I think most of us would agree that Americans always have a lot going on at once. It’s not very often that we’re doing just one thing. Just reading, just watching TV, just studying. Many of us are watching TV while doing online shopping on our phones. Many of us are reading but will stop to respond to a text message we received on our phone. I’ll be the first to admit that I will listen to an audio book while folding laundry or washing dishes. Even kids have the TV on while playing with their toys. If this doesn’t sound like you (or your kids), then great. But too many of us have made multitasking the norm.
And it’s not just multitasking. We’re overloaded with information. A market research firm estimates that the average person will encounter between 6,000 to 10,000 ads every single day. So even if we were trying to conduct internet research, it’s possible that through pop ups, banners and other notifications we have set up, that we will be interrupted with a barrage of ads, reminders and other information. Even scrolling through social media can be sensory overload. Tons of photos and videos, random sounds starting and stopping as you scroll.
But, this isn’t the best thing for us. Studies have shown that chronic multitaskers show more impulsivity than their peers, and they show lower levels of executive control and are often distracted easily. Overstimulation can also take a toll on our stress levels and impact the quality of our sleep. So today, I want to discuss some reasons why we have such a hard time focusing and ways we can work on our ability to focus.
There are a countless number of reasons why people have a hard time focusing. I’m only going to cover three in today’s podcast. They are: because you are distracted, because you are stressed and because you aren’t moving around enough.
Distractions are all around us and can be detrimental if we let them. We have to be disciplined about saying no to things that get in the way of our focus. We have to say no to compulsively checking social media and surfing the internet. You have to say no to people who constantly need you (unless they’re your children or other family member you’re responsible for caring for, of course). You have to say no sometimes to invitations to lunch, dinner or happy hour from friends and co-workers. Doing this will help give you the time to focus. Because after all, we always complain we don’t have the time to do something, but we just need to tweak how we’re spending it to find those opportunities.
Stress can also be detrimental, but in the long term. A lot of us perform our best under pressure. But in the long run, that stress can take a toll on our brains by leading to a shorter attention span, reduced memory, impaired judgement and cause your brain to prematurely age and shrink. There are many ways to reduce stress in your life. You first need to identify the source. Is it a bad relationship? A work-life imbalance? Could it be something like school? It’s good to understand what is causing the stress so you can come up with a plan to deal with it in a better way. Meditation has been proven to be a pretty effective way to deal with stress. More on that later.
Studies show that the average American sits for 10 hours per day. If you add in 8 or so hours of sleep, that only leaves us 4 hours that we spend moving around each day. Many of us sit in front of a computer for work. Some of us come home from work and sit in front of the TV until it’s time for bed. On top of making us fat, tired and sick, all that sitting is draining our ability to focus. We have to move our bodies to kickstart all of the hormones responsible for focusing. I would recommend a standing desk or one of those workstations that can adjust to sitting and standing positions. I’ve also seen desks with treadmills beneath them. If that doesn’t work for you, make it a point to get some movement in every hour of the day. Take a five minute break to stretch. Take a walk at lunch. Just get it in.
I am focused
Getting and staying focused can be difficult. But if you would set yourself up for success, practice self-care and organize an environment prime for being focused, you’ll have what you need to buckle down and get things done. I’ll give you some tips in a sec, but I also want to encourage you to see a doctor if you feel that getting and staying focused is a constant challenge for you no matter what you do. There could be something else going on that a doctor can help with.
I am practicing self-care
Sometimes you’re not your best self when it comes time to concentrate. Your mind wanders, you feel tired and you’re not as creative as you normally are. These are tell-tale signs that you may need to take some self-care time.
One way to do this is to ensure you’re getting enough sleep at night. If you’re not getting 6-8 hours of sleep each night, you may not be giving your body the rest it needs to be at its best. Studies conducted by Harvard Health Publishing show that our attention and concentration abilities decline when we’re not getting enough sleep. It takes longer for us to react, we’re inattentive and we lose our ability to take in new information. A lack of sleep can also contribute to a long list of health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even early death. I’ve heard some people say that they’ll sleep when they’re dead. But not getting enough sleep may send you there a lot faster than anticipated!
Another way to practice self care is to meditate. Meditation requires long stretches of concentration, and practicing it on a regular basis is like rehearsing getting and staying focused. When you meditate, you’re clearing your mind and thinking only of one thing – being in the present moment. Just 5-10 minutes of meditation each day can get you in the habit of concentrating for longer periods of time. A study by Italian neuroscientist Giuseppe Pagnoni found that meditation not only changes brain patterns, but also confers advantages in mental focus that may improve cognitive performance over time.
A third way to practice self-care is to exercise regularly. A lot of us sit for 6-8 hours per day and that can stand in the way of us being at our best. Physical activity immediately boosts the brain’s levels of dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, all of which affect focus and attention. And you don’t have to be Jillian Michaels to reap the benefits of exercising. Just take a 30-minute walk each day. You’ll start seeing an improvement in your concentration, motivation, memory and mood.
I am creating the right environment for getting and staying focused
When it comes time to focus, we have to have the right environment. We can’t expect to be able to focus on writing a thesis while sitting in a room filled with activity – people talking, someone cooking, a television blasting, a radio roaring, a telephone ringing. We just can’t expect to get a good result. Instead, go to a different room entirely. A place where it is nice and quiet. You may think it’s too quiet. Trust me, once you start focusing, you’ll notice that the room will get quite noisy – with all the thoughts going on in your mind!
Once you have a quiet place to work, get rid of all current and potential distractions. For a lot of us, our phone is the prime culprit for distractions Try putting it on Do Not Disturb so that you’re not receiving notifications every few minutes. Make sure you have a bottled water nearby in case you get thirsty. Use the restroom ahead of time so you don’t have to stop later. Make sure your laptop is charged, or that you have the charger nearby. If you have children, this may be a challenge, as they can interrupt quiet time, especially if they’re small. You may need to wait until that quiet time just before or after they go to bed.
I am setting myself up for success mentally
Now that you have the physical environment ripe for focus, it’s time to make sure your mental environment is ready. First, make a list of everything you have to do. Then, prioritize. For some, you may need to work on the most important thing first. But others may need to save the most important thing for later. Next, determine how much time you will spend on each task. Or, you may need to keep working until everything is done. Knowing what your game plan is will help you pace yourself so that you will know if you should keep working or stop and transition to something else. Finally, focus on one thing at a time. You might be tempted to transition to something else before it’s time. Resist the temptation. Give one thing all of your attention until it makes sense to move on. Don’t forget to take breaks, though! Not long breaks. Just long enough to take a breath. Then dive right back in.
Getting and staying focused is a challenge now more than ever. The fight for our attention is ongoing and there are many competitors, between our phones, television, radio, chores, tasks and responsibilities as well as other people, like family and friends. But if you will practice self-care through getting enough sleep, meditating and exercising, prep the physical environment around you by finding a quiet place and eliminating distractions and ready your mind for concentration by creating a to do list, prioritizing it and focusing on that one thing for a period of time, you’ll be on your way to knocking your to do list out of the park!
Here are your positive affirmations to ponder on this week:
- I am focused.
- I am minimizing distractions.
- I am reducing the amount of stress in my life.
- I make it a habit to move my body throughout the day.
- I am practicing self-care.
- I am creating the right environment for getting and staying focused.
- I am setting myself up for success mentally.