With so many distractions in our daily lives, focusing is perhaps more difficult now than ever. Over time, though, you can practice focus much like you would exercise and develop the fitness of that mental muscle.
“There is some evidence that just like exercising you can build your focus and concentration but it takes practice,” said David Prescott, associate professor and the director of health care studies at Husson University’s College of Science and Humanities. “I think it’s reasonable for people to if they really want to try to improve this and they’re really struggling. Start off taking a break every 15 minutes then move it to 20 to 25 [minutes].”
When you are practicing focus, Lauren Dattilo, licensed psychologist at Psychology Specialists of Maine, said to be realistic about how long you can actually focus on a single task.
“It’s much more reasonable to set your time up in 20 and 30 minute increments and then a short break instead of hours at a time,” Dattilo said. “[If you] set a block of time in day study for six hours straight, what probably happens is [that you] study for a little while, then [get] distracted at some point, end up picking up your phone and it’s 40 minutes later and you’re scrolling on Instagram.”
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For example, Dattilo recommended setting up a 30 minute block of studying, taking a walk around the building with a friend and studying for 30 more minutes.
“Even if the total amount of time studying is less, it’s actually probably more effective,” Dattilo said.
Practicing your focus isn’t the only way to improve your abilities, though. Healthy habits like getting a good night’s sleep and regularly exercising will help improve your concentration. Regularly practicing mindfulness is also helpful.
“Mindfulness practice is definitely helpful, whether it is a mini-meditation session or just getting outside and focusing on nature rather than one’s to-do list,” said John Agee, licensed psychologist at the Gardiner Center for Stress Management. “The key is working on being in the moment and coming back over and over to what our body is actually doing rather than letting our mind distract us from reality.”
If you are working from home, focusing can be much more challenging because there are so many distractions. Make sure you have set up a designated work space, especially if you are working from home.
“In behavioral terms, there’s something called setting conditions which is the environment where you try to do a particular behavior,” Prescott said. “For example, it’s easier to fall asleep when it’s quiet. We know that there’s some of that with concentration. You want to get your brain used to when you’re in your spot. This is your working spot.”
However, Prescott recognizes that this can be challenging in the current circumstances.
“It’s been tough in the pandemic,” Prescott said. “A lot of people have had to use their home for everything. But having a spot is a really really good idea.”
You should also consider the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach for focus will not work for everyone.
“Most people have a predictable trajectory of their focus throughout the day,” Dattilo said. “If you find yourself really struggling at focus towards the end of the day, [try] to set up your schedule for success. It’s not about what you should be doing or what other people do. It’s the thing that works with who you are, how you are and what’s important for you to spend your time on.”