Better concentration and focus makes your life easier and more productive, and anyone can master them. Use these simple but practical tips and techniques.
It’s been said that the greatest power of the human mind is its ability to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time.
If you’ve ever held a magnifying glass in the sun, you know how scattered sunlight can be focused to start a fire.
Imagine what you could accomplish if you could concentrate your brain power into one bright beam and focus it like a laser on whatever you wish to accomplish!
You may be looking to improve your concentration to perform better at work, to ace your exams, to increase reading comprehension, or to simply make everyday life easier.
Fortunately, anyone can develop their ability to concentrate.
There are skills you can learn and steps you can take that enable your brain to work better.
How to Master Concentration Right Now
If you are eager to concentrate more effectively right now, here are the steps you can take today:
Clearly Define Your Task
Before you can concentrate on a task, be clear on exactly what that task is.
Vague goals like “write a report” will leave you unmotivated and not knowing where to begin, an open invitation for procrastination!
Break your objective into bite-size tasks, each with a distinct beginning and end.
For example, you could start with “create an outline” if you are writing a report, article, or term paper.
A clear-cut goal like this makes it easier to start, stick with it, and finish.
Breaking any large project into small bite-size chunks can help keep you motivated.
Each time you complete a task, even a small one, you get a nice surge of dopamine, a brain chemical that helps keep attention, productivity, and motivation high.
Optimize Your Work Environment
Optimize your environment for maximum concentration as much as possible.
When you are too hot or cold, or your surroundings are too noisy or quiet, your ability to concentrate will suffer.
Clear your work area of clutter.
Brain scans show conclusively that clutter affects your ability to concentrate and process information. (1)
Working in an organized environment can make you more focused and productive.
Silence or sound?
Few things can affect your concentration as much as unwelcome sound.
You may need complete silence or find you concentrate better in the buzz of your favorite coffee shop.
If you concentrate best in total silence, get a pair of noise-canceling headphones.
If you like to listen to music to help you concentrate, there are a few rules for getting the most benefits.
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How Music Affects the Brain
You can find music curated or created to specifically help you concentrate.
The music streaming service Spotify has an entire category of playlists called “Focus,” compiled specifically for improving concentration and focus.
Another music service, Focus@Will, offers scientifically engineered music channels for enhancing concentration and focus based on your personality type.
Focus@Will is used by employees at forward-thinking companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Google.
Their playlists work, in part, by altering brainwave activity to enhance focus, attention, and learning.
Focus@Will’s research indicates that listening to their music channels can quadruple your focus and productivity!
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Work with Your Biorhythm
If you have to do a task that requires your utmost concentration, don’t make it hard by going against your natural biorhythm.
Do this kind of task when you are most alert.
Scientists have found that there is a best time to do everything and that includes concentrating.
While everyone is different, most adults do their best thinking in the late morning as their concentration and alertness reach their peak.
Then from noon to about 4 pm, most people become more easily distracted once again. (4)
Paying attention to one thing at a time may seem like blindly obvious advice, yet few people actually do this!
It’s not easy to concentrate when social media, emails, texts, and 5,000 ads per day compete for your attention. (5)
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Put your electronics away
If your electronic devices are ruining your ability to concentrate, take back control.
When you want to concentrate, put your phone out of sight.
Having your smartphone nearby, even if it’s silent, compromises your ability to concentrate. (6)
Additionally, shut off notifications, uninstall apps you find addictive, and enable grayscale mode (like the screen on the right in the image below).
One of the greatest distractions is one you inflict on yourself — multitasking.
You may think that multitasking makes you more efficient and productive, but it doesn’t.
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When you multitask, your brain must quickly toggle back and forth between tasks wasting up to 40% of your productive time. (7)
And alarmingly, it takes 23 minutes to fully regain your focus after you’ve switched tasks. (8)
Let’s face it, some tasks are just boring.
When you’re bored, your ability to concentrate flies out the window.
Here are some tips to help boost your concentration when you’re just not that into the task at hand.
Chew gum, pop a mint
Yes, chewing gum actually increases your ability to concentrate.
Gum augments the flow of oxygen to regions of the brain responsible for attention. (9)
Eating mints has a similar effect as chewing gum. Why?
Just a whiff of peppermint improves concentration, memory, and attention span. (10)
One study found that peppermint worked by increasing beta waves, the brainwave state associated with concentration. (11)
Rosemary essential oil
Ancient Greek scholars wore wreaths of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) to sharpen their minds.
They may have been on to something.
Science has confirmed that sniffing rosemary essential oil can significantly improve your ability to concentrate, right on the spot. (12)
Do things with your hands
Take pen to paper and doodle.
It will help you concentrate, grasp new concepts, and retain information. (13)
You can also try playing with a fidget toy or stress ball.
They really can help you stay mentally alert. (14)
Breathe Deeply As You Work
Your brain needs oxygen.
Brain cells can live only a few minutes without it.
Yet, counterproductively, many people hold their breath while concentrating.
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It’s estimated that 80% of us forget to breathe when reading our emails or using our electronics. (15)
This habit is known as “email apnea” and it can destroy your concentration and put your brain in a fog.
The antidote is to practice breathing deeply from your diaphragm, not from your chest.
Train Your Brain to Concentrate
Pomodoro is Italian for “tomato.”
It’s also the name of our favorite concentration and productivity hack.
The “Pomodoro Technique” was developed by an Italian graduate student as a study aid.
It works like this.
The Pomodoro Concentration Technique
Pick a task you want to concentrate on, one that needs your undivided attention.
Remove obvious distractions and get comfortable.
Tell those around you not to disturb you unless the building is on fire!
Set a timer for 25 minutes, then give the task at hand your all.
If your mind wanders, snap yourself back to attention.
Remind yourself that you need to keep up this level of concentration for only a few more minutes.
When the 25 minutes is done, take a 5-minute break.
(We’ll tell you the best ways to recharge next.)
When you’re ready, you can do another “pomodoro,” a block of 25 minutes of intense concentration.
You’ll be surprised at how effectively this improves concentration and how much you’ll get done.
You can use a real kitchen timer or a virtual one.
TomatoTimer.com has a desktop version that’s easy to use.
With each pomodoro, you are doing more than just spending 25 minutes in a state of highly productive focus.
You are actually training your brain to block out distractions and concentrate intensely for extended periods of time.
Recharge Your Brain
Your brain is truly a marvel, but it isn’t a machine.
You can’t sustain maximum concentration level all day.
It’s critical that you take breaks to recharge throughout the day, such as after each pomodoro.
Take a walk
You can recharge by taking a walk.
Walking is not only one of the best all-around exercises, it clears your mind and helps you think better. (16)
Do some yoga
Perform a yoga pose.
Even one session of yoga can significantly improve concentration. (17)
The top yoga poses for better concentration include the plow, the camel, the cobra, the tree, and the corpse pose.
Drink water, coffee, or tea
Get a drink of water.
Even mild dehydration results in shrinkage of brain tissue and temporary loss of concentration and memory. (18)
Have a cup of coffee or tea.
A little caffeine can improve concentration, alertness, and productivity. (19)
But respect caffeine for what it is, a psychoactive drug, and use it judiciously.
Caffeine can ruin your sleep and is surprisingly detrimental for anyone with anxiety.
Take a nap
Sleep expert Dr. Sara Mednick is well aware that motivation and productivity dwindle as the day progresses.
But even she was surprised to find that the best technique for staying productive all afternoon and into the early evening is to take a 20-minute power nap.
It works even better than caffeine!
Know when to stop
An important part of recharging is knowing when to say “no” to more hours and more work.
Technology allows us to easily work around the clock, and so most of us do.
Yet most of us are capable of only four hours of intense concentration per day. (20)
If you can work fewer hours, do it.
And finally, don’t worry when you can’t find a 5 or 20-minute break.
Even a mini-break as short as 30 seconds can help you regain your focus. (21)
Optimize Brain Health and Fitness for Better Concentration
If you want laser-beam focus, it’s essential that you treat your brain like the incredible thinking machine that it is.
Too much work and stress, too little sleep and exercise, and poor nutrition sabotage your brain’s ability to concentrate and think clearly.
You can’t concentrate with a tired, stressed, and frazzled brain.
We cover these topics in-depth elsewhere on our site, but here’s a quick summary of how a healthy lifestyle can enhance your ability to concentrate.
Nourish Your Brain with Real Food
Your brain needs a disproportionate amount of energy and nutrients.
What you eat significantly changes how well your brain performs its many functions, including focus.
For optimal focus, you can’t go wrong trading in the standard American diet (SAD) for a Mediterranean diet, one based on unprocessed foods.
The Mediterranean diet is widely agreed to be the healthiest way of eating.
Do you have low energy, focus, motivation, and libido?
Do you rely on pick-me-ups like caffeine, sugar, chocolate, or other stimulants to get through the day?
If so, you may be low in the neurotransmitter dopamine.
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A protein-rich diet is an excellent source of tyrosine, the amino acid precursor needed to create dopamine.
Besides all animal products, foods that promote dopamine formation include avocados, apples, bananas, beets, sea vegetables, green leafy vegetables, oatmeal, chocolate, green tea, and coffee. (22)
Physical exercise, meditation, and setting and achieving small goals also increase dopamine.
Increase Concentration with Meditation
If you’ve ever been under the gun to get an assignment done on time, you may have found that stress, leading to a burst of adrenaline, can help you concentrate for short periods of time. (23)
But relying on this rush to get work done is damaging to your brain over the long haul.
A proven technique to reduce stress and improve concentration is meditation.
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Over 1,000 studies have been published demonstrating the health benefits of meditation. (24)
Regular meditators experience better focus, memory, creativity, and sleep.
Over 20 million Americans meditate regularly, including corporate executives at Google, Apple, Nike, HBO, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Target, and Aetna Insurance who use it to maximize their brain power.
Get High-Quality Sleep
If you don’t get enough high-quality sleep, you’ll have a hard time concentrating (or even staying awake!)
Lack of sleep is as bad for mental performance as being drunk. (25)
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This is because there’s a lot going on in your brain while you sleep besides dreaming.
Extensive research confirms that 7 to 9 hours is still the ideal amount of sleep. (28)
How Your Health Affects Your Ability to Concentrate
Mood disorders, dementia, and, of course, attention disorders can affect your ability to concentrate.
Health conditions known to impair focus include fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, lupus, substance abuse, cancer, and epilepsy. (29)
Also, numerous widely-used prescription drugs negatively impact your ability to concentrate.
Hearing problems and vision problems can affect concentration, especially in older folks.
If you suspect that an undiagnosed condition or a medication you take is affecting your concentration, talk to your doctor.
Sometimes the answer can be as simple as switching medications or getting a new pair of glasses.
How to Concentrate: Take the Next Step
The ability to concentrate is a valuable skill you need to succeed in school, career, and life.
You can improve your ability to concentrate right now using proven focus-boosting techniques and by avoiding distractions.
You can also strengthen your concentration by adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle that protects, rather than harms, your brain.