7 Tips for Better Focus, According to Science

Do you ever struggle to focus at work or in school?

You’re not the only one. Plenty of people find it challenging to concentrate on what they need to do over a stretch of time.

And this often means dropping productivity, more procrastination, and setbacks in your learning and recall.

But why does this happen?

Well, focus isn’t like a switch you can flip on whenever you need to concentrate on something.

There are several mechanisms at play in your brain and body that place you in the best state for learning.

And when you struggle to focus, it’s because these mechanisms are working against you.

So, by knowing exactly how your brain focuses, according to neuroscience, you can unlock better focus!

Table of Contents

1. Don’t Multitask

2. Take Deliberate Brain Breaks

3. Induce a Mild Degree of Stress

4. Try Super-Oxygenated Breathing

5. Regulate Your Caffeine

6. Take a Cold Shower

7. Get Better Sleep

7 Tips for Better Focus Based on Brain Science

1. Nix Multitasking and Here is Why

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceThis might come as a surprise to you, since multitasking is supposed to help you get more done.

But in reality, according to neuroscience, multitasking is a flawed concept which can actually damage your learning and focus.

Your brain regulates your focus by activating and toggling between two different modes.

The first is a bit of a “default” mode. This is where your mind wanders, and you daydream without focusing on anything in particular.

You could be reliving past experiences, or even imagining future events. You could be rehearsing or daydreaming about something that hasn’t happened.

In this mode, your brain fluidly slides across different trains of thought, in a non-linear way.

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On the other hand, when your central executive function network is active, your brain is focusing on something specific.

It works a bit like a camera zooming in. Your brain devotes its resources to honing in on the object of your focus, while filtering out distractions.

An attentional switch, regulated by your insula, toggles you between these two modes.

And neuroscience shows that if you overuse this switch, by toggling constantly between the two modes when multitasking, you’ll be much more prone to distraction.

Think about it like this. You have a list of places you need to drive to. But instead of going to these places one by one, you keep changing your destination while on the road.

That means you’ll have to backtrack. You’ll have to turn your car around, figure out how to get to the new place from where you are.

Sounds exhausting, right? You’re not making any progress, and putting a lot of pressure on your resources because of this inefficiency.

Multitasking works the same way.

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceYour brain has to constantly shuffle its resources around. It zooms in and out of what you’re paying attention to in the moment.

This stresses out your brain’s ability to learn, recall and perform its cognitive functions. It’s juggling and responding to too many informational inputs.

And this doesn’t just mean it takes you longer to complete tasks than if you’d done them sequentially. The quality of your work decreases as well.

In fact, studies find that if your focus is disrupted, it can take you up to 25 minutes to refocus.

That’s a solid half an hour of your day gone – more if you’re constantly getting distracted!

So, even though multitasking might seem like it’s going to help you get more done, it actually works against you.

Focus instead on one task at a time. You’ll be ensuring you work more efficiently and effectively when you do!

2. Take Deliberate Brain Breaks

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceNow, you might be thinking – wouldn’t it be convenient if you could just stay in the central executive function mode?

After all, in this mode your brain is tuned in to what you need to pay attention to. And it’s also actively working to filter out distractions.

But your brain simply doesn’t work like that. Your default and attention modes work like a seesaw – one side has to be up, while the other goes down.

And this is because your brain can’t sustain attention on something for a prolonged time.

To understand this, you need to understand your working memory.

This is a temporary type of memory that holds only a couple of items of information at a time.

It’s like the short-term memory on your computer that holds the last thing you copied for an amount of time. It doesn’t keep this information forever.

Instead, it holds on to it for a while in case you need it within a given timeframe. And after a while it gets replaced by other things you copy.

That’s how your working memory operates.

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to Science

When you’re learning something in real time, it stores this information temporarily in your hippocampus. It’s like a waiting room, where the information lines up and waits to get shifted into your long-term memory.

But this waiting room has a limited capacity. Like a glass of water overflowing, if you keep trying to learn new information, you both lose what you’re learning and what you’d already learned.

Can you remember a time where, even though you were paying attention at first, after a while your attention wandered?

That’s most likely because your working memory went over capacity, and you switched into default mode.

According to neuroscience, there’s a simple solution to this problem, though.

Take more brain-friendly breaks! A short break of just 5 minutes after every 25 minutes of learning or work can restore your working memory!

And that’s not all. Your default mode isn’t just for daydreaming. It’s actually necessary to enter this mode to commit what you’re learning to long-term memory.

Because in the default mode your brain isn’t using all its resources to focus and filter out unnecessary information, it operates more flexibly.

It wanders, and can start making connections between what you learned and what you already know.

It starts to make sense of new information through past experience and formulating new ideas and solutions to problems.

And all of this helps what you learn to stick longer!

Both the default and the attentional modes are necessary for learning and focus. And 20 to 25-minute learning sessions, separated by 5-minute breaks, are a brain-friendly way to take advantage of them!

3. Induce a Mild Degree of Stress

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceYou probably associate “stress” to something negative – and in severe cases, it is extremely negative.

But mild degrees of stress can actually be good for you, by helping create the perfect chemical conditions for focus!

As part of your brain and body’s stress response, there’s a spike in your adrenaline or epinephrine levels.

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceThis is your fight-or-flight neuromodulator; it gets your brain and body ready to jump into action.

You grow very alert, attentively scanning your environment, and your brain and body gear up to respond to the feedback.

The adrenaline spike also stimulates another neuromodulator, acetylcholine.

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceAcetylcholine helps laser-target your focus. It heightens the signals from the thing you’re focusing on and reduces the signals from everything else.

It works like a camera snapping to focus on a specific object. The camera sharpens the object by focusing on it while blurring out the background to make it stand out.

Acetylcholine also helps you maintain your attention on something for a sustained period of time!

While these two neuromodulators are doing their thing, as you make even a little bit of progress, your dopamine increases.

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceDopamine is your motivation molecule. It’s what creates the drive in you to accomplish a goal. And it’s also the reason you derive pleasure from anticipating and achieving it.

Dopamine also helps lock your focus on to the specific goals you aim to accomplish.

You anticipate a sense of reward from achieving something, and just this anticipation alone can boost your dopamine levels.

Your brain then creates a need to experience more of that sense of reward. And this is what gives you the drive to pursue your goals.

Dopamine helps you stay on track to hit your specific milestones and boost your efficiency. It lets your brain prioritize what information to focus on, what tasks to concentrate on, etc.

So how can you induce this chemical cocktail for better focus?

4. Try Super-Oxygenated Breathing

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceFirst things first – don’t try this if you already experience chronic stress and anxiety.

Super-oxygenated breathing can induce a mild degree of stress. But for those who already experience anxiety, it may trigger panic attacks.

Essentially, super-oxygenated breathing is the opposite of slow, mindful breathing. It’s deliberate hyperventilation, which stimulates the release of adrenaline.

This in turn sets off the chain reaction of releasing more acetylcholine and under the right circumstances, dopamine.

It rapidly places you into a super-alert state, after about 25 cycles of quick, deliberate breaths.

5. Regulate Your Caffeine

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceA cup of coffee might be your go-to solution when you want to crank up your alertness.

But you need to know the particulars of how caffeine works to use it to your advantage.

Caffeine does induce a mild degree of stress and can cause up to a 30% spike in dopamine.

This is why you might rely on your first cup in the morning to wake you up.

But that’s not all. Caffeine works as a wake-up call by interfering with the work of adenosine, a molecule that makes you drowsy.

Adenosine is at its lowest when you wake up and accumulates through the day. Caffeine works by binding to your adenosine receptors and blocking that feeling of drowsiness.

But there’s a caveat. If you can’t live without caffeine, you probably know exactly what a caffeine crash feels like. It can leave you feeling tired, sluggish, unfocused, irritable – you might have headaches or brain fog.

When the caffeine passes out of your system, all the adenosine that had been building up binds with its receptors.

This is why you might experience a sudden crash. And this might make you want more coffee.

However, the dopamine spike it causes can also work against you.

Here’s why. For every spike of dopamine, there’s a corresponding increase in pain – in the form of craving for more dopamine.

The withdrawal symptoms you might experience when you don’t get coffee are an example of this pain.

And the bad news is, for every subsequent dopamine spike, the increase in dopamine is lower. Meanwhile, the corresponding spike in pain is higher.

This is why substances that cause a huge spike in dopamine – like cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol – can be so addictive.

The larger the spike, the greater the “pain” you experience afterwards, cranking up the yearning for more.

If you reach for more caffeine after each crash, you run the risk of developing this type of addiction.

And over time, you’re not just getting less of that focus-enhancing dopamine. You’re also getting more of the jitters and withdrawal symptoms from too much caffeine, which actually set back your focus.

They key is knowing how much and when to consume caffeine.

You might be one of those people who sip a cup of coffee right after waking up.

However, remember how adenosine is at its lowest when you wake up?

Caffeine doesn’t have much to work on at this point. And by the time adenosine builds up a little, the caffeine has started to pass out of your system.

Instead, delay your first cup to a couple hours after waking up. This lets the adenosine build up a little first. And you then get a natural boost of alertness and focus that carries you through more of the day.

And now that you know how too much caffeine works against you, hold off on coffee later in the day!

Use other methods, like super-oxygenated breathing or some of the other methods in this article, instead!

6. Take a Cold Shower

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceYou probably got a little stressed just reading about that, right?

Cold showers might not be pleasant, but they’re great for inducing a mild degree of stress!

They amp up your adrenaline and acetylcholine levels and boost your dopamine levels too!

Have you ever jumped into an unheated pool or gone swimming in the ocean on a cool day?

How did you feel afterwards?

Chances are, you remember feeling very clearheaded after you got out of the water. You likely were in a great mood, and able to focus keenly on your environment.

This is because cold showers can put you in that amazing state of high alertness!

As your body tries to maintain its internal temperature, your blood vessels constrict to keep more warmth in.

This means your blood circulation picks up, and your breathing gets deeper. As a result, your brain starts receiving a lot of oxygen-rich blood.

And in turn, this helps your brain to run faster and more efficiently!

A cold shower in the morning might be a great way to jumpstart your focus and learning for the day.

Note, though, that if you have any underlying heart conditions, cold showers might be risky for you.

7. Get Better Sleep

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceQuality sleep is extremely important for focus.

While mild stress gets you into an alert state very quickly, without proper sleep this can escalate into chronic stress.

And at this stage, you’d be too activated, anxious and overwhelmed to focus at all.

According to neuroscience, there are a couple of strategies you can adopt to help improve your sleep hygiene.

First is waking up early in the morning.

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to ScienceEarly morning sunlight has the precise blue-yellow contrast that the light detecting cells in your eyes need to set up your wakefulness-sleep cycle.

This precise intensity of morning light stimulates healthy pulses of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol in turn sets about waking up the rest of your brain and body.

As well as getting you awake and alert to face the day, cortisol also sets the timer for your sleep. It signals for the release of your sleep hormone, melatonin, some 12-16 hours later.

Now, you might be thinking that you get up pretty early in the morning – why do you still struggle to sleep?

The culprit might be bright lights after dark.

7 Tips for Better Focus, According to Science

As you go through the day, the light detecting cells in your eyes get more and more sensitive.

As a result, bright lights and artificial blue light can set back your sleep a lot more easily after dark.

Blue light suppresses melatonin production. While this is good during the day to keep you alert and awake, at night it leaves you sleepless.

Bright lights at night, between 10 pm and 4 am, can also suppress your dopamine pathways. This means the following day you wake up demotivated and have a harder time focusing.

That’s not all. Studies show that just one night without quality sleep causes a build-up of waste product in parts of your brain.

And this can affect your learning, mood, memory, and cause brain fog – all of which is bad for focus.

So, cut down on bright lights after dark. Use dimmer, orange- or red-tinted indoor lighting, and blue-blockers like photochromatic lenses and blue light filtering screen protectors.

Knowing exactly how your brain and body regulates your focus helps you take control of your learning and productivity.

With these 7 tips for better focus, according to science, you can access your ability to concentrate on-demand!

Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com, HowtoLearn.Teachable.com, best selling author and an internationally noted brain and learning coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.

Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™.

She is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!

Contact Pat to find out more about the Brain 2.0 Brain Advantage Learning and Career Assessment and customized faster learning programs for professionals and students.

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