Expert-Backed Tips to Improve Your Focus
by Jeff Tomko
Raise your hand if you’ve ever “hit the wall.”
We make the same pledge each day—to stay in the zone until that important work task is complete, or to give max effort until the final bell of the workout.
But in a matter of hours—maybe even less—your heart begins racing faster than Usain Bolt. Then the knots begin to multiply in your stomach, as feelings of being overwhelmed and exhausted take over your thoughts, leaving you relegated to mindlessly bouncing between checking emails and social media, or sitting out the final round of your workout
Despite our technological advancements, losing focus is not something new. As long as there have been objectives there have been distractions, and research shows that 20 percent of Americans today are chronic procrastinators.
Yet, as common as it is, losing focus is nothing to scoff at. For a business, a lack of focus means decreased productivity, which could lead to a dent in revenue. For an athlete, losing focus could be the difference between winning and losing.
Fortunately, there are several easy ways to keep your brain in the zone.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Browse the shelves of any health food store and you’re sure to find a trove of products claiming to boost your focus. Many herbals have been touted as suitable supplemental sources for maintaining focus. Theanine usually comes from tea leaves and is used to support focus, especially when used with caffeine.
That said, keeping your focus can be as easy as taking a deep breath.
“If we can stay in a space of joy and self-acceptance, we are less likely to give up, get distracted, or lose focus,” says Gia George, a meditation expert for the wellness app Verv.
There’s a reason why nearly 36 million Americans embrace yoga as part of their daily ritual. Besides the physical benefits that a child’s pose or downward dog session provides, the meditative and relaxation features of this ancient practice, with which breathwork is deeply intertwined, can help reduce stress, which can in turn help extend focus for longer periods.
Whether you’re battling writer’s block at your desk or losing your mind in traffic, there are two separate breathing exercises that George recommends for regaining focus:
- Either sitting up or lying on your back, begin inhaling through your nose for a count of four. At the top of your inhale, hold your breath for a seven count before exhaling from your mouth for a count of eight.
- Inhale through your nose for a three count. At the top of your inhale, make an “O” shape with your mouth and lips, then exhale fully.
Regardless of which technique you choose, George recommends going for a few rounds. (Aim for at least five.)
“These are some common breathing practices,” George says. “They should help you mellow out and regain your focus in no time.
PLAY A GAME
Ever forget what you were about to do with that medicine ball late in your workout? When fatigue kicks in, the mind begins to wander, and, just like that, your focus is gone.
For the majority of us, “brain fog” could mean falling one rep short of your intended set, or grinding to a halt during the final mile of a run. For top athletes, a lapse in focus could mean a missed free throw at the end of an NBA playoff.
“For an MMA fighter, it takes one second of lost focus before he’s kicked in the head and then it’s game over,” says James Scott, a personal trainer who’s worked with elite NBA players such as Yao Ming and Jimmy Butler. “They have to stay on top of their game for 15 to 25 minutes. If they lose it for two seconds, that’s all it takes to get taken down.”
Neurocognitive efficiency exercises, utilized by athletes from NASCAR to the NBA, is a method Scott uses with his athletes toward the end of their workouts. Just like the end of a game, the final moments of a workout are when Scott forces his athletes to stave off any host of fatigue-driven miscues.
One of Scott’s go-to exercises is a partner-based routine in which one person holds a handful of different-colored tennis balls while the other (the athlete) stands or sits down facing them. (To make it even more challenging, try this in a plank position).
The person holding the tennis balls simultaneously calls out a color as they toss the athlete a ball—but not necessarily the ball corresponding to the color they call out. The objective is for the athlete, while under stress, to catch only the balls that correctly match the color called out, letting everything else fly by.
The exercise is easier said than done, Scott says, and is a great help for improving focus when under intense stress.
“There was a time when people thought you either had court vision or you didn’t,” Scott says. “At one time it was said that you couldn’t teach that skill. Turns out it can be done. So, we do a lot of brain training to improve focus.”
LOOK AT THE BRIGHT SIDE
Stress is an unavoidable part of life, and one of the major factors in developing focus drop-offs. It doesn’t always have to be debilitating, but if left untreated, stress, either routine or traumatic, can also lead to a host of conditions.
These days, as increasing numbers of people adopt work-from-home lifestyles, many of us are discovering new sources of stress. While the shortened daily commute for some is a welcome relief, a new host of stressors, like sporadic interruptions caused by all-day family interaction while working, may also be responsible for your focus being redirected elsewhere.
But some experts say staying focused in the short term and keeping your eye on the prize may be as simple as keeping a positive outlook.
“One key to staying focused that may be overlooked is to keep your attention on the positive,” says George.
“If the task is enjoyable, focus on the joy of the moment,” she says. “And if the task isn’t so fun, focus instead on how great you’ll feel once it’s accomplished.”