Learn How to Concentrate: It’s A Skill You Can Master

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Better concentration makes work more productive and life easier, and anyone can boost their focus. Use these simple but practical tips and techniques.

It’s been said that the greatest power of the human brain is its ability to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time.

By focusing sunlight through a magnifying glass, you know how simple light can start a fire.

Imagine what you could achieve if you could concentrate your brain power and laser-focus it on whatever you want to accomplish.

Perform better at work, ace your exams, increase reading comprehension, or simply make everyday life easier … all this is possible if you have the capacity to really concentrate.

Fortunately, learning how to do this is a skill that anyone can master.

How to Master Concentration Right Now

To concentrate more effectively right now, here are some key 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 unsure of 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.

There’s a biological reason why breaking any large project into small chunks can help keep you motivated.

Each time you complete a task, even a small one, you get a spurt 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.

Declutter

Working in an organized environment can make you more focused and productive.

" Multitasking requires your brain to quickly toggle back and forth between tasks, wasting up to 40% of your productive time.

Clear your work area of clutter.

Brain scans show conclusively that clutter affects your ability to concentrate and process information. (1)

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.

It should be music that you enjoy, have personally chosen, and should be instrumental to avoid distracting lyrics. (2, 3)

You can find music curated or created specifically to help you concentrate.

The music streaming service Spotify has a category of playlists called “Focus,” compiled to help improve concentration and focus.

The 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 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 harder 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 work that requires concentrating.

While everyone is different, most adults do their best thinking in the late morning when concentration and alertness reach their peak.

Then from noon until about 4 pm, most people become more easily distracted once again. (4)

Eliminate Distractions

Paying attention to one thing at a time may seem like obvious advice for increasing focus, yet few people actually do this.

It’s not easy to concentrate when social media, emails, texts, and thousands of ads per day compete for your attention. (5)

Put Your Electronics Away

If your electronic devices are ruining your ability to concentrate, take back control.

Shut off notifications, uninstall apps you find addictive, and enable grayscale mode (like the screen on the right in the image below).

side-by-side comparison of color vs grayscale smartphone screens
Color vs grayscale smartphone screens. (Image courtesy of OSXDaily.com)

There are also numerous apps that block distractions such as Cold TurkeyFreedom, and SelfControl.

But the easiest step you can take when you want to concentrate is to simply put your phone out of sight.

Having your smartphone nearby, even if it’s silent, compromises your ability to concentrate. (6)

Stop Multitasking

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.

Multitasking requires your brain to quickly toggle back and forth between tasks, wasting up to 40% of your productive time. (7)

Astoundingly, it takes 23 minutes to fully regain your focus after you’ve switched tasks. (8)

Overcome Boredom

Let’s face it, some tasks are just boring.

And when you’re bored, your ability to concentrate takes a nosedive.

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.

Chewing gum augments the flow of oxygen to regions of the brain responsible for attention. (9)

Eating mints has an effect similar to chewing gum since just a whiff of peppermint improves concentration, memory, and attention span. (10, 11)

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Use 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 and retain information, and put a stop to daydreaming. (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.

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.

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Train Your Brain to Concentrate

Pomodoro is the Italian word 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.

tomato-shaped timer
Pomodoro technique timer.

If your mind wanders, snap yourself back to the task at hand.

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 an online 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.

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Recharge Your Brain

Your brain is truly a marvel, but it isn’t a machine.

You can’t sustain maximum concentration all day.

It’s critical that you take breaks to recharge throughout the day, such as after each pomodoro.

Take a Walk

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 Sara Mednick, PhD 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.

She found that it worked 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 many 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 squeeze in 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-like 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.

We cover these topics in-depth elsewhere on our site, but here’s a quick summary of healthy lifestyle measures that can enhance your ability to concentrate.

Nourish Your Brain With Real Food

Compared to the rest of your body, 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 the Mediterranean diet, one based on unprocessed foods.

The Mediterranean diet is widely agreed to be the healthiest eating plan for most people.

Optimize Your Dopamine Level

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.

A protein-rich diet is an excellent source of tyrosine, the amino acid precursor of dopamine.

In addition to 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 and its subsequent surge of adrenaline can help you concentrate better for short periods of time. (23)

But relying on this rush to get work done is damaging to your brain and mental well-being over the long term.

A proven technique to reduce stress and improve concentration is meditation.

Over 1,000 published studies have demonstrated 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, and Target.

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)

This is because there’s a lot going on in your brain while you sleep.

During sleep, your brain is busy repairing itself and consolidating memories. (2627)

Extensive research has confirmed that 7 to 9 hours is still the ideal amount of sleep. (28)

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 well is a valuable skill for succeeding in school, career, and life.

You can improve your capacity 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.

READ NEXT: Can’t Focus? 12 Reasons Why and the Ways to Fix It