Do you ever have those days where you feel you’ve been busy-busy-busy but don’t seem to have achieved what you set out to do that morning?
Everything seems to be a distraction today, from the ding of a new email, the phone ringing, social media notifications on your mobile, the brilliant new song that’s stuck in your head, or a hankering for a biscuit and a nice cup of tea.
Firstly, let’s just establish that being distracted - especially online - isn’t your fault! Obscene amounts of money is spent on digital marketing and it's all built to distract you with things that are interesting to you – so that you take action to click the things or sign up to the things, or buy the things! We are all guilty of going down the rabbit hole and ending up somewhere weird and wonderful when we only meant to quickly check our Instagram feed.
So, how can you stay focused when it’s important? If you’re studying for an exam, working on a big project or trying to get through your daily workload without distractions, try these tips to help improve your concentration and see how many more items you can tick of your To Do list…
1. Stand while you work or study
There are a few ways of doing this, build yourself a standing desk (there are plenty of Pinterest boards on how to do this on a shoestring), or invest in an adjustable sit-stand desk. They aren’t too expensive and once you start using one you’ll never look back!
Always use an active anti-fatigue mat together with your new standing
desk, it’ll help you stand for longer and minimise any discomfort you might feel from standing more often than usual. AFS-TEX Active Anti Fatigue mats also encourage micro-movements for additional blood-flow benefits and fatigue relief – so you can work for longer time periods.
"We think better on our feet, literally” (i) says Mark Benden, PhD, CPE, associate professor at the Texas A&M University research team which completed a scientific study on the effects of introducing standing desks in the classroom. The study found that students using standing desks were more attentive than their seated peers, and that disruptive behaviour reduced while students’ attention increased.
2. Listen to alpha waves, ambient noise or Mozart
While the evidence around the benefits of listening to music or ambient sounds for concentration tends to be anecdotal rather than scientifically proven, it is useful to listen to music in the background when concentrating if you can’t achieve silence in your workplace, or if you don’t like to work in silence.
Listening to certain types of music may activate attention centres in the brain, say researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine. But are some types of music or sound better than others?
While there’s no concrete scientific evidence as to the effects of these particular types of music have on concentration, they do have one thing in common – no words.
Listening to music without words is better for concentration if you’re working on something that involves reading or writing. Words which are sung or spoken activate language centres in the brain, which may interfere with your concentration during these tasks. (ii)
Take occasional ‘silence breaks’ for a minute every hour to ensure that you’re getting the most from your background music.
3. Drink plenty of water
Staying hydrated is so important for both physical and mental performance, including concentration.
As your body is made up mostly of water - the brain itself being composed of around 73% water - it goes without saying that even very small incidences of dehydration is likely to have a detrimental effect on your brain’s its ability to function at its best. (iii)
NHS advice is to drink around 6-8 glasses of water a day (iv). This equates to around 2 litres – which may sound a lot - but try it and take note of how you feel and how your concentration is affected with more or less water.
4. Use a fidget toy
The adult attention span is around 20 minutes, (one of the reasons TED talks are 18 minutes long), though we tend to break this up and keep our attention by making small movements – like shifting position, chewing a pen, tapping our fingers.
This need to fidget, although it’s often assumed is a distraction that stops us listening (which is why we’re told as children not to do it) is thought to actually help us to concentrate, listen and process what we’re being told.
Fidgeting and movement has been found to be really beneficial in children with ADHD to help increase their awareness, the theory is that children with ADHD appear to produce less dopamine – the neurotransmitter which helps us focus and keeps us motivated – and fidgeting with a tactile object helps increase the body’s dopamine levels in these individuals, as well as helping to channel their nervous energy. (v)
It could be that a sensory or fidget toy could help increase the levels of dopamine in children and adults without ADHD, so that similar effects on concentration are felt, so that we too might curb our propensity for distraction and instead focus for longer on the task in hand.
5. Take a walk
One of the greatest minds of all time, Aristotle, is said to have regularly engaged his students in walking lectures and the term ‘peripatetic’ - used to describe his followers - is derived from Ancient Greek, meaning ‘given to walking about”.
As well as having a really positive effect on your creativity (vii), a Danish study (viii) found that children who walked to school had much better concentration - even hours later - than those who were driven to school.
So take a leaf out these kids’ books and take regular walks - if you can walk into work or school then do so, if not then take a regular walking break or a lunchtime stroll.
6. Get plenty of sleep
It comes as no surprise that not getting enough sleep will impair abilities in your mental and physical functions, we’ve all struggled to concentrate the day after a late night, or a bad nights’ sleep and that 3 o’clock slump can really drag you down in the afternoon.
During the hours you’re asleep, your brain will form connections to help process the things you have learnt during the day, and will help you remember new information. After a few sleepless nights, your mental abilities to concentrate and make decisions are impaired, leading to increased risk of accidents and injury (ix). Not getting enough sleep can also negatively affect short-term and long-term memory. Prolonged lack of sleep can also affect your overall health.
It is important to remember that sleep is not a luxury, it’s a necessity! Adults should aim to get eight hours sleep per night, but how often do we actually achieve that?It may be worth making a real effort to sleep for the recommended amount and noting its effect on your ability to concentrate - you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised.
7. Work near natural light
There is a strong correlation between workplace daylight and office
workers’ productivity, sleep and even quality of life. (x). The ‘colour temperature’ of the light can also have an effect on how much we focus and work (xi) and a cold light is said to reduce fatigue and increase productivity.
Light is responsible for regulating the body’s circadian rhythm, which affects our sleeping and waking patterns, eating habits and other bodily functions.
So if you want to get the most out of your time at work, try to get the desk by the window!
8. If you need glasses, wear them
If you’re finding it hard to concentrate on your screen or books for long periods of time, eye strain may be playing a part. If you have a prescription for glasses, wear them so that you’re not having to work harder to focus on the information in front of you.
If you don’t wear glasses but you have symptoms such as frequent headaches, blurred vision, double vision, dry eyes, tired eyes or you’re constantly squinting or blinking at things to bring them into focus, book an appointment at your local opticians to see if you might need glasses.If you’re not having to concentrate to see things properly then you’ll have more capacity to work better.
9. Time your distractions
It is so easy to get distracted by modern life – everything from your emails pinging to your phone notifications can have a real impact on your ability to concentrate.
Set yourself times to check and action your distractions. You’ll need to take note of when you’re distracted, what distracts you, and for how long - then work out a plan of how to minimise the impact of these. Try turning off notifications if you can’t bear to turn off your phone, switch your phone and computer to silent and set yourself an alarm to let you know when and how long you can deal with your distractions, so that you’re self-monitoring.
Try checking your emails once in the morning and once after lunch to see how it impacts your day. Turn off instant messaging in the office and lock your mobile phone in a desk drawer until a set time. Or leave it in your car for the working day, it’ll feel weirdly 90's at first, but you’ll feel liberated and better able to concentrate in the long term!
10. Don’t skip lunch
Your Nan was right: you can’t work well on an empty stomach! Though not all food is created equal, so it’s important to choose healthy, nutrient-dense foods - which release energy steadily and slowly - to keep your concentration levels high.
While there’s no one ‘brain food’ that will single-handedly improve your mental function, the different components of a healthy, balanced diet all working together can help you to focus, concentrate and retain what you learn.
So, how about your put your phone away, and try all - or some - of these suggestions and monitor how your concentration improves?
References and further reading:
(i) Texas A&M University. "We think better on our feet, literally." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150424121118.htm (accessed April 26, 2018).
(ii) Psychology Today Article: 'Music and Productivity: 5 Ideas for Using Music To Boost Performance'.
(iii) NHS Choices Article: 'Water, Drinks and Your Health' https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/water-drinks.aspx
(iv) National Library of Medicine, 'Hydration and cognition: a critical review'
(v) Health Guidance Article: 'How fidgeting helps us to concentrate' http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/17808/1/How-Fidgeting-Helps-Us-to-Concentrate.html
(vi) Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 'Hyperactivity in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Impairing Deficit or Compensatory Behavior?'
(vii) Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, Stanford University
'Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking'
(viii) Eltis Article: 'Walking or cycling to school can improve children’s concentration (Denmark)'
(ix) NHS Choices Article: 'Why lack of sleep is bad for your health'
(x) Lighting and Productivity Article: https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?q=lighting+and+productivity&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjE9KrB4uHaAhXjmuAKHVOkA0UQgQMIJjAA
(xi) MCA@UNC Article: 'How Lighting Affects the Productivity of Your Workers'