Can't focus? Try these science-based tools for improving concentration and overcoming procrastination

Can't focus? Try these science-based tools for improving concentration and overcoming procrastination

Can't focus? Try these science-based tools for improving concentration and overcoming procrastination

If the question "Why can't I focus?" ever crosses your mind, you know what it's like to feel scattered and frustrated, wishing you could be doing anything but the task in front of you.

Fortunately, focus isn't something enjoyed by only a lucky few: it's a skill you can cultivate and master.

Whether it's through tweaks in your diet, implementing time management strategies, or adopting mindsets that help your work feel enlivening, you can sharpen your focus and burn through your to-do list.

Asking yourself the following questions will help you identify the habits that may be dampening your focus and encouraging procrastination.

Are you falling prey to these common misconceptions? 

Focus depends on two distinct abilities: the ability to tap into focus and the ability to sustain it. Just as we don't immediately fall into a deep sleep when we lie down at night, our focus deepens as we persist with a task.

If you're having trouble starting something, think about the first 5 to 10 minutes of your work session as a warm-up, where you have full permission to work, regardless of the quality of your output. If you bring a sense of experimentation to the beginning of your session, you'll loosen up and release resistance.

Another misconception is that if your mind wanders, you're doing something wrong. The truth is that momentary lapses in concentration are a feature, rather than a bug, of attention. Focus is like meditation. It doesn't make you a bad meditator if you get lost in thought. Rather than achieving impeccable focus, the goal of meditation is to simply notice when your mind wanders, then continuously re-anchor your attention. In a similar way, sustained focus depends on the art of re-focusing every time your attention drifts.

So, rather than getting frustrated when you become distracted, recognize that when you refocus after losing concentration, you're sharpening your ability to sustain focus for extended periods.

Are you on an anti-focus diet? 

The types of foods you eatand the amount you consumedetermine how easily you can enter and sustain focus.

Simple sugar, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates can cause energy slumps that make focus feel unattainable. When you eat sugar (ice cream, cookies, or even high amounts of subtler sugar sources, such as bagels or pasta), blood sugar can rapidly increase, leading to an insulin spike and then a blood sugar crash. This abrupt dip in blood sugar can set off alarm bells, causing your adrenal glands to produce cortisol and other stress hormones and provoking anxiety, agitation, or energy slumps.

If you've ever eaten a big meal and yawned your way through a work session, you know the amount of food you eat also impacts your ability to concentrate. Digestion is a resource-intensive process. 

After you eat high volumes of food, blood flow travels to your gut and away from the brain [1]. As a result, you'll become sleepy and need to work harder to access or sustain your focus.

Just as you can improve focus by eliminating specific foods, you can also promote it by eating foods containing amino acid precursors to the neurotransmitters crucial to focus, such as dopamine and acetylcholine. One such precursor is Tyrosine, an amino acid that produces dopamine [1]. You can find it in foods like:

  • Sockeye salmon
  • Lentils
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Lean ground turkey
  • Wild rice 

In addition, healthy fats, especially those containing omega-3 fatty acids, support sustained energy and mental clarity because they're structurally similar to the brain's cell membranes.

Is your environment overtaxing your focus? 

Achieving and sustaining focus requires a narrowing of our attention. As a result, working in an environment with competing sensory stimuli can hurt focus. Distractions like chatter or loud noises in a cafe are clear examples, but subtler issues, like dirty coffee mugs beside your computer or a window with appealing scenery, can also interfere with your focus.

Above all, your phone is the mother of distractions: research has shown that even having it within your field of view can impair focus. An article called "Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One's Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity" explored the cognitive impacts of having a smartphone in view while working.

The researchers studied the performance of two groups on a cognitive processing task. One group put their phone in another room, while the other kept their phones face-down on their desks. The second group had a statistically significant drop in their performance [2]. The reason? When a given stimulus is habitually relevant, it magnetizes our attention. Having the phone within view demands that we expend effort to suppress the urge to check it, taxing the mind and straining focus.

Rather than just putting your phone in a different room while you work, you can cultivate deeper focus by making larger shifts in your phone habits. Rather than letting notifications direct your attention throughout the day, choose two or three specific windows devoted to reading and responding to messages. This way, you'll be the director of your phone use (rather than letting notifications dictate the flow of your attention).

Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman suggested an intriguing way to avoid becoming distracted by the sensory stimuli around you: Before working, spend 30 seconds to three minutes anchoring your vision to a single location. As Dr. Huberman explained, this practice increases activity in the neural circuits that create focus [1]. This practice can help you warm up before a focus session or sharpen your attention when it wanes.

Are your breaks rejuvenating? 

Our circadian rhythms govern our sleep, digestion, appetites, and other functions over 24-hour cycles. Within these 24-hour periods, we also cycle through periods of rest and activity known as ultradian rhythms. These consist of about 80- 120 minutes of intense focus, after which we need at least 20 minutes of rest [3].

When you're on a tight deadline, breaks can feel like a waste of time. But forcing yourself to keep working despite fatigue is counterproductive. Breaks help you recover from your prior work session. They also determine the level of focus you'll be able to bring to later sessions.

During breaks, the brain clears the oxidative wastes built up during work sessions, restoring cellular energy and allowing you to return to work with clarity [4].

What is arguably just as bad or worse than skipping breaks is using them on tasks that further burn your energy. If you're checking your phone, watching shows, or listening to podcasts during your breaks, you’re still taxing your attention and not going into re-charge mode. 

Instead, during breaks, focus on forms of active recovery that help you decompress: walking, dancing, washing dishes, or anything that doesn't demand narrowly focused attention.

Ideally, your work sessions and breaks should mirror each other's intensity. The more intensive your focus session, the longer and more rejuvenating you'll want your rest periods to be.

How's your sleep? 

Sleep is the foundation of physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being. Many people overlook the role of their sleep in their performance, especially if they don't have trouble falling or staying asleep. But what matters most to our performance is our sleep architecture (the various cycles and stages of sleep). You can have disrupted sleep architecture without knowing it. 

Though all sleep stages are essential, deep sleep is most relevant to cognitive performance. During this window, the body undergoes an intensive period of regeneration. Quality deep sleep is essential for processes like immune and hormone regulation and the maintenance of mood and memory [5].

Lack of deep sleep affects cognitive performance for two reasons. Because deep sleep is essential for recovery, if we don't get high-quality deep sleep, we'll fail to recover from the previous day's stressors, making us much less performance-ready the next day. At the same time, during deep sleep, the brain consolidates recently acquired memories and skills into long-term storage. Since focusing depends on a combination of alertness, attention [6] and drawing inferences between ideas, a lack of deep sleep can lend itself to a lack of focus.

The simplest and most far-reaching way to improve your sleep quality is to go to bed and wake up at consistent times (including weekends!). Consistent sleep habits will tune your circadian rhythm. As your sleep habits become more consistent, your sleep architecture will improve, and your body will restore itself with less active effort or friction. 

Do you have a resilient nervous system? 

Your autonomic nervous system's level of resilience can impact whether you can access or sustain focus. Our sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system evolved to respond to acute dangers: the threat of an approaching lion or the uncertainty about our next food source. While these stressors were terrifying, they were also straightforward. There was a clear difference between being pursued by a lion and being left alone.

Our modern world is quite different: low-grade stressors saturate our realities. Our nervous systems become imbalanced because our stress is more diffuse and ongoing. At any moment, you can read about scary events happening hundreds of thousands of miles away. When the nervous system becomes chronically stressed, it struggles to transition between sympathetic and parasympathetic states in response to feedback from the body and environment. 

When your body can't make the transition from sympathetic to parasympathetic activation, it's physiologically impossible to get proper sleep, digest, or you guessed it, focus. Without the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system (also known as the rest-and-digest system), the body functions as if survival were at stake, making lower-priority yet still essential functions feel optional compared to the weight of perceived threat.

How to balance the nervous system

Fortunately, there are many simple and enjoyable ways to reverse nervous system imbalance at its source. One way to do this is through exposure to hormetic stressors, that is, acute stressors that boost resilience. 

One example of a hormetic stressor is cold immersion. Research into cold immersion shows that the stress response induced by the shock of cold water provokes the slow release of mood-enhancing neuromodulators like dopamine and adrenaline, with benefits lasting hours after the initial exposure [7].

Next time you can’t focus, try taking a one-to-three minute cold shower. Make it cold enough to be unpleasant (but not so cold that you’re shivering uncontrollably!). If you hate the cold, other focus-enhancing hormetic stressors include heat exposure, high-intensity interval training, and fasting.  

A less effortful way to balance your nervous system is through the Apollo Wearable. Unlike cold exposure or exercise, it doesn't require you to do anything. The Apollo Wearable issues silent, soothing vibrations that balance the nervous system and support focus, high sleep quality, and more. 

In our double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial (published in Biological Psychiatry) we studied whether Apollo could support cognitive performance under stress. We found that the Apollo led to a 2-3X increase in heart rate variability (HRV) within three minutes [8]. The participants' reports of feeling calm and capable under pressure accompanied these physiological shifts. 

Are you working beyond your capacity? 

The 40-hour workweek doesn't reflect the rhythms of human attention. Ultradian rhythms limit the time we can feasibly spend in states of intense focus. Accordingly, studies have shown that most people can sustain deep focus for about one to four hours a day [9]. This is why employees who spend eight hours in the office often spend just as much or more time with email or administrative tasks than their core job duties.

Regardless of the type of work you do, it's worth reflecting on Parkinson's law: work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you're struggling with focus, it may be that you're unconsciously stretching your work activities so they fit into eight-hour windows.

The quality of your attention may increase if you work within shorter but more intense periods. One way to implement this is to strategically limit the amount of time you spend working. 

Before starting a specific task, decide how much time you'll devote to it. Do your best not to exceed that window. These constraints can sharpen your focus by forcing you to reduce or eliminate distractions. They can also make you more efficient: to work within a shorter window, you'll need to distinguish between the processes that are and are not truly necessary for getting your intended results.

To add more structure and efficiency to your work, use the Pomodoro technique, a time-management tool that encourages focused work: the standard intervals include 25 minutes of work, followed by a 5-minute break, and repeated four times, succeeded by a 15-to-20-minute break. It can serve as a container for your work, eliminating the ambiguity that might lead to unconscious overworking. Consider limiting yourself to two full Pomodoro sessions per workday, for instance

Does your work feel alive to you?

Finally, concentration issues can go beyond the tactical or the physiological. Sometimes, they reflect a more personal mismatch between your values and your work. When you don't consciously address this mismatch, you'll rebel unconsciously. This rebellion usually manifests procrastination or scattered attention.

While a long-term solution would be to look for work that aligns with your natural strengths, talents, and values, that isn't always possible. Instead, you might simply change the attitude you bring to your work. In the book, Indistractable: How to Control your Attention and Choose Your Life, Nir Eyal recommends re-imagining our tasks by challenging classic ideas about what counts as fun [10].

We tend to think about fun as identical to pleasure, but what if fun were more about complete and total immersion in a task? 

Quoting computing professor Ian Bogost, he writes: "Fun is not a feeling so much as an exhaust produced when an operator can treat something with dignity." 

Rather than focusing on the rewards we get from our work, give your tasks such close, pristine attention that you notice fresh challenges you otherwise wouldn't. These challenges will offer intrigue that makes focus much less effortful.

This recommendation aligns with what's known in flow state research as the "autotelic personality" or someone who does tasks for their own sake without placing so much emphasis on their fruits. Bringing this process-oriented attitude to your work can serve as a flow state trigger, paving your way into deep, effortless focus.

On days when an engaged attitude doesn't feel easy to access, try gamifying your work. There are millions of ways to do this. One way is to predict the number of Pomodoro sessions it will take for you to complete a task and try to beat your guess. You can use the app Clockify to time your work, track it over multiple days, then work to beat your previous performance each day.

Stop asking, "Why can't I focus?" and ask, "When did this become so easy?"

When it comes to focusing, the mistake most people make is treating focus as if it were a gated garden they can only enter when they're 100% motivated for it.

One of the most liberating realizations is that motivation follows action, not the other way around. Often, the most reliable way to burn through procrastination is to commit to doing the smallest amount of work you feel capable of. 

In other words, when you're having trouble starting work, instead of checking your email or giving yourself a pep talk in the mirror, take a minor first step. With writing, this might look like opening the document, changing a font, or something similar. Then choose another small step, followed by another, until you're in a flow state.

Taking action, no matter how small, gets you out of the procrastinating mindset. It also serves as a kind of exposure therapy: once you're immersed in the process, you've demystified it, and the hardest part (getting started) is behind you.


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  3. Gerasimo, P. Use the Science of Ultradian Rhythms to Boost Productivity, Energy, and Willpower.
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