4 Science-Backed Ways to Improve Your Focus

Laura Izquierdo

Joshua Rawson / Unsplash

It turns out that all the things that you’re avoiding; all the things that make you feel like you’re being unproductive, could actually improve your focus.

The reason you haven’t realized before is that struggling to focus is like running in a hamster wheel. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle: the more you struggle, the harder you try to focus; the harder you try to focus, the more you struggle.

Think about it. You’re sitting in front of your work, trying to make sense of things, but your mind keeps wandering. It feels like there’s an annoying grey haze clouding your vision, and no matter how hard you focus your eyes, you can’t get any closer to the work.

The more time goes by, the more frustrated you become. You’ve achieved nothing and you’ve wasted your time. You become even more demoralized, anxious, and it becomes even harder to focus. But you keep trying; you keep struggling, and you keep wasting time.

This cycle continues until you realize it’s time to call ‘time of death’ on today. You go to bed feeling disappointed and annoyed.

Now I won’t pretend I have all the answers. This merry-go-round of unproductivity is one that I’ve ridden countless times. I’ve been there; I know how frustrating it is to try and keep trying, to no avail.

I’ve followed other people’s advice in attempts to improve my focus; I’ve tried to find the fun in what I do’, ‘stay away from social media’, and ‘de-clutter my ‘work-station’’ (side note — why did ‘work station’ catch on?).

Some of these things helped a little because they minimize external distractions, but what about all the internal distractions — my thoughts?

I realized something. If struggling to focus is a self-perpetuating cycle, like a snowball that only grows and grows the more you roll it, maybe the point is to stop. Maybe we need to get off the ride, stop doing what we’re doing, and do something else altogether.

So I did a little research. And it turns out, that there are 4 counter-intuitive things that can improve your focus. They’re the things you’re trying to avoid; the things you thought were a waste of time. Here’s what you can do:

1. Zone Out

There are two recurring themes whenever I lose my focus. I’m either stressed, or I’m demotivated. In both instances, I’m thinking about something else. I’m either thinking about my worries, or about the things I’d rather be doing. Essentially, I’m day-dreaming; I’m not present, and I can’t focus.

From the moment you’re a child in school, you’re told to avoid this; to stop your mind from wandering. You may have even been criticized for ‘having your head in the clouds’. But it turns out that allowing your mind to wander may be one of the best things you can do to improve your focus.

We spend almost 50% of the time daydreaming, and this has led some psychologists to believe that it might not be a biological glitch after all. There could be a good reason. There’s a growing realization among psychologists that it may actually be helping our brain function.

The frontal cortex region of your brain helps you resist distractions and controls your natural impulse to do something more fun. It forms part of a network of brain regions that together help you stay focused.

But powering this network requires more energy than powering those regions that are active when your mind wanders. It’s when the ‘focus network’ runs out of steam that you begin to daydream, to give the drained regions a chance to refuel.

How to apply it productively

Daydreaming is natural and necessary. It’s going to happen anyway, so why not schedule it at a convenient time?

Psychologist at Harvard University, Paul Seli, explains the difference between deliberate and accidental mind wandering. Only the former is bad for getting things done. He recommends scheduling your daydreams during periods when you’re doing mindless tasks, such as admin. Because:

“If the task is easy, intentionally mind wandering will likely not result in performance costs, but it should afford people the opportunity to reap the benefits of mind wandering, such as problem-solving and planning,” — Paul Seli.

Rather than feel guilty and attempt to stop your mind from wandering, plan this vital ingredient for better focus into your day. Letting your mind take a break now and again will reap benefits.

2. Do Something Fun

According to a recent study, a great way to replenish your energy levels and motivation is to have a good laugh.

The experiment consisted of two groups of people trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The control group was first shown a relaxing, but not particularly funny video. The other group of people was shown a funny video, and it was they who tried significantly longer and harder to solve the puzzle.

How to apply it productively

The scientists went as far as suggesting that workplaces should encourage a more playful culture, concluding that humor is a highly effective way to energize people.

According to Leadership Researcher at the Australia National University in Canberra, David Cheng

“Creating a culture of fun in your team — where you deliberately find something funny to laugh at, like a funny email or YouTube video would be one way of helping you to boost your work productivity”

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to teams. If you’re working from home, or you’re self-employed for example, try watching a short episode of your favorite TV show, or listening to a funny podcast during your lunch break.

My recommendations for short-episode series are — New Girl, Modern Family, and The Good Place. If you’re looking for a longer form of entertainment that’s both funny and insightful, my personal favorite is Dax Shepard’s ‘Armchair Expert’ Podcast.

3. Welcome Distractions

Our efforts to clear our ‘work-stations’ from distractions may have been in vain. Nilli Lavie, a psychologist at University College London, coined this idea ‘Load Theory’. She suggests that there’s a limit to how much external information your brain can process, and it’s when faced with an overwhelm of external stimuli that the brain’s attention system kicks in to decide what to focus on.

Essentially, introducing an external distraction makes your brain work harder to ignore it, by focusing on the task at hand.

How to apply it productively

The difficulty with this is that finding the right level of ‘overwhelm’ is going to be a personal case of trial and error. How much stimuli works for you is a question that only you can answer.

I personally like to listen to relaxing classical music with no lyrics if I’m trying to focus. The great Stephen King however liked to write to hard-rock music lice AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses, and Metallica.

“For me, the music is just another way of shutting the door. It surrounds me, keeps the mundane world out. When you write, you want to get rid of the world…when you’re writing, you’re creating your own world.” — Stephen King, On Writing

There’s no real trick, you just need to find your own balance. If you’re struggling to focus, introducing some music or another external stimulus could help make your brain work harder to ignore it and focus on the task at hand. But don’t take it so far that you can’t hear yourself think.

4. Stop Working

This is probably the last thing on your mind. You probably have a deadline, or you’ve set yourself a deadline, so stopping is out of the question — especially when you’ve lost so much time already!

But there’s evidence to suggest that less is more. Taking a break can actually help you get more done.

Some studies have found that there are natural variations in our cycles of alertness; that we can only concentrate for 90 minutes before needing a 15-minute break. Others have found that even taking a few seconds will work, so long as you find a way to truly distract yourself completely.

Plus, Joseph De Gutis and Michael Esterman at the Boston Attention and Learning Lab have found that people who try to be ‘on’ all the time make more mistakes overall.

How to apply it productively

I know — this is easier said than done; taking a break isn’t as easy as it sounds. You might feel guilty for taking a break. Maybe you think you won’t get anywhere by going easy on yourself because there’s more you could be doing; you’re wasting your potential!


Just stop.

Beating yourself up and gluing yourself to your chair until you complete your task isn’t going to make the process any quicker, or make your work any better. Do yourself a favor, and take a break.

Again, you can get creative with this one; find anything to distract yourself. Exercise is a good thing to do during a break, as it’s a great way to re-energize the brain. According to one study, this is particularly true if you follow it up with a caffeinated drink.

Another great option is meditation. It’s a great way to practice mindfulness, stay present and studies have shown that people who meditate regularly have better control over their attention and a better intuition on when it’s time to take a break.

Final Comments

It’s strange because these 4 things seem pretty easy to do. But they’re actually quite hard to apply. It’s easier to lie to yourself and listen to the voice inside your head that’s telling you to keep working until you finish.

You assume that being hard on yourself means you’re doing the right thing. Because you convince yourself that you’re not doing what you want to do, you’re doing what you should do.

But are you?

Apparently not.

It can be hard to let go; to let your mind wander, to have a laugh, take a break, and just stop working. But if you’re struggling to focus, your brain is trying to tell you something. Listen, and try these 4 things –

1. Zone out;

2. Do something fun;

3. Welcome distractions;

4. Stop working.

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Content Creator, Storyteller & Co-host of the Thoughts from Limbo Podcast. Sharing stories designed to help you navigate the messiness of life. Join the conversation: https://thoughtsfromlimbo.buzzsprout.com/

New York City, NY

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