terms of your ability to concentrate and stay on task you’ll be able to set actionable goals. Some good questions to ask yourself in this self assessment might include:
- How long am I usually able to focus for?
- Why do I usually lose focus?
- Where am I when I’m able to concentrate best?
- What positive changes will occur in my life when I’m able to maintain my attention more easily?
- When can I start making positive changes, and when will I begin to see results?
- How will I know when I’ve achieved my goals?
Once you have your answers to these and any other questions you may think of, set a goal using the SMART framework. People who do this at a very advanced level make daily, weekly, and monthly schedules in a planner (physical or electronic) and perform self-assessments almost as often. I personally use a journal to schedule my day-to-day, SocialBee to schedule my social media, and ClickUp to schedule just about everything. But how do you go about assessing your ability to focus?
Improve Focus and Memory with Brain Training Exercises
One way to assess your mental acuity is to perform a series of exercises, tests, or games that challenge your brain. If you spend a lot of time on your phone, tablet, or computer (I’m assuming that applies to everyone reading this!) then you can probably download an app that will provide this service either for free or for a low price.
There is another method of strengthening the brain that requires even less time investment though; neurobics. A term coined by Lawrence Katz (PhD), neurobics refers to exercises that encourage the development of new neural pathways. They include things such as performing daily duties (teeth brushing, hair combing) with your non-dominant hand, showering with your eyes closed, and embracing new experiences with all of your senses.
Here’s an example of a test you could create to help measure your progress:
- See how high you can score on a brain training game or app
- See how high you can score on a memory training game or app
- Time how long it takes you to brush your teeth with your non dominant hand
- Time how long it takes you to shower with your eyes closed (carefully!)
- Time how long it takes you to count backwards from one hundred by fours
If you do all or some of these exercises before and after a month of working to improve your focus, you should definitely be able to see some progress. Want more examples of exercises you can try? Here are 4 Mental Exercises you can use to work on your concentration.
Of course, you don’t have to do brain-specific exercise in order to sharpen your mind. Many forms of physical exercise also have significant mental benefits.
Exercise Intelligently to Enhance Concentration
While any exercise is generally better than no exercise, in order to optimize both your mental and physical health it’s important to exercise intelligently. This just means doing the types of exercise that are right for your age, body type, and goals. There may also be other considerations you need to make regarding your exercise. For example, I used to practice combat sports rigorously, but that isn’t such a good idea for me these days as a brain injury survivor. Instead I employ exercises such as calisthenics, walking and light jogging, and yoga to keep my body and mind healthy.
According to Harvard Health, low-impact aerobic activities are among the best for improving cognitive function. This is because aerobic exercise increases your heart and lungs’ ability to bring oxygen to the brain via red blood cells. However, recent studies have also indicated that resistance training and exercising involving an element of mindfulness such as tai chi or yoga can also build up your brain.
Here’s a simple sample list you could use to add some focus-enhancing exercise to your daily regimen.
- Go for a vigorous walk, or a jog or cycle in the morning
- Do a set of pushups and squats/deep knee bends before a meal
- Follow a 5 minute yoga or tai chi routine on YouTube in the evening, and then go for a relaxing stroll
That’s a simple starting point that I usually begin with when I find myself out of shape from failing to exercise. While it isn’t going to turn me into a wrecking machine any time soon, it does keep me in a basic functioning level of physical condition, and it enhances my ability to think clearly and make good decisions.
Of course, if you work out you’ll need to recover, and to do that it’s important to eat right.
Use Nutrition to Improve Brain Health
Not only is proper nutrition important for memory, concentration, and physical health, it’s also a key factor in mental wellness according to a publication by Dietitians of Canada on Nutrition and Mental Health. As a general rule of thumb, it’s best to get as many vitamins and minerals from whole foods as you can, eat a balanced combination of proteins carbohydrates and fats, and ALWAYS drink enough water. But are there specific foods that can boost your brain health? There certainly are!
- Nutrient rich foods such as blueberries, blackberries, and cherries can enhance memory.
- Omega-3 fatty acids play a key role in overall brain health, and can be consumed via fatty saltwater fish such as salmon, or in the form of capsules such as krill oil or cod liver oil. You can also get smaller amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids from certain vegetable sources such as chia and flax seeds.
- Green vegetables such as kale, spinach, chard, broccoli, and brussels sprouts are great for the body and the brain, so try to work in a salad or green smoothie at least once a day.
- Other healthy fats such as coconut oil, avocados, and nuts are thought to support the brain and the development of new neural pathways.
- My favorites: Coffee and dark chocolate! These two stimulants can both give you a quick boost of clarity, however recent research indicates that the caffeine they contain may actually improve the brain’s ability to process information.
It’s up to you whether you overhaul your entire diet or make a few subtle changes to boost your brain power. But any effort that you make in this area is bound to pay dividends when it comes to both your mental clarity and your mental health.
Manage Mental Health with Mindfulness and Meditation
If you’re suffering from poor mental health such as anxiety or depression it can be incredibly difficult to get anything done, let alone focus optimally. I recently wrote a post on Managing Mental Health so I’ll make this section short and hope you follow that link for more information.
Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a level of awareness of yourself and those around you. Meditation is one of the most utilized exercises for practicing mindfulness, but you can also do more tangible things like keeping a gratitude journal or taking five minutes now and again just to listen to your thoughts and guide them in a positive direction.
While you should definitely consult your doctor regarding any plans for treating or managing your mental and physical health, they are likely to support your endeavors in mindfulness because mindfulness based therapy has been demonstrated to be extremely effective in treating mental illness.
If you’d like to try meditation but don’t know where to start, there are plenty of guided meditations on YouTube. However the basics are incredibly simple; sit somewhere comfortable and quiet, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. That’s really all it takes for me to feel a sense of peace and ease that helps me deal with the difficulties of day to day life.
Take Time Off When Needed
This applies to both the short and long term, meaning it’s important to take breaks regularly during periods of work (every 40-60 minutes is best) and it’s also important to take entire days away from the rigors of your regular labor. Taking time off allows the mind to refresh and reset, to approach problems from new angles, and to think outside the box.
If you have trouble remembering to take breaks when working, set a timer to go off every 40-60 minutes. When it goes off take a 5-10 minute break, and then get back to work! Here’s a few things you can do to pass the time and refresh your mind on break:
- Go for a short walk
- Do some light stretches or calisthenics
- Make coffee/tea
- Go to the washroom
- Listen to a song or two
- Text or call someone you care about
It’s equally important to schedule time off into your months and years, even if it’s just a day or two here and there. If you don’t intentionally take time off you’ll inevitably end up burning out to some extent. If you have trouble finding things to do to take your mind away from work on your days off, here are some suggestions:
- Go for a hike in the woods, or camping for a weekend
- Visit friends or family
- See a counselor or therapist
- Go to a movie or read a good book
- Listen to music or learn to play an instrument/sing
- Play a sport or a mentally stimulating games such as chess
- Sleep in and/or go to bed early
Even if you’re the type of person who doesn’t enjoy taking time off, it can be important for your mental health and therefore your ability to focus and handle new challenges.
Always Be Learning
More than ten years ago I came up with a short rhyme, almost a mantra, that describes my thoughts on the purpose of my life. Live to learn, learn to teach. Interrogate rather than preach. The second sentence refers to the Socratic method, which involves using questions to stimulate critical thinking. The first sentence embodies my desire to be a constant student and a constant teacher. I always want to be learning and helping others learn, and my research has demonstrated that this is in fact beneficial for maintaining focus.
The main reason that being a constant student is key for mental clarity is that learning forces you to understand new concepts and solve new problems. Learning is literally the practice of focusing on new and challenging materials, and like a muscle, exercising your skill as a learner will enhance your mental clarity.
Of course, learning has other benefits. You can pick up useful new skills, enhance your current toolset, or simply enjoy the process of getting better at something. Personally I can’t think of any reason not to try to learn something new every single day.
Need a new place to learn? I suggest you try a 2 month free premium membership to Skillshare. If you use that referral link I’ll receive a free month of premium access, so we’ll both have a chance to learn something new. Skillshare has thousands of courses on everything from music theory to digital marketing, and many of them are of exceptional quality.
There are many benefits to intentionally enhancing your willpower – the more command you have over your actions and emotions, the more you will be able to accomplish, learn, and do everything necessary to improve your focus. But how can you really enhance your willpower?
The easiest way is to simply deny yourself things that you desire but don’t necessarily need. Have a sweet tooth? Try cutting out desserts except for one day a week. Like a beer or a glass of wine to relax in the evening? Try switching to herbal tea. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a health-related habit, just something that you tend to do automatically out of enjoyment that you could technically get by without.
Another means of increasing willpower is more intense exercise. While this isn’t for everyone, it should hardly be surprising that someone would have stronger willpower after successfully training to run a marathon than they did before they started running. To boil it down, ignoring pain and discomfort in pursuit of a goal or ambition will build the mental muscles that help you make positive decisions.
If you want to really ramp things up, I’d suggest planning a period of 30-90 days in which you go without something you desire AND steadily increase the amount of exercise you’re doing. You may be surprised at what you can accomplish in those few months!
A Last Look at Improving Focus and Concentration
If you’re like me and you have goals or aspirations in life, then learning to improve your focus is probably at the top of your to-do list. I hope that this post contained a few tips or new ideas that you found helpful or inspirational. If you know of something I should add to this article, please let me know in the comments or reach out to me on social media. Thank for reading, and be well.