How to Increase Your Focus and Improve Your Daily Performance
To be effective in day to day life with all its distractions, we must be able to just say no (physically and metaphorically speaking). The act of saying no is to help keep our attention in one place at a time. That said, being in control of occupying thought processes and emotional impulses, is easier said than done. Our daily work schedules, routines and to-do lists alone aren’t always enough to keep our attention where we want it, nor are we always able to consciously recover quickly from a wandering mind. So, what can we do to reduce this loss of focus and learn to ramp up our concentration skills? How do we become less distracted and train our brains so that our pre-conscious emotional cues reverberate less? How can we self-regulate and improve our cognitive functioning in order to flourish in our present?
What the Experts Say
We all need to find ways to sort through the deluge of information and interruptions of contemporary living. If left to stack up, we are effectively harming our emotional well-being. In their article “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind”, researchers Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) explain how “one study showed that our minds wander approximately 47% of the time and that mind wandering predicts subsequent unhappiness” (p. 932). Given this prediction it seems essential then to learn to use our agency more effectively and “aim to foster greater attention to and awareness of present moment experiences” (Creswell, 2017, p. 491). One way to go about this is to introduce mindfulness into our life.
Mindfulness meditation has been a part of Buddhist traditions for centuries but its only fairly recently that we have seen an increase in contemporary western culture’s practice of it. It has become part of a wave of growing attention to individual well-being and is being used as a positive psychology intervention to declutter, calm and re-focus our brains for modern living. According to Psychologists Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson (2018) there is scientific evidence that areas of the brain’s structure are positively connected and effected when we practice mindfulness. So, does it all come down to rewiring?
The Brain and Triggers
Research has shown that when our unconscious interrupts our conscious our focus and performance is disturbed. As we well know, the brain is not fixed it has a substantial degree of plasticity and is constantly changing with experiences, context and emotions. “Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of the time thinking about what is going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future or will never happen at all.” (Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010, p.932). So, is there a way to take back control? In their “Whiteboard session” Goleman and Davidson (2018) discuss the biological change our brain makes when under the influence of mindfulness. It goes something like this: The Pre-Frontal Cortex (the CEO of the brain) begins to modulate the impulses from the Amygdala (the trigger point, plays a key role in the processing of emotions) this direct connection between these two areas of our brain is called the Uncinate Fasciculus (the tract of connection). When we practice mindfulness over a period of time this connection, the Uncinate Fasciculus, is strengthened and we start to self-regulate. They go on to explain that first you begin to react less and then you recover from reactions, your emotional impulses, more quickly. It is in the practice of mindfulness then that science demonstrates that we can strengthen our brain and regain focus of our present moment experience. You see, the mindful moment is when you notice your mind wandering and you bring it back.
So how do we actually put it into practice? A mindfulness meditation is a process that begins simply with being attentive to your breathing. Here are some tips from Creswell (2017) to begin using mindfulness. Find a quiet place to sit; close your eyes and begin to breathe deeply through your nostrils and out through your mouth; observe the sensation of your breath, your body, your sensory surroundings with curiosity and interest. You will notice your mind is quick to run off but with a conscious re-focus of your attention you will mindfully bring it back. It’s an immersive experience, where we learn to be conscious and mindful. It is like a spa retreat for your brain. By practicing this kind of mini meditation for 10 minutes a day you can train your attention and have greater concentration and awareness of the present. Think of it as exercising your mindfulness muscle. The more you practice the better you perform.
Strategies and Benefits
Daily practice and building a routine will add structure and meaning to your day. It will strengthen your ability to focus and you will begin to flourish. Here are some tips to live presently, where you will not only be more successful, but you will be happier with it:
• Listen mindfully by really hearing what the other person is saying to you in a conversation rather than waiting to speak;
• Eat mindfully and see how you can find new pleasures in food, savour each bite as a single momentary experience. Notice your senses heightening;
• Try not to multitask, take one think at a time and be there fully with all your attention.
• Develop one’s sense of gratitude – ‘Three good things’ (Hefferon and Boniwell, p.17). At the end of your day write down three good things that happened to you that day. Do this for a week, a month, a year. This will help you become aware of and practice appreciating the smaller things.
Principles to Remember
- Regular practice – try waking up 20 minutes earlier than usual, create a routine.
- Cultivate an environment to flourish – balance your time.
- Be autonomous – build on your abilities to take things into your own hands.
- Be reflective – focus on what is truly important to you.
- Ignore your emotions – Spend time accepting and tending to your feelings.
- Forget to say no so you can make space for yes! – Make the right choices.
- Live in the past and be preoccupied with the future – Enjoy your now.
This blog post was written and submitted as part of an assessment for my Masters in Applied Positive Psychology, module: An introduction to Positive Psychology. Therefore, it has a more scientific approach than my other posts and my usual style of writing. I hope you find it useful and encouraging. It helped me to begin to understand the biological impact of stress and how living a bit more mindfully can really help.