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5 easy ways to improve your focus

Research shows that sharpening your concentration boosts productivity and shrinks stress

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April 15, 2024

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2024 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Do goldfish really have a longer attention span than the average person? No, thankfully, data busted that once-popular myth. 

Yet, people can find it challenging to concentrate on a single activity, especially in today’s work world with its many devices, tasks and interruptions. 

“As demands have increased, our attention is getting pulled in a lot of directions,” says ASU Psychology Professor Gene Brewer.

We’re living in an age of information overload, adds Ned Wellman, ASU associate professor of management. “The amount of information we receive every day is more than ever before.”

To increase your focus, use these science-backed tips.

1. Create a schedule

Instead of diving into whatever seems important, take a few minutes to plan your day, suggests Wellman. In his research with NASA astronauts, he discovered that how you run your day directly affects focus. 

“Start with the tasks that are meaningful and consequential to you,” he says. “In addition to getting those things done, it creates what’s called a ‘cascade of engagement.’ You might be doing less interesting things throughout the day, but you’ll be amped up from completing those initial important tasks.”

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2. Take breaks

While it sounds counterintuitive, building short breaks into your day can work wonders.

“We know from psychological research that when you’re trying to focus consistently, your ability deteriorates over time,” says Brewer. “If you give somebody a break, their focus is better when they return to the task.”

Brewer loves to use the example of former Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury, who gave players 5-minute cell phone breaks every 20 to 30 minutes during meetings that lasted an hour and a half. 

“Everybody in the NFL thought Kliff was crazy, but breaks help people reset,” Brewer says.

3. Batch tasks

Another way to improve your focus is to concentrate on one task at a time instead of multitasking. 

“Few people can do a bunch of random tasks without degrading their performance,” Brewer says. “Try to do one task at a time.” 

For example, block time to answer email, work on a project or do research, only focusing on that one thing. Resist the temptation to check email outside of designated times.

Wellman says that when you switch from one challenge to another, part of your mind will remain engaged with the first task. 

“It’s called ‘attention residue,’” he says. “It can keep you from focusing on the next task.”

Along those lines, turn off alerts on your phone, then check your phone only at designated times.

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4. Try meditation or breathwork

Regular mindfulness exercises help your brain focus better, even if you allot just five or 10 minutes a day, says Wellman, who suggests setting aside some time first thing in the morning or whenever you need a small break during the day.

An easy way to meditate is to focus on your natural breath, dismissing thoughts as they enter your mind. You can also try breathwork, which activates your parasympathetic – rest and digest – nervous system, relieving stress. One way is to inhale deeply through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Start with three rounds of breaths and work up to five minutes. 

5. Do 10-minute focus drills

Another way to build focus is to practice concentration drills, Wellman says. Doing this regularly may help improve your ability to focus over time. In the immediate term, it’s another way to give your brain a break from work tasks.

For example, use your five senses to focus only on the food during a meal. Notice the flavors, textures and smells. Focus by counting how many times you chew, working your way up to at least 35 times per bite. 

Another drill can be to practice active listening. Intently listen to what someone is saying without daydreaming or planning what you’ll say next. This takes a surprising amount of concentration.

The amount of information we receive every day is more than ever before.

Ned WellmanASU associate professor of management

Your ability to change

Focus involves state and trait factors, Brewer says. 

“A trait is who you are,” he says. “You might be better at focusing in a distracting environment than someone else. But there may be days when your focus worsens because you don’t get enough sleep. That would be a state.”

Controlling the state of your environment to make it conducive to concentration can use all of the above tips. Creating a schedule, helping your brain focus with breathwork and breaks, and batching tasks all help you control the state of your environment.

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Brewer also researches the extent to which you can change the way your brain works; in other words, how much influence you have over traits. Personality traits evolve over time, and they can be helped with regular practices, such as meditation. But changing a trait in the moment isn’t always possible. 

The hope is that by gaining more understanding of the neural circuitry that supports mental focus, we can create more science-based interventions, such as pharmacological solutions, that allow people to focus better, Brewer says. 

“Until then, we just have to use the state factors we can control,” he says.

Story by Stephanie Vozza, a journalist who covers productivity, careers and leadership for Fast Company magazine.

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