The world is full of distractions. Thanks to technology, we can now follow any breaking news story in even the most remote corner of the world. Or stay caught up with friends from high school without as much as a phone call. We can even entertain ourselves for hours on end simply by watching 30-second video clips made by strangers.
All these distractions can make focusing on one task for any length of time feel impossible. And it can seem as if the world discourages the deep mental focus necessary for goal achievement and true mastery.
The good news is that there are ways you can dramatically improve your mental focus. Even if you’re not training for the Olympics or to be a cab driver in London, learning to improve your mental focus has incredible benefits. From stress relief to momentum to a greater sense of accomplishment, taking the time to improve this vital skill is well worth the effort!
In the following post, I’ve broken down the various ways you can improve focus both in the moment and over time. Although each tip requires effort, the benefits over time far outweigh the time spent up-front.
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How to Dramatically Improve Your Mental Focus NOW
Although there are long-term tactics and daily habits which compound to better focus over time, there are also ways you can improve your mental focus right here, right now.
Pay Attention to Your Surroundings
Check the clutter. Does your environment encourage you to focus, or is it distracting? I’m speaking from experience when I say that focusing surrounded by messiness is nearly impossible.
As an example, I give you Exhibit A, my living room, when I sat down to start this post yesterday. It gave off an incredibly messy, cluttered, and chaotic vibe. And although I tried as hard as I could, I wrote barely ten sentences.
Getting into the flow of creativity felt impossible.
So I took a break. I hit up Pinterest and got my organizational groove going. And then I made a quick Wal-Mart stop.
Three short hours later, my living room was well on its way to Better Homes & Gardens greatness. Maybe it wasn’t quite impressive enough for a magazine, but things feel 100% more relaxing.
And when I’m relaxed, it’s much easier to get into a creative flow.
Needless to say, after taking a timeout to organize my environment, my mental focus improved by leaps and bounds. If you’re also struggling to get into a creative flow, take a quick check of your surroundings. It may be well worth your while to take time out to be more productive in the long run.
It’s ironic that as I type, my 5-year-old is whispering, “and now the chickens have the ball” into my ear. And the dog has wrapped himself up around the patio furniture for the 16th time today.
If I haven’t mentioned it before, I’ll say it here. Life is one huge distraction!
Although distraction comes in all shapes and sizes, it’s not all bad. I love my family more than anything and acknowledge that my kids are growing bigger every day. At some point, they will no longer be whispering random phrases about chickens in my ear.
I’m thankful for the distraction my family brings because it reminds me of what’s truly important.
But having limitations on my time and attention means I’ve learned to limit wherever I can. One of the ways I’ve done this is by shutting off phone app alerts. As a result, I am no longer interrupted every time I get an email. Shutting off phone alerts is one of the simplest ways to improve your mental focus.
Although stopping a task to respond to one email may not seem like a big deal, it adds up over time. Research shows that it can take around 23 minutes to re-focus on a task after an interruption.1 Multiply that one email by the total number of emails you get in one day, and it’s easy to see why limiting interruptions matters!
This next tip is for you if you want to improve a skill or to understand a topic on a deeper level. Whether you’re trying to become a better pianist or pass a business law exam, get creative with your study time.
The more creative you can get, the better! For example, if you’re studying for an anatomy quiz, bust out your lyric writing skills and pair that previously boring material with your favorite pop tune. You could also try creating a quiz, explaining the topic to a friend, or even writing a blog post about it.
And when practicing a skill or studying, keep in mind that learning doesn’t stop at remembering the information. You have to also practice retrieving the information you’ve stored in your brain. Finding creative ways to store and access the information ensures stronger neural connections and the ability to apply the knowledge in various settings.
Using a variety of techniques to learn keeps things exciting. And when something is interesting, it’s much easier to improve your mental focus.
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Have you ever been trying to get into a creative workflow, but all these intrusive thoughts keep popping up?
“I wonder if Jessica had her baby yet. I should check Facebook.”
“Is it going to rain later today? I should check the weather.”
“What are the current COVID-19 rates in my state? Maybe I should check the news.”
It’s almost as if your brain knows it will be working hard, and it wants to avoid the work by distracting you. And it usually distracts you with incredibly superficial ideas. The type of ideas that take almost zero energy to address.
And since these ideas take no energy, one would think they’re not a big deal. Except for a couple of things. Remember how long it takes to re-focus when you’ve been distracted? Multiply that one distraction by the number of times your attention shifts from the topic at hand during the day.
The other thing is that distraction can become a habit. Give in too many times, and your brain forgets how to do the challenging work necessary for goal accomplishment.
My brain loves to throw superficial distractions at me constantly. I’ve found that when I consistently give in, it’s much tougher to get into a creative flow. But I’ve learned a simple trick to thwart my brain’s attempts at laziness.
Whenever a distracting thought comes up, I tell myself that if I still have the burning desire to check Facebook in 5 minutes, I will. Problem solved! And by the time 5 minutes have passed, I’ve completely forgotten about it.
If you’re looking for more tips on getting into a creative flow, make sure to check out this post.
Take a Break
After you’ve put in focus for a length of time, give yourself the reward of a break! Breaks are essential if you’ve been focusing intensely for a sustained period because your brain needs to recharge.
So indulge in that guilty Netflix pleasure or chat it up with a friend. You’ve earned it!
How to Improve Your Mental Focus Over Time
Now that you have a solid understanding of quick fixes for how to improve your mental focus, it’s time to switch gears to habit changes over time.
Although setting goals is essential, one of the more important tasks is to review your progress. Are you attaining the goals that you set for yourself? When you look back at where you spend your time and energy, are you satisfied?
There’s a ton of advice out there about setting goals. Anyone can sit down and write a list of things they would like to accomplish. But setting goals is the easy part. The hard part comes when you commit to a goal and focus on making it happen.
Although it can be difficult to acknowledge this truth, you actually can’t do it all. And depending on the size of the goal, you have to make tough choices. Pursuing one goal often means saying “no” to 26 others.
But you can accomplish great things if you align your goals and actions.
And you can dramatically improve your mental focus by gaining clarity and becoming specific about your goals. Our brains love clear-cut and measurable when it comes to goal-setting, while vague only results in mental clutter.
Therefore, if you want to improve your mental focus, consider whether your goals align with your actions. If they don’t, it’s time to make tough choices about where to devote your time and energy.
Check out this post for how to gain clarity on your life and goals.
Make a Plan
After taking time to seek clarity on your goals, it’s time to set a clear direction for where you want to go.
It may sound counterintuitive, but you only need to figure out the next step or two. You don’t need steps 3-5 or even 8-11 when you’re just getting started.
Take one step at a time. The next step will reveal itself when you’re ready for it.
Even if it’s a concise one, having a plan helps to reduce mental clutter and improve your mental focus over time. And, if nothing else, it gives you a way to track your ongoing progress.
Improve Your Mental Focus by Sleeping & Exercising
Sleep and exercise go hand-in-hand with better cognition. Each has a role in reducing stress and promoting feel-good chemicals in the brain. Both are vital components of overall health.
Since we’ve already established that specifics important, try to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, pair with 150 minutes of aerobic exercise weekly, and you’ll be well on your way to improved mental focus!2
And if you’re looking for tips on improving the quality of your sleep, make sure you check out this post.
Meditate to Improve Your Mental Focus
Alongside sleep and regular exercise, meditation is rising to the top as a practice beneficial for decreasing anxiety and improving mental focus.
Although there are different types of meditation, mental focus is central to most practices. In some instances, it may be awareness of the breath. Focusing your thoughts on a specific image or feeling may form the basis of other meditative practices.
Regardless of the type, meditation also involves regularly refocusing after distraction. And being able to refocus after distraction is a beneficial skill in today’s highly distractible world!
Although research into meditation and the brain is relatively new, results have been positive. One study even demonstrated enhanced focus among people who regularly meditate compared to those who do not.3
Meditation offers a host of other benefits to those who practice it regularly. It may just become your new favorite self-care activity!
I’m not kidding! There is research to support specific games having the ability to improve your mental focus.4 Mario Kart didn’t quite make the list, but if you’re a fan of sudoku and crossword puzzles, you’re in luck!
You could also try chess, word searches, and jigsaw puzzles.
These and similar activities improve both working and short-term memory while improving problem-solving skills. How amazing is that?
It may come as somewhat of a shock, but did you know that our brains can’t multitask? Although it seems as if we can do two (or more) tasks at once, our brains can only do one. What you are experiencing when trying to do multiple tasks at once are micro shifts in attention that facilitate the completion of tasks.
But the micro shifts in attention come at the cost of both efficiency and accuracy. And I have to think that multitasking regularly prevents the deep, mental focus required for specific tasks. It encourages superficial and distracted thinking, which is the exact opposite of focus.
Multitasking is difficult for me to break free from because my work and home life are inherently filled with it. I find myself in a constant state of distraction, and finding the time and mental energy to focus is challenging.
But I’m always searching for ways to improve. And by trying each of the above strategies, I’ve improved my mental focus over time.
It’s Your Turn to Improve Your Mental Focus
And there you have it! Actionable tips you can try to improve your mental focus both in the short term and over time. Give them a try, and let me know how they work in the comments below.
If you’re looking for even more resources, check out these life-changing books!, ,
1. Wong, K. (2015, July 29). How Long it Takes to Get Back on Track After a Distraction. How Long It Takes to Get Back on Track After a Distraction (lifehacker.com)
2: Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, October 1). Tips to Improve Concentration. Tips to improve concentration – Harvard Health
3: Gowin, J. (2012, April 20). Brain Scans Show How Meditation Improves Mental Focus. Brain Scans Show How Meditation Improves Mental Focus | Psychology Today
4: Raypole, C. (2019, September 3). 12 Tips to Improve Your Concentration. How to Improve Concentration: 12 Science-Backed Tips, and More (healthline.com)