With so many things screaming for our attention, it is very difficult to keep focused on the task at hand. In this article, we look at several proven strategies to effectively improve your attention span on things that matter.
I just try to concentrate on concentrating.
— Martina Navratilova
Studies performed at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois have demonstrated that aerobic activity improves the coordination of important brain networks. Prof. Art Kramer who supervised these studies has said that "The higher the connectivity, the better the performance on some cognitive tasks - planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity, working memory, and multitasking". These skills decline with aging, and aerobic activity, such as brisk walking staves away such cognitive degradation. It is also one of the highly recommended tips for raising smart kids, since physical fitness leads more compact white-matter in the brain. More compact white matter is associated with faster and more efficient nerve activity.
A research study conducted by Caroline Edmonds and other researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of East London reported that feelings of being thirsty can negatively affect cognitive performance and consumption of water by such individuals immediately brought their performance back to those of the non-thirsty individuals. Another research study published in the Journal of Nutrition reported improved mood, concentration, and mental skills in women who were well hydrated as opposed to those who were even midly dehydrated. Although the study was performed on women, it is likely to also be true of the effects of dehydration on the cognitive abilities of men.
Caffeine can give you a temporary boost, but note that it is also a dieuretic, meaning it works as a dehydrating agent and naturally leads to reduced focus.
Negative thoughts can creep in while you are supposed to be focused on the task at hand. It is crucial that some time of the week may be allocated for dealing with worries and other concerns that do not have any bearing on the task at hand. Needless to say, you should also follow effective time management strategies to allocate time slots for any other tasks that might try to distract you from the
Get rid of all possible distractions. Mute all alerts. Silence the surroundings. Close the doors and windows. If you are working on a computer, work in the fullscreen mode on the application that you are working on. Minimize, or better close, all windows on your screen.
If you have a task to complete, plan ahead. Allocate a time for it, and make sure all the prep-work is done before you start working on it. Sharpen your pencils. Set up your folder structure. Make the necessary calls. Do anything that leads to improved focus on your task.
Break down large projects into smaller tasks and take baby steps towards your ultimate goal. The parts are usually less daunting than the whole. Completion of smaller tasks also provides a sense of accomplishment and keeps you motivated for the long haul. The larger project doesn't seem incomplete as long as you are checking off subtasks.
Define the quality of the deliverable you are willing to live with. Everything is not expected to be perfect, and nothing is perfect. So set the rules and guidelines that will ensure that you are not stuck up on some step of the project.
Having a fixed timeline for completion is a sure shot way of getting things done. If you cannot set a deadline on a project, then most likely the project does not matter much anyways to be worthy of completion. This is also a great strategy to identify the tasks that you should be working on, so that you can say NO to most other projects that come your way.
Set reasonable timelines, make steady progress and be patient. Everyone has heard "slow and steady wins the race", but very few people trust it. It might seem that the days and weeks are passing by, and that you are moving slower than the rest of the world. But have patience, and believe in yourself. If the task you have undertaken is worthy of your timeand energy, you will conquer it.
Isolate yourself from the world. Unless the task requires collaboration and inputs from other people, lock yourself up and don't come out till the planned task is complete. Move the interactions and inputs from other people to the "prep-work" phase and get it done before you actually set out to do the task at hand.
Any meaningful project is bound to have uncertainties. Even something as simple as shopping for an item can propel you into a sea of options that they take away your energies and distract you from the project. Remove uncertainties by planning ahead. Set a fixed budget, a fixed time, a fix set of criteria, and stick to them no matter what.
It has been proven time and again that multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain, just like a computer can think of and focus on only one thing at a time. Set one specific, clearly defined, measurable and timed objective and work towards it. Ignore everything else that comes along the way.
It is a fact of life that you cannot focus for longer durations of time. Your energy, willpower, and concentration wane as you spend more time on the task. Limit to shorter time-slots and take frequent breaks. If you are not multi-tasking or taking on more than one projects, it will be easier to re-focus when you get back onto the project.
If you ever find yourself postponing the planned task to work on something else, ask yourself: Is this the best use of my time? Do I really have to do this other thing right now? More often than not, you will answer in the negative. There are many reasons we procrastinate, but there are strategies to overcome such tendencies
Studies have shown that people who regularly meditate can focus better than those who do not. Meditation gradually strengthens the mental faculties to focus on one and only one thing. And this ability to focus can then be useful for completing those difficult tasks that require attentive effort. A recent study at the Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte found that meditation training for only 20 minutes per day can improve performance on cognitive tests significantly.
A recent study by Kaspersky Lab proved what we knew all along: Smartphones distract and decrease productivity. In the absence of a smartphone, participants improved their performance on tasks that required focus and concentration by over 26 percent.
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