Can’t Focus? Here’s How to Retrain Your Brain

If you’re having a hard time concentrating lately, these tips will help corral your attention.

By Caitlin Kilgore
Guy sitting at desk with hands on his head

As the coronavirus pandemic drags on... and on, many people are finding it harder to concentrate. Disrupted schedules, working from home, educating kids (when you're not a trained educator) and other demands on attention and energy are contributing to this inability to focus. 

It was hard enough before the world was turned upside down. After all, “human attention is the ultimate scarce resource,” Angela Duckworth wrote in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Nowadays, it makes sense that we need to institute new strategies for strengthening our attention spans.

Read on for why you’re feeling mentally fragmented, plus expert-backed tips for improving your focus.

What’s Happening in Your Brain

As the command center of the entire human body, the brain is in a perpetual state of disorder, constantly sending and receiving signals between neurons. 

“In a cubic centimeter of brain tissue there are as many connections as stars in the Milky Way Galaxy,” explains neuroscientist and author David Eagleman in his PBS series The Brain. All of those connections are constantly firing and reconfiguring their circuitry as we walk, talk, think and sift through the many things competing for our attention. And as our brains develop, we get better at managing the chaos in order to concentrate and adapt to change.

However, our brains are, unfortunately, primed to be more attuned to the bad stuff. "Our sensory mechanisms have developed different 'signaling' systems to separate out what is considered to be relevant versus irrelevant information," says Teodora Pavkovic, psychologist, parenting coach and digital wellness consultant.

One of these ingrained systems: the negativity bias. It attunes us to any potentially negative or dangerous information and activates our fight-or-flight response, which helps us decide whether we should take the potential threat head-on or run for the hills, explains Pavkovic. 

Chronic stress makes it exceptionally hard to not only focus on new information, but to retain any of it as well.

"Chemically speaking, our brain uses a cocktail of neurochemicals — dopamine shifts our focus depending on prior experiences, acetylcholine narrows our attentional field and norepinephrine promotes wakefulness — to help us pay attention to what matters, shift our attentions when it stops mattering and ignore what doesn't matter in the first place," says Pavkovic. 

If thinking about thinking sends your head spinning, take a step back. Our ability to focus not only hinges on our biology but also on our mental and emotional well-being. "Chronic stress, worry and uncertainty make it exceptionally hard to not only focus on new information, but to retain any of it as well," says Pavkovic.

Wondering why is it seems more difficult to concentrate right now? Unsurprisingly, the ongoing pandemic has a lot to do with it.

Pandemic-Related "Monkey Mind" is Real

In our day-to-day life pre-pandemic — running errands, going to work, meeting up with friends — we were laying down location-based memories along the way, which helps us as we remember all the things we need to (tasks to do, conversations we had, etc.), as Eagleman explains in this podcast

People who have been working from home, confined to the same four walls, aren't getting enough differentiation physically for their minds to create new memories that are distinguishable from one another. So, everything starts to blur together, says Eagleman. 

Sound like you? Don't fret: “It turns out that the most important thing you can do for your brain is to challenge it and kick it off the path of least resistance,” says Eagleman. Well, 2020 certainly provided that kick — and then some. “We’re off our hamster wheels and we have to rethink everything,” says Eagleman, adding, “That’s really good for the brain overall.” But since your noggin needs a little extra help, check out the suggestions below.

Tips to Fuel Your Focus

Your ability to focus is like a muscle — the more it's exercised, the stronger it becomes. And don’t worry, there are no HIIT-style workouts required. Instead, try these simple ways to help boost your concentration.

1

Meditate

If the ailment is a distracted mind, the remedy is to hone your ability to focus, says Cheri Flake, LCSW, a.k.a. The Stress Therapist. Her recommendation: Meditation for concentration. 

Our minds often wander in order to escape discomfort, anxiety, overwhelm, stress or loneliness — emotions that are surging right now. But meditating actually trains your brain not only to acknowledge your feelings, but let go of distractions while improving your working memory. And, meditating comes in many forms — mantra-based practices, deep-breathing exercises and mindful movement such as Qi Gong all count!

RELATED: 6 Science-Backed Reasons to Start Meditating Today

2

Remove distractions

It may be obvious, but it bears repeating: Distractions derail focus. Pavkovic recommends simply getting rid of things that distract you and setting boundaries with things you can't avoid: "The smaller the number of attention predators, the smaller the number that you have to deal with in the first place." Easier said than done, of course. 

Even if it's difficult, switching off all notifications (visual and sound) and removing social media apps (the biggest source of distraction according to a recent survey) from your phone can help curb tempting distractions, says Pavkovic. 

Dealing with kids at home who love to interrupt your work ? Here's a helpful tip Nir Eyal, author of the book Indistractabletold The New York Times: When working from home, he wears a crazy hat (called his “concentration crown”) so that when his daughter sees him wearing it, she knows he’s working and not to distract him. 

RELATED: Outsmart Your Smartphone: 4 Ways to Curb Digital Distraction

3

Use technology to help, not hinder

While our phones are often the source of distraction, they can also provide the help we need to get work done. Set a timer with the app Forest by planting a tree. As you work, the tree grows, but if you pick up your phone before the end of the timer, the tree dies. One incentive (beyond getting your work done) is that the app company plants actual trees through the organization Trees for the Future.

Or try the app Freedom, which boosts productivity by blocking websites from your computer and smartphone for a designated time frame.

RELATED: Outsmart Your Smartphone: 4 Ways to Curb Digital Distraction

4

Schedule everything — including breaks

In order to make the most of your concentration, be deliberate about your workday schedule. “The way to bring structure is by making a schedule that constrains our time,” Eyal tells The New York Times. “We perform at our best when we know what our day is going to look like." So pencil in your meetings and tasks, but also designate specific slots in your day for breaks, exercise and time to refuel.

"Keep in mind what a 'break' is, though," Flake reminds us: "Taking a break doesn’t mean more emails, more news, more doing." Instead, take time to pause — get outside, listen to music, walk your dog or do some deep breathing. Even five minutes can make a huge difference. 

5

Grab a pen and paper

Find ways to step away from tech and consider using physical planners, clocks, notebooks and calendars to organize your day-to-day activities, suggests Pavkovic. "There is a huge imbalance in our time on and off devices right now, contributing to this sense of the uncontrollable passage of time," she explains. "Using tools that you can touch and sense in the three-dimensional world will help you feel some sense of control and the finality of your work task, your day and your week too."

6

Make time for exercise

In addition to releasing mood-boosting endorphins, exercising has enormous benefits for cognitive functioning and increases your productivity for the rest of the day — more incentive to get that morning workout in!

Aim to exercise outside if you can, or at least get outside a couple of times throughout the day. Spending time in nature can significantly improve both your physical and mental health. 

RELATED: How to Practice Forest Bathing (Even in the City)

7

Feed your mind — with food

Research continues to prove the connection between your gut and your brain is strong. While it’s always wise to avoid highly processed and sugary foods, some foods (like salmon, eggs, blueberries and turmeric) actually boost cognitive functions, such as memory and concentration. 

RELATED: What to Eat When You Have Anxiety

8

Designate a spot

"Pick a place in your home where you will do your work and stick with it — even if that place is literally the corner of your dining table," says Pavkovic. "I call this 'blueprinting your home for tech use." Creating that designated workspace for yourself in your home can make work flow much smoother.

9

Try time management techniques

There are many different time management techniques, and they all boast different ways to improve your productivity. 

Take the Pomodoro Technique, for example, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, focusing on your task with no distractions, then taking a five minute break. After repeating four 25 minute focus sprints, or “pomodoros,” treat yourself to a longer break (15-30 minutes).

Looking for more? This test from Todoist gives you a personal recommendation on which productivity method might be best for you.

10

Embrace Rituals

Rituals can help ground you and create clear indicators for the start and end of your day. "Pick a couple of habits that you enjoy doing and use them as your 'header' and 'footer,'" says Pavkovic.

Maybe it's your cup of coffee or tea in the morning, or lighting a candle and stretching at the end of the work day — it can be anything you choose. Just make sure it's something that brings you pleasure, joy and either energy or calm depending on what you need it to do, says Pavkovic.

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