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3 Fundamentals of Staying Focused and Improving Concentration

Staying focused and retaining concentration has become increasingly challenging in today’s fast-paced world full with continual distractions. Our capacity to concentrate on our goals and tasks is constantly being tested, whether it’s the constant barrage of notifications on our smartphones or the never-ending stream of information vying for our attention.

However, there are 3 key elements that serve as the foundations of a strong focus, allowing us to overcome these obstacles and strengthen our attention:

  • Mental Strength: Your mental strength is determined by how firmly you can direct your attention, maintain concentration and uphold your mental energy. When you direct all your energies toward your goals, your mental strength is utilized properly.
  • Clear Thinking Patterns: These reflect how sharply and efficiently your mind can process information. You cannot focus on any objective or goals if your thinking pattern is disoriented. It is imperative that you keep a clear head when focusing your attention on goals.
  • Mindfulness & Awareness: Everyone gets distracted, but your skill to control and manage your mental state to overcome these distractions demonstrates your mindfulness and awareness. Mindfulness also extends to mindful meditation, where one is aware of the present and chooses to live in the present. You can expect better focus when you are completely aware of your present situation.

In this article, I will go over these 3 fundamentals in depth and introduce to you practical ideas and tactics to stay focused and improve your concentration.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Fundamental #1 – Mental Strength
  2. Fundamental #2 – Clear Thinking Patterns
  3. Fundamental #3 – Mindfulness & Awareness
  4. Bottom Line

Fundamental #1 – Mental Strength

How firmly do you direct your attention, concentrate and maintain your mental energy? Here are the key factors that influence your capacity for Mental Strength:

Your Focus Muscle

Your mental power determines how well you can focus your attention, retain your concentration, and sustain your mental energy. It signifies that your mental strength is adequately utilized when you put all your energies toward your goals.

Staying focused is an ongoing process, and it will get easier as you practice. Strengthening your concentration muscle will help you focus better. For success in education, work, and life, the ability to focus is essential.

Eastern religious meditation practices have influenced a lot of Western ideas about mindfulness.

The supreme emptiness that permeates everything else, for example, is the focus of some Buddhist meditations, while in Zen meditation, the emphasis is on not thinking about anything in particular but rather on being aware of everything that is happening around you. Even while meditating, some Zen masters will keep their eyes open.[1]

The mind-muscle connection can be summarized as a deliberate and conscious muscle contraction. Passively moving weight versus actively moving weight is determined by your ability to direct the tension you create during exercise toward a specific muscle or group of muscles.

IS RELYING ON WILLPOWER A GOOD IDEA?

But don’t we also have the willpower for that?

Yes, we do! But we cannot rely solely on willpower. The willpower of a person is never stable. Effective willpower takes time to develop. It’s preferable to think of willpower as an added advantage to the underlying processes that enable you to succeed even when your willpower fails.

Why?

Because, in a sense, willpower is limited. Numerous factors lead to fluctuation in your willpower. Your age, life circumstances, support system, etc., directly impact how strong you can be based on willpower. If you think about it, how can you depend on your willpower when you are unsure if your willpower can sustain itself independently?

To put it another way, no one can maintain superhuman discipline and control every single minute of the day. And, let’s face it, willpower is no match for crying kids when you’re trying to meditate, freezing temperatures when you’re out for a walk, or a box of donuts at work when you forgot to have breakfast.

All of this indicates that relying solely on willpower will not help you reach your objectives in the long run.

RAW FORCE OF CONCENTRATION AND WILLPOWER IS WHAT YOU NEED

To improve your focus, you need the raw force of concentration and willpower. It refers to how strongly you can consciously direct your attention towards something and how long you can hold that level of attention.

Microsoft conducted a study in 2015 that found that the average human attention span is 8 seconds – less than that of a goldfish.[2] However, due to the above distractions and notifications, this number has decreased. Rather than focusing on a single task, the human brain is better equipped to seek new experiences.

You won’t be able to learn in class, study at home, listen in on conversations, fulfill your work duties, or safely do chores like slicing vegetables and driving a car if you can’t pay attention when you need to. Executive function is also heavily dependent on the ability to focus.

You need to pay attention to the force of concentration clubbed with willpower. It will help you sharpen your focus and increase your attention span.

How To Develop Focus Muscle?

The brain is a muscle, and it can be trained like any other physical body muscle. Your brain is in charge of maintaining focus. When you work a muscle and then rest it, it will grow stronger. Developing focus muscle is an ongoing process, and it will get easier as you practice.

You need to practice resistance training and do activities that push your mental strength beyond your comfort zone. Simple techniques like focus push, moving the needle, and discipline to go the extra step are some of the ways to develop focus muscle.

For example, even when tired, gather the energy to make your bed or finish washing those dishes kept in the sink. The more your push your focus, the more it develops your focus muscles.

When your mind wanders, the attention muscle brings it back to your task. That is pretty much how artists and sportspersons maintain their focus. It shows that nobody’s focus starts with superhuman strength. One needs to make that happen, and the top performers train their focus muscles just like a daily workout to keep them sharp.

Your Mental Energy

The ability or willingness to carry out cognitive tasks such as problem-solving, maintaining attention, dictating emotions, focusing, and making decisions is called mental energy. We need mental energy just as much as we need physical energy to climb a set of stairs or lift a heavy object. It is the fuel reserve that you need to apply your Focus Muscle.

How well you manage your mental energy determines how effectively your Focus Muscle works. Therefore, it is essential to learn to manage your mental energy.

Brain fog and the inability to focus are common symptoms of low mental energy. A lack of mental energy can be caused by various factors, such as being pulled in many directions at once, having to juggle personal, family, and work obligations, or simply being overstimulated by your surroundings.

Do you know how your muscles get tired and need a break when you work out? Or are you attempting to persuade yourself not to complete the final rep?

The same principles apply to the workings of the brain.

To improve your ability to focus, you must first train your brain.

Focused, uninterrupted time spent on one task is what training is all about. This is the number of repetitions in a set you perform when working out.

To train means to practice the skill repeatedly. You want to be able to enter a state of flow at least a few times a day. This is how many sets you do at the gym.

Each muscle has a finite amount of strength, either diminishing from inactivity or growing stronger from purposeful exercise. Both require rest after intense exertion to restore their strength and stamina.

You get the same feeling of internal dread/doubt right before starting an intense workout – the one that says, “I’m not sure I want to do this” – as you do right before deciding whether or not to read a long article, and in both cases, you have to make up your mind, bite down, and get started.

Fundamental #2 – Clear Thinking Patterns

How sharply and efficiently your mind processes information? We can help improve this through:

Efficient Mental Models

Thinking requires mental energy. We waste a lot of energy over-thinking things or thinking about things that don’t matter. Mental Models make your thinking more effective by simplifying complicated concepts and making decision making faster and easier.

Here’re some examples:

Smart Information Management

We are bombarded with a tremendous amount of information every day and this sometimes tends to blur our thinking. The key to clear thinking is managing all the information adroitly. You need to adopt a smart information management system so that you can use every piece of information to your advantage.

Here’re some problems our brain is facing today:

INFORMATION OVERLOAD

The information we have access to has grown exponentially. We have greater access to information than we have ever had in all of the histories of humanity.

With the advent of the internet, almost every comprehensible information is available at your fingertips. If you want to find out a particular recipe, just Google it! Looking for information on Mars? Just visit the NASA website or a similar erudite online resource.

You can literally find extensive material on any subject and feed the information to your brain till you get tired.

But what happens when you demand more from your brain than its capacity?

When the brain is repeatedly asked to do more than it can, the result is always mental exhaustion. As a result, this is the major effect of information overload, in which the mind cannot keep up with the massive amount of data it must process.

Mental fatigue causes decreased productivity, increased dissatisfaction due to failure, and stress from hard labor or comparison to peers [3]. Think about it – when you are extremely tired, you will not be able to work with your usual gusto or passion. A stressful state of mind will not only delay the decision making process, but also you from taking action.

WEAKENED FOCUS

Our mind can only process a particular amount of information at a given point in time. When we try to feed irrelevant or unrequired information to it at the time of making important decisions, it would lead to unnecessary stress.

For example, when you see an unread email while doing a task, your effective IQ drops to 10 points [4]. Even young individuals, who have grown up in a world awash with online distractions, appear to require unbroken periods to execute difficult activities effectively. As a clear sign, this weakens your focus when your mind cannot process the right information at the right time.

Therefore, when you need to process more information for a decision, you need to divert your focus to the quality of information rather than the quantity. When you do not practice information-quality control, the additional information will mess up the thinking process.

CHAOTIC INFORMATION

Our mind is filled with chaotic amounts of information. Some ideas are relevant and beneficial, while others are irrelevant and counterproductive. These include random facts, commercials, and everyday news. Every minute, numerous thoughts are churned out of the human mind, which works like a vast factory of welcome and unwelcome thoughts.

However, waves of activity sweep your cortex at night, eliminating anything that hasn’t been labeled to be stored [5]. Since there is too much information, our brain often gets confused with processing the necessary information.

Our task is to carefully separate the thoughts and only focus on the useful ones while ignoring the others.

A Simple System To Manage Information Proactively

The human brain has a clever mechanism for identifying crucial events: it picks out a few items we see or hear and holds on to them, examining them more thoroughly to make sense of them. This is called Selective Attention — meaning paying close attention to only a few of the items our senses detect. This keeps us from becoming overwhelmed by the many things we see, hear, and feel.

Paying attention, according to neuroscientists, consists of two parts:[6]

  1. Picking important things out of the continual flow of information that reaches our senses (for example, sight, hearing, and touch)
  2. Safeguarding these important things from being overridden by less important pieces of information.

Selective Attention is the best way to filter unnecessary information and process the important information. To understand what information your mind needs to retain and what doesn’t, here’s what you can do:

1. WHEN SEEKING INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET, KEEP A CLEAR GOAL

Decide beforehand, what specific information you will seek on the internet. Do not let distractions divert your attention. You don’t have to pay attention to everything that you read or see. Learn to keep integrating the data to help you avoid knowledge gaps.

One of the best ways to keep focus while searching the internet is to maintain an external digital file to collect the relevant information. Alternatively, you can also use a writing pad to keep notes of only the required information. This would allow us to stay focused on the goals and only peruse the relevant information.

2. DO NOT GIVE ATTENTION TO ALL THE INFORMATION YOU REVIEW

Not every piece of information you gather will be relevant. Your prime focus should be only on details or information that is related to the task at hand. Avoid giving attention to everything line-by-line.

You can skip through the sections or segments that are irrelevant. It would help you save time and more importantly you can stay focused on finding the required information.

3. PROCESS INFORMATION WITH AN OPEN AND OBJECTIVE MIND

One of the prime purposes of information gathering is to gather knowledge. Had you already been aware of the subject, you wouldn’t have scouted elsewhere. Therefore, while processing the information, you must avoid making assumptions and look at the information with an open and objective mind. It would help you make a judicious and informed decision.

4. ORGANIZE THE INFORMATION YOU RECEIVE SO THAT YOU MAY READ LESS AND THINK MORE DEEPLY

“Bottom line is, if you do not use it or need it, it’s clutter, and it needs to go.”– Charisse Ward

Organizing the information will help study the details properly. You can start by eliminating all the non-essential emails from your inbox. If needed, you can also use technology like Google Docs or Word documents to remember information that you don’t need for an immediate task.

5. TAKE REGULAR BREAKS FOR YOUR BRAIN TO AVOID INFORMATION OVERLOAD

Breaks can help to decrease or prevent stress, help to sustain performance throughout the day, and lessen the need for a long recuperation at the end of the day, according to studies.[7]

If you want to improve your focus then try disconnecting from the internet and going entirely offline. Also, try to meditate once a day, right before going to bed. According to some studies, meditation and mindfulness techniques may have an impact on the brain’s structure and function.[8]

Develop a Digital Brain

Another method for dealing with information overload is to create a second brain. The advantages of having a Digital Brain include increased productivity and better decision-making.

You’ll learn how to develop your own Digital Brain, including strategies for determining what information truly matters to you, choosing the right tools for recording and organizing data, and optimizing retrieval for quick and efficient access in How to Build a Digital Brain (Your Second Brain).

Fundamental #3 – Mindfulness & Awareness

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention on purpose, moment by minute, to one’s internal and external experiences, including thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, as well as the external world.

An active inquiry into the nature and functioning of the mind, awareness meditation draws on the qualities of presence cultivated through mindfulness practice.[9]

Mindfulness and awareness depend on how skillfully you control and manage your mental state and overcome distractions. You can use these key elements to improve awareness and mindfulness:

Clear Intention

Having clear intentions resonates with being aware and in control of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Most people are led by their thoughts instead of leading their thoughts. It means they passively follow every thread of thought without really being aware of it.

It’s amazing and baffling how our minds work. It aids in the development of creative approaches to challenging issues. When we think back on a past experience, we can relive it in vivid detail, even if we weren’t physically present at the time.

However, one’s own ideas have the potential to confine one with worry, stress, and terror.[10] The mind may be a dangerous place if not kept in check. You’re stuck in a never-ending loop of self-doubt that keeps you from trying anything new. That way of thinking prevents you from seeing the world and taking the necessary steps toward success.

1. BE AWARE OF WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND WHY YOU’RE DOING IT

A growing body of evidence suggests that focusing on the here-and-now, both in terms of one’s internal experiences and those of the external world, can have positive effects on mental health.[11] That’s why it’s crucial to master the art of mental self-discipline.

For instance, you suddenly feel hungry and start thinking about what to eat for dinner, leading you to think of what you ate last night, etc. All this can be termed as an internal distraction. Some thoughts that occur to you that fall under the category of stuff you could be doing right now.

The mind is a fickle thing, it wanders, but thankfully, we have the power to identify such internal distractions and work towards eliminating them as far as possible.

When the mind is not at peace, it welcomes all kinds of alternative thoughts. This is the main cause of internal distraction because you are expending huge amounts of mental energy thinking about things other than what you’re supposed to be focusing on.

When your mind is in the midst of making a mental shift from one task to the next is when you are most vulnerable to distraction. When switching gears, you could decide to do something “only for a moment,” but your brain quickly becomes engrossed in the new task.

So, how to do it?

To begin, understand that you can only choose your response to adversity. Focus on what you can do right now to achieve the outcomes you desire. Stop dwelling on things you don’t have control of at the moment. Simply prepare for the best.

2. SETTING PRIORITY

You can only set priorities if you have a clear intention. Otherwise, all priorities seem important simultaneously. While we like prioritizing our tasks, we frequently overlook what is truly important. Rather than focusing on urgent but ineffective tasks, consider which activities yield the best results.

Prioritizing entails cohesively organizing all of your activities. You prioritize them based on their importance and utility. This enables you to make the most efficient use of your resources and energy.

You begin by focusing on the most significant aspects of the situation. Then you work your way forward until all of your day’s resources have been depleted. The most important task receives the most attention this way.

To prioritize effectively, try the Superstructure Method.

Before commencing on any project at Lifehack, we always follow a simple foundation. We might start by simplifying things by doing it as a fast exercise.

It’s known as the “MoSCoW Analysis” in corporate language. The Superstructure Method is what we call it at Lifehack (because it sounds cooler to us!)

Here’s how it works:

We begin by setting a clear goal for ourselves. What is your goal? What are we attempting to accomplish?

Then we make a list of all the activities or actions that must be completed in order to attain the goal.

From this list, we categorize them into one of three things:

  • Must-haves – Absolutely critical to achieving the objective. Without it, the result we want is meaningless.
  • Should-haves – Important but not critical. However, leaving it out may lessen the quality of the final result.
  • Good to haves – Having it is nice, but not including it won’t have any negative impact on our objective.
superstructure method

The Superstructure Method provides us with incredible clarity and focus, ensuring that the resources we invest are always put to the best possible use. We use it for things like research, learning new skills, and even meetings because it’s so handy.

One of the best things about using the Superstructure method is that you can apply it to every aspect of life. Even though the idea of Superstructure started from the work at Lifehack, now it is used everywhere. For example, you can apply the simple steps while moving houses, planning a holiday, creating a diet plan, or chalking out your exercise schedule.

Here’s an example on how to make use of the Superstructure Method:

  • Let’s say you want to lose weight. So set out by laying a clear goal that you wish you lose weight by ____ kgs/lbs.
  • Now determine what must be done to achieve your goal. You can jot down all the options such as dieting, hitting the gym, quitting junk food, jogging, etc.
  • The next step is to bifurcate your options into “must haves” (which can be quitting junk food), “should haves” (like exercising, jogging, etc.), and “good to haves” (dieting)

There’s only so much you can accomplish in a day, no matter how well you prioritize, and some distractions are unavoidable. When it comes to creating objectives and prioritizing activities, it’s critical to be realistic. You’ll build unrealistic expectations of others around you if you don’t, and you’ll always feel like you’re slipping behind.

Remember that the goal of prioritization is to devote time to the most important tasks, those that will make a difference in the long term and propel you forward.

You’ll feel less reactive and more focused and intentional if you handle prioritization correctly. The goal is to finish work that represents genuine progress while letting the rest—all the “busyness”—fall by the wayside.

Mindful Habits

There are many times in our daily lives when we feel fully overwhelmed by personal and professional duties. We strive for work-life balance on a daily basis, yet we are just human. We go about our daily lives without pausing to consider what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

To be fully aware of your emotions, you must first comprehend your mental process. If you’re experiencing a strong feeling, such as anger or sadness, and you know what idea or action prompted the emotion, you’ll be able to cope with it more effectively and avoid acting rashly. Practicing such mindful habits can help you deal with a challenging situation in a new way and can significantly improve your attitude.

Our consciousness is always focused outward. It constantly reacts to our environment. And this sometimes leads to a build-up of stress, the strain on mental energy, and weakened focus. To ensure that you stay away from the negative impacts, it is important to practice mindful habits.

The practice of mindfulness aids the development of new neural networks in the brain. You’re essentially retraining your brain to find better and new methods to handle activities and cope with stress and emotions through creating neural networks. You’re also assisting yourself in improving your focus.

When you are mindful, you are fully aware of every thought, emotion, and action that occurs in your life. You concentrate on the present time before reacting rashly. Mindfulness is essential for ensuring that we have clarity on the many things for which we are responsible in our life.

Researchers reviewed more than 200 studies of mindfulness among healthy people and found mindfulness-based therapy was especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Mindfulness can also help treat people with specific problems, including depression, pain, smoking, and addiction.[12] Researchers believe the benefits of mindfulness are related to its ability to dial down the body’s response to stress.[13]

Here’s how to make mindfulness part of your regular routine:

1. FOCUS ON YOUR BREATHING WHEN YOU FEEL DISTRACTED

As per research, slow, regulated breathing was found to be associated with improved feelings of wellbeing, relaxation, and mental clarity. Adult volunteers trained in diaphragmatic or “belly” breath exercises for eight weeks had a significant decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, as well as an improvement in their ability to pay attention for long periods of time.[14]

Use the 4-7-8 breath when you feel distracted. Inhale deeply while counting to four, then hold your breath while counting to seven, and then exhale slowly while counting to eight. There will be a total of four times this pattern is repeated. Simply return to the breath and the counting whenever you find yourself distracted during the mindful meditation.

2. TRY THE REEL IT IN METHOD

Reel It In Method is a practical strategy that you can apply to overcome your distractions.

Besides helping you to immediately transform a distraction into something useful, practicing this method as a mental exercise helps you to strengthen your focus muscle.

This method is for the 90% of distractions where you have a choice — whether to click on that Facebook notification, reply to the WhatsApp message right away, or worry about that thing you have to do next week right now.

With the “Reel It In” Method, you’ll be able to make the right choice to take every time. In fact, with each new distraction, you’ll make a choice even more concrete.

Step 1: Clear Your Mind

Let’s begin with a little mental exercise and go through a typical distraction scenario:

Say a distraction comes from an external source like an email notification, a Facebook post on your feed, or a message from a friend; or from an internal source like a stray thought, a lingering worry at the back of your mind, or something you suddenly remembered.

Your snap/default reflex is to quickly jump to the distraction. To read that email, scroll through Facebook, etc.

Now imagine this time you STOP and practice a little bit of mindfulness.

Before you act, do a quick and simple breathing exercise that only takes a few seconds instead:

  • Close your eyes.
  • Take a deep breath and hold it in for a count of 5.
  • Then exhale. And as you exhale, imagine your mind releasing all the things it’s holding on to.
  • If it takes more than one breath, then take a few more. Each time you exhale, feel your mind releasing.
Step 2: Gain Instant Presence

Bring yourself back to NOW — this moment.

Imagine that your mind has lines connecting to different things that are drawing your attention. They could be things you’re worried about, things you have to think about, or things you have to remember.

Now imagine reeling these lines back in… like a fishing rod.

You are returning your attention back to yourself. Recentre your focus.

Tell yourself:

“Nothing matters except this moment.”

Instant presence is important because you are literally living in this moment. The past is the past. The future hasn’t happened yet.

Too often, we act based on the past, which we can’t change; or future fears/worries which we are not set in stone.

What you do now is what really matters. This moment is your reality.

Now, to refocus, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are you doing now? Why are you doing it?
  • What do you need to achieve so that your time isn’t wasted?
  • What’s the most important thing I could be doing right now?
  • Is this distraction urgent? Do I need to divert attention right now?
  • Do I need to care about it? Why?
  • Will I regret spending time on this later?
Step 3: Make a Decision

To put away a distraction for good, you have to process it. That means you have to make a decision about it so that your mind can be at peace about it.

If you don’t and just ignore it, it will just resurface and bother you again until you do.

Bottom Line

Staying focused and developing concentration has become a critical ability for success in a world plagued with numerous distractions and competing demands for our attention. Understanding and implementing the three fundamentals of remaining focused will transform your capacity to concentrate and boost your overall productivity.

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