Science-backed Strategies to Improve Concentration and Focus
Read Time: 9 minutes, 30 seconds
Focus and concentration may seem to be a simple matter of paying attention, but it actually requires specific abilities, environments, and habits that engage parts of brain dedicated to establishing and keeping focus. In addition, if concentration and focus go on too long or involve too few areas of interest, performance suffers along with the ability to make creative connections. The following science-backed strategies will help you and your team improve concentration and focus while avoiding the pitfalls.
The Basic Requirements for Concentration and Focus
Concentration and focus are rooted in a person’s ability to:
- Prioritize where they aim their concentration and focus (executive function)
- Get used to and ignore the distractions around them (habituation)
- Decrease self-awareness, allowing them to be in the moment and relax
- Take regular breaks in line with their body’s natural rhythms; trying to concentrate for more than an hour or two is futile.
A constant inflow of distractions reduces executive functioning and habituation. One study found that merely knowing emails and phone calls were pending disturbed concentration and reduced IQ by 10 points. Various other studies have found that only 1% of employees are able to habituate themselves to ringing, unanswered phones and people talking in the background. That inability to concentrate in a noisy office environment is one reason why open-plan offices have been abandoned at an accelerated rate.
If you want yourself and your team to concentrate and focus, then you have to:
- Give individuals some control over their own environment.
- Decrease the number of interruptions you are all subjected to
- Build-in time for breaks when needed.
Otherwise, stress and burnout will increase as each of your struggles to ignore work distractions and your own distress, and try to plow on.
The Reasons for Loss of Concentration
According to neuroscientists, the brain has many different centers for cognitive and emotional responses. When a person is not focusing and concentrating on an outside task, the default network takes over. This network governs autobiographical memory of the past, envisioning for the future, the ability to see another person’s perspective, and moral decision making.
Thus, if a person is stressed by a memory, by concerns for the future, or by a difficult decision, concentrating on an outside task becomes harder. Without SMaRT strategies for recognizing and overcoming the source of stress, anger, or recurring negative thoughts, the individual finds that deadlines are missed, prioritization and risk are miscalculated, and problem-solving skills deteriorate.
However, an outside task may also serve as a welcome distraction to distressful thoughts, leading many people to plunge into work, and work-related activities to avoid the true problem at least temporarily. The result is often an increase in stress and unhealthy habits, like lack of sleep, nutrition, and exercise, as the person becomes, in a sense, addicted to the distracting behavior. That immersion in work may seem like a wonderful benefit to the company but once again it eventually leads to deterioration of performance and skills.
Another discovery by neuroscientists is that the brain has a very inefficient “turn off” mechanism, which is why it is so difficult to stop thinking about or doing something once we start. As one example, if you allow yourself to check your phone or email messages every few minutes, you are primed to answer those messages—you aren’t going to stop at merely checking—and there goes your concentration and focus on whatever you were doing previously.
For the sake of your own concentration and the team’s, you need to take a leadership role in:
- Being alert for team members who consistently overwork, are always distracted, or seem to spend most of their time in nonwork-related activities. These actions could all be signs of stress and burnout and a lack of SMaRT coping skills.
- Model positive habit formation. The more you develop the habit of avoiding or not allowing interruptions (either internal or external), the more you will be able to concentrate and focus.
- Stay organized. Make sure you yourself are not a cause of stress and distraction. Practice good planning and avoid the distraction of time bandits.
TIP: Most people have better concentration and focus in the morning; find your prime time for thinking and commit to it.
The Effect of Concentration on Creativity
According to David Rock, the founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute:
“Attention continually reshapes the patterns of the brain. Among the implications: People who practice a specialty every day literally think differently, through different sets of connections, than do people who don’t practice the specialty. In business, professionals in different functions — finance, operations, legal, research and development, marketing, design, and human resources — have physiological differences that prevent them from seeing the world the same way.”
Concentrating on your own specialty may prohibit you from seeing connections and avenues of action that are obvious to someone in another specialty. Here are four science-based strategies to increase your creativity even as you concentrate and focus:
- Pay attention to how you learn. Some learn from books, others from doing, and still others by watching everyone else. Acquiring information through your own learning style, whatever it is, allows you to focus and concentrate on the content instead of the method.
- Widen your group. Among the many reasons why diversity, group decision making, and group problem solving are lauded is that they all enable the contribution of different perspectives. If you call a meeting and allow no one to speak but yourself, you are trampling over the main benefit of a meeting.
- Try something new. Every new experience you focus on gives you a new set of data to dip into to make connections and achieve insights.
- Take a few (calculated) risks. Consider how, during the coronavirus, old drugs were used in brand new ways to treat a new enemy. The attitude that prevails in those circumstances is “it just might work.”
TIP: You need to change your focus occasionally to open yourself up to new ideas, perspectives, and actions. Otherswise, you will keep applying the exact same knowledge, skills, and abilities to every situation – as futile and stressful as expecting one key to open every lock in the universe.
Eight Science-based Strategies to Increase Concentration and Focus
- Prioritize: Figure out your most important goal and aim for it.
- Analyze: If you have trouble concentrating, why? What is distracting you?
- Work in comfort: Physical discomfort is as distracting as mental discomfort; set up your resources (from a cup of coffee to a working pen) before you begin.
- Eliminate: Build your daily schedule down to the 2 or 3 most important items that you must accomplish that day.
- Keep it doable. Break down large items/goals into smaller tasks that can be accomplished quickly, rather than trying for a one-day marathon; small accomplishments along with way will bring your goal closer and make it easier for you to concentrate on the next step.
- Open up: Make sure you have time between tasks (at about 1 to 2 hour intervals) to walk away from your desk, relax, and refresh.
- Let technology help: Wearing headphones (either to cancel noise or listen to instrumental music) enables you to cancel out distractions; turning off your computer and phone (except for one or two given times in the day) eliminates constant interruptions.
- Don’t multitask. Trying to handle more than one task at a time means you’ll fail to focus on both of them.
People concentrate and focus best when they are physically and mentally comfortable, able to ignore or stop distractions, know their goals, and have some control over their environment. A workplace that prevents people from concentrating is a stressful workplace. As a leader, you have a responsibility to make sure your team has the best possible environment for their individual concentration; that no one is working hard to escape from or avoid problems; and that you model good habits and organized approaches to work.