Distractions are everywhere—from the vibration of your Apple Watch to a text message, the laugh of a co-worker, a fleeting thought, and more. No wonder it takes so much mental energy to filter the clutter and stay focused. Read on for 15 ways to improve focus and hack your life.

What is Focus?

Focus is when attention and effort come together toward a singular effort. When a person is focused, they fully immersed in the task or activity. The intense focus for longer periods is also referred to as the flow state.  

Another way to think about being focused is being in a state of flow. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term “flow.” His book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, asserts that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of focus or complete absorption in the situation. And even more interesting is that he found that everyone he spoke to, regardless of culture, class, gender, or age, felt and performed their best when they were in the state of flow.

Anyone can train their mind through mental and physical exercises, lifestyle choices, and environmental control. Here’s how…

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 Why is it Hard to Focus?

If you have trouble focusing–it’s not your fault! In a world of instant gratification where same-day delivery is available on everything from food to flat-screen TVs, and millions of answers lie at your fingertips (or by asking Siri), it’s no wonder it’s hard to pay attention to one thing—and it’s getting more difficult as the options grow.

Look at a snapshot of what happened during one internet minute as of April 2022.

  • 231,400,000 emails sent
  • 16,000,000 texts sent
  • 5,900,000 Google searches
  • $76,400 spent on DoorDash
  • $43,000 spent on Amazon
  • 1,100,000 swipes on Tinder
  • $90,200,000 Cryptocurrency purchased 

Consider this: Researchers forecasted 79 zettabytes of data generated would be generated in 2021 and DOUBLED by 2025.

The Digital 2022: Global Data Report by DataReportal asserts that if the average person sleeps for roughly 7 to 8 hours per day, the typical internet user now spends over 40 percent of their waking life online. Forty percent!

A study in Nature Communications found that our collective attention span is narrowing because of the rapid increase in content and 24/7 news cycle.

As humans, we are doing more than ever, which means we have more distractions than ever.

However, other factors make concentrating challenging as well.

Work environment: Unpleasant working conditions such as light and temperature, noisy shared workspaces, and negative workplace dynamics may make concentrating difficult. Lighting, temperature, and noise levels can take a toll because when the body is uncomfortable, it’s harder to hunker down on what you need to do. Too little sunlight also tends to decrease focus.

Stress: When people are overwhelmed or stressed, this reduces blood flow to the brain, resulting in a lack of focus. Chronic stress floods the nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones help respond in a crisis but can cause anxiety and depression, weight gain, trouble sleeping, and memory and concentration problems.

Not eating well: Without enough fuel, the brain slows down, and so does your ability to focus. Eating nutritious foods throughout the day can help maintain both energy and focus. But eating food with too much sugar can cause a roller coaster of blood sugar levels, resulting in an energy (and attention-span) crash. 

Fatty foods may trigger brain inflammation, which makes it difficult for neurons to communicate—leaving you with a foggy brain.

Lack of exercise: Our brains can feel foggy and distracted without regular exercise—even low-impact activities. But regular physical activity, walking, raking leaves, gardening, and shooting hoops help to boost the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels—all of which affect focus and attention.

Now that you know the factors contributing to a squirrelly mind let’s look at ways to improve it.

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15 Actionable, Non-Boring Ways to Improve Focus

Play focus games 

Playing games helps keep your mind sharp and focused. Trying on and off-line activities like Wordle, crossword puzzles, Suduko, or a sport you’ve never tried—like pickleball– checks several boxes in improving your concentration and heart health.

Even certain video games, like Mario, can stimulate the parts of the brain that control movement, memory, planning, and fine motor skills. And researchers are assessing how virtual reality can improve focus as well. So, pick up your paddle, pencil, or joystick to get to better concentration.

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Exercise your brain regularly 

Try activities that stretch your brain called neurobics (aka aerobics, but for your neurons). Research has shown that regular exercises, like those for the rest of the body, can build mental muscle, prevent memory loss, and improve memory recall. So, what are some examples?

  • Try doing activities upside down or backward. No, this doesn’t mean hanging from your toes. You can clear a path and walk backward across a room. Put your watch upside down and train your brain to read the time. Try your hand at mirror writing where the words appear back.
  • Use your non-dominant hand to write, eat or use your computer mouse.
  • Close your eyes while brushing your teeth or washing your hair to build new neural pathways.
  • Read aloud. Take turns reading a book or listening to someone else read it to stimulate your mind. Reading a book, hearing its content, and speaking the text engage different brain parts.
  • Choose a new path to work. Instead of walking, biking, or driving the same way each day, take a new route to activate the cortex and hippocampus.

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Use Smart Meditation

Did you know meditation can be used for more than just relaxing? Some experts argue meditation is the new caffeine. It can make you hyperproductive. It can offer many benefits, like creating emotional balance, reducing stress, and helping refocus your attention. Meditation is free and doesn’t require special equipment or a set amount of time. And you can do it anywhere—in an airport, while hiking, in a quiet room, or during a challenging meeting.

Regular meditation has even been shown to improve attention span in older age.  

Dialing down the mental distraction is half the battle. You will be better able to focus by training your brain to settle. But if sitting quietly for 20 minutes stresses you out, here are several ways to ease into it.

If you need more clarification about whether meditation is right for you, watch news anchor Dan Harris share his 10 Percent Happier journey from fidgety skeptic to focused meditator.

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Pick your playlist strategically

Music impacts our moods. In some situations, it’s used for its calming effect, while in other places, it’s used to pump you up. It’s why sporting events blast certain songs, and dentists’ offices opt for more serene choices.

According to a study published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, listening to “natural” sounds like ocean waves, trickling streams, and frogs croaking can enhance one’s ability to concentrate. Music with lyrics, though, may be distracting. Check out HubSpot’s guide to the 7 Best Music Types According to Science or Spotify’s White Noise for Studying.

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Try new activities 

Doing activities, you’ve never done before helps improve focus by creating new pathways in the brain. Many community colleges or public libraries offer free or no-cost courses.

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Move your body 

Have you ever noticed how much more energetic and relaxed you feel after physical exercise? Perhaps it’s the exertion that promotes better sleep or the way your muscles loosen up. When there is tension in the body, it can lead to discomfort, which affects the ability to concentrate.

Numerous studies have identified benefits from exercise, and recent research by the University of Tsukuba found that aerobic exercise increases brain regions related to memory, focus, and comprehension. Another study by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that physical activity improves children’s ability to pay attention.

Try one of these free fitness apps to get started:

Or put together your workout plan with these free exercises:

  • Walking
  • Incline walking
  • Climbing stairs
  • Jumping jacks
  • Jumping rope
  • Mountain climbers
  • Jogging
  • Marching in place
  • Chair boxing
  • Squats
  • Lunges

Your health insurance company may also offer a complimentary tracker, reduced gym membership, or access to an online training program.

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Fuel your focus with the right food

Diet affects our clarity and mental sharpness. It becomes sluggish and distracting if your brain doesn’t have good, nutritious fuel. Try minimizing high-fat or high-sugar foods to keep blood sugar levels consistent throughout the day. This increases the ability to stay attentive and energetic throughout the day.

Foods to look for include vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. See a table of brain foods and their effects on brain function here.

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Supplement as necessary 

It’s not always normal to get all of the critical nutrients your body needs through food intake. One recent study showed that taking vitamins and minerals through supplements was effective in children with ADHD and emotional regulation problems. They saw improved attention and mood.

Nutritional needs are unique to each individual. For more information on where to start, seek the advice of a medical professional, nutritionist, or naturopath.

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Drink up

Hydration is important because water accounts for 75% of your brain. When you have too little, it may be more challenging to concentrate. Sipping water throughout the day allows you to maintain your focus and feel more clear-headed.

Symptoms of dehydration include being thirsty, dizzy, and developing nausea and headaches. To make sure you’re meeting your hydration goals, use this simple hydration calculator to find out how much water your body needs daily. 

Consider a fun water bottle with markers to help you track your intake, engage your co-workers in a water challenge, or download an app like Plant Nanny 2 from the App Store or Google Play to amp up your water consumption.

Plant Nanny 2 keeps track of how much water you drink; each glass also waters the app’s plants. When you drink water and log it, your plant thrives. When you don’t, it suffers, just as a body without water does.

Be mindful of what you sip. Too much caffeine can cause anxiety, inability to focus, insomnia, and irritability. And while it’s unlikely to cause dehydration, drinking it in moderation and water can help you stay on task.

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Limit your alcohol consumption

Studies have shown alcohol can impair your senses after only a few drinks, and with more alcohol comes more impairment. When large quantities are consumed quickly, particularly on an empty stomach, it can lead to a foggy brain, lack of focus, and even blackouts.

Research has also shown that women’s brains are more vulnerable to alcohol-induced damage than men’s. Regardless of your gender, moderation or no alcohol may be the best route for most people.

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Make a personal connection

When you expose yourself to people with different backgrounds, interests, and careers, you gain new insight and learn new perspectives. So introduce yourself to a neighbor, take a class, or rekindle a friendship. Find a volunteer opportunity using a site like VolunteerMatch to connect with people outside your circle and help in the community.

Need help making friends as an adult? You are not alone. Check out our guide:

How to Make Friends as An Adult

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Get enough sleep 

Brains need quality sleep to operate well; without it, the neurons become overworked, leading to fogginess and a reduced ability to function and focus. Give your neurons some love by getting 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night if you’re between 18-64 years old and 7-8 hours if you’re over 65.

Click here for a sleep calculator to help you with an optimal sleep schedule.

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Manage your stress 

Improve your focus by decreasing the stress which distracts you from what you need to do.

Visit WebMD’s Stress Management Resource Center for ideas on how to understand better and manage stress.

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Clear your mind

Manage your thoughts. One study found that self-interruptions are more disruptive than external interruptions. Instead of sabotaging yourself with a disruptive thought, practice clearing your mind with one of these 9 Effective Ways to Clear Your Mind

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Nurture with nature 

A study conducted at Exeter University found that indoor plants can improve concentration, productivity, and personal well-being by 47%. Scientists also discovered that plants could boost memory by up to 20%. So adding some greenery to your workplace can have significant results.

Being out in nature can also boost concentration and leave you feeling refreshed. If all else fails and you can’t get out for a nature break, even a screensaver with an image of a natural setting can have some benefits.

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Is Multitasking Acceptable?

Studies show that managing too much at once can backfire. Our brains are only wired to handle one task at a time. Constantly switching gears can make you less efficient and more prone to mistakes.

Research in Paris discovered that when multitasking, the brain splits in half, causing people to forget details and make three times more mistakes when given two simultaneous goals.

Additionally, a study by the University of London found that multitasking causes a cognitive decline similar to pulling an all-nighter. Some of the study participants saw an IQ drop of 15 points. In an adult, this means dropping to the IQ typical of an average 8-year-old. 

Instead of bouncing back and forth between tasks, take breaks between tasks. For example, spend 25 minutes responding to emails, take a 5-minute walk, get a glass of water from the breakroom, and return to work on the next assignment. Continue that throughout the day. This schedule helps you focus on one thing before moving on.

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8 Ways to Minimize Distractions at Work

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Do not disturb

Put your cell phone in a different room or locked cabinet. Or turn your cell phone on “Do Not Disturb” to minimize outside calls, texts, or notifications that take your attention from the task. If you’re worried about missing an important call or text, add that person’s contact to the exceptions. Learn how to set up this feature on an iPhone or Android.

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Make a plan

If you don’t have a roadmap for the day, how will you feel focused with all the distractions? Know what you plan and need to accomplish, then create a plan for the day. There are various ways to approach it; the most important thing is to find something that works for you. 

Do you like to see the tasks on a handwritten planner, or do you prefer an app? Do you prioritize by timed-specific tasks, priority, topic, or due date? Check out PC Mag’s 10 Ways to Create Better to-Do Lists for more ideas on how to up your list-management game.

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Sign it

Put a sign on your door that lets people know of your availability. If “do not disturb” sounds unfriendly, or you want to infuse your style and sense of humor, create one free on Canva or find a fun one on Etsy.

An example of a creative way to put a do not disturb sign on your door. The text includes "Humanity can wait" and "Saving Humanity"

Source: Etsy

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Tune out 

If you work in a shared space, try noise-canceling headphones, and tune out. Find CNET.com’s top-rated headphones at various price points here. Or consider a white-noise machine to help provide just the amount of sound needed to dive into your work.

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Turn off computer notifications

Work in full-screen mode so you can’t see anything else but the task you’re working on, and hide your bookmarks bar. Why? Because when you see an unread email while doing a task, your effective IQ drops by 10 points.

Use an extension like LeechBlock NG or PawBlock, which uses pictures of furry friends, to block distracting websites and keep you on task. You can set up times for apps to be blocked outright or schedule time limits. For example, you could set up five minutes of Instagram every hour between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

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Set a timer 

Train your brain to focus on a task for around 20-30 minutes. Take a five-minute break when the timer goes off before moving on to another task. This method is effective in training the brain for improved concentration.

This works because, according to research, people perform better when they know a task will end. The study participants also reported less fatigue and took shorter breaks, resulting in higher efficiency and less burnout.

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Time block and batch

Use time blocking and time batching. Not only does making a schedule help you plan your day, but it also helps improve efficiency because your brain isn’t jumping between tasks. All your energy focuses on one project.

Time blocking is mapping out intentional chunks of time to work on specific tasks. It’s the opposite of multitasking because you focus on one thing. This helps you capitalize on how you work best.

For example, a time-blocked calendar might look like this:

  Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
8-9 Writing Internal meetings Writing Client meetings Writing
9-10          
10-11 Client meetings Client meetings Client meetings Client meetings Client meetings
11-12          
12-1 Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch Lunch
1-2 Open Open Open Open Open
2-3 Client meetings Client meetings Internal meetings Client meetings  
3-4          
4-5 Email & schedule preview for next day Email & schedule preview for next day Email & schedule preview for next day Email & schedule preview for next day Goal setting for the following week

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Time batching is performing similar tasks within a block of time. For example, some people like to do all of their writing in the morning, and meetings after lunch, with an hour for the unexpected at the end of the day. Others batch by day of the week.

This might look like setting aside Mondays for podcast recording, Tuesdays for team meetings and editing, Wednesdays for creating marketing materials, Thursdays for reflection and project planning, and Fridays for troubleshooting and business management tasks.

For a deeper dive into time blocking and batching, check out Asana’s step-by-step guide or watch Marie Forleo share her thoughts on architecting a productive day.

Learn how not to let distracting forces pull you from your goals with How to Avoid Distractions and Be Indistractable—with Nir Eyal. You’ll find actionable tips on time management to meet your goals. 

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Focus-Hacking: Control Your Mind, Improve Your Life

That’s a wrap! Remember these key takeaways when improving your focus:

  1. Focus is when attention and effort come together toward a singular effort, and there’s a sense of flow.
  2. Manage everyday factors within your control—eating, sleeping, exercise, and hydration.
  3. Minimize external distractions—notifications, sounds, light, temperature, and a quirky sign on your door.
  4. Recognize internal noise and use mindfulness and meditation techniques to quiet the mind.
  5. Train your brain for attentive success through schedule hacking, lifelong learning, healthy eating, and regular movement.

If you’re interested in learning more about your work personality and whether your personality plays a role in your attention span, take our free test to discover how you rate the big 5 OCEAN personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

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