Simple steps to stay focused
Q: My mind seems to wander more easily these days. What can I do to stay more focused?
A: To help curb your wandering mind, start by tracking your lack of attention. Observe situations when you lose focus.
For instance, when you read a book passage and feel your attention waning, make a mental note when it happens. Keeping a tally can help drive your attention, as it teaches you to be more observant when it occurs.
Here are more strategies that can lead to better focus:
Practice mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation teaches you how to bring your thoughts back to the present when your mind veers off. The practice also helps to manage anxiety and stress, which may contribute to lack of focus.
Stop distractions. Change items in your living space that grab your attention, such as equipment that produces distracting sounds or lights. Also, turn off notifications on your phone when you need to concentrate, and set up website blockers so you won’t be tempted by the Internet.
Work in blocks of time. Much research has suggested that working in small chunks of time, with rest periods in between, can help with focus, since our attention tends to wane after a certain period. How long that time period lasts depends on the person. Experiment with a time frame that works for you.
Engage your brain. Do more activities that stimulate and require mental effort, but not so much that they overwhelm and dissuade you. Taking on a new skill — such as painting, cooking, dancing or learning a language — requires focus and attention and can also help reduce stress.
Review your medicines. You may be taking a drug, even something purchased over-the-counter, that affects your concentration. Review all your medications and supplements with your doctor or pharmacist.
Watch sugar intake. Sudden spikes and dips in your blood sugar levels can affect attention. Focusing on eating more fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods while avoiding simple sugars can be enough to keep your blood sugar levels more even.
Stay social. Social engagement protects against loneliness, which otherwise can lead to depression, anxiety and stress, all of which can affect attention. Being more social also helps with focus, since you need to listen to conversations and retain information.
Everyone’s brain is wired and programmed differently, and some people struggle with attention more than others.
But if you notice any sudden change in your ability to concentrate — for example, if you have a harder time finishing routine tasks and chores, regularly misplace essential items, make more errors than you used to in your day-to-day life, or make more frequent poor decisions — don’t ignore it. Speak with your doctor.
Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, visit health.harvard.edu.
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