Updated: Jul 28, 2020
"You do something all day long, don’t you? Everyone does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain with most people, that they have been doing something all the time. They have been either walking, or reading, or writing, or thinking. The only trouble is that they do it about a great many things and I do it about one. If they took the time in question and applied it in one direction, to one object, they would succeed. Success is sure to follow such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have an object, one thing, to which they stick, letting all else go. Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application." - Thomas Edison
Struggling to focus in a self-controlled environment...
What are the "great many things" that you do all day long? Do you keep track of all of them? Do you remember them in the evening or the next day? Do you live through your calendar or do you use a To-Do list?
Earlier this year I started a little experiment and tried to keep track of everything I did during the day. One goal was to figure out how many good habits, e.g. making the bed, reading, learning, doing sports, cooking, etc. and how many bad habits, e.g. wasting time on social media, watching TV, etc. I had. Another goal was to try and find ways to improve my focus and increase productivity, reduce wasted hours and distractions and to overall be more aware of how I use the hours of the day.
The experiment didn't last very long because I struggled to be honest with myself and realized that self-documentation required a lot of self-discipline and sincerity which I seemingly didn't have, mainly because I thought I already did great regarding how I spent my time.
In a second attempt to achieve the above mentioned goals I started to structure my days by creating a table of good habits that needed to be executed on a daily (learning a language, reading a chapter in a book, taking my vitamins) or weekly basis (cleaning the apartment, watering the flowers, writing my blog). There were a couple of habits that I'd just picked up and wanted to maintain, and this table proved to be a good tool in helping me to do so. However, it also made me focus entirely on completing these tasks, leaving little to no "free time" to be creative or just do nothing. Another downside to this was that I'd put as much focus on tasks that ultimately would improve over time (like learning Finnish) and tasks that would always have the same quality and not get me anywhere (like watering the plants). I figured out that putting equal attention on the things that have to be done and won't improve and tasks that make you better and compound over time is not the ideal solution.
The third attempt involved creating a family-calendar and a personal calendar that included slots for "free time". I proceeded to keep track of the good habits that I wanted to maintain while focusing on spending more time on things that would compound on the long run and less time on "have to" tasks. Living through my calendar has been a major part of my professional career. I regularly reminded my team members: If it's not in my calendar, it doesn't exist! Back in the days this really helped me to maintain control over my time and resources. I'd do the same thing again in the future if I'd be to work in a similar professional environment.
In private, however, it's a different story. Again, the main reason this attempt didn't deliver the desired results was self-discipline and also the lack of a team or people around me who demanded my time and resources. Another reason involved me not being able to properly estimate the amount of time required to complete one (usually a new) task. In many occasions I found myself to be way faster than I'd expected. On the other hand: if there's a task I really want to master and put my mind into I don't like the idea of a specific time slot or limiting time window to complete it. I'm with Edison on this: "Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application." And to do so, you cannot get distracted and spend hours and hours of attention on the task to succeed.
12 Ways to improve...
So, what's the solution you may ask? ...
I have written a few articles about concentration, information overflow, reducing stress and worrying less. Still, I do not have a perfect recipe on how to master your day in a self-controlled environment. I realized that it can be very important to have people around you to sometimes give direction or "kick your a55" if you drift of, lose focus or just having a bad day.
However, there are a few things that I would like to share which have improved my focus and attention when it's needed, but also improved my overall well being and happiness:
Train your brain. Plain and simple: 15 minutes of Sudoku, crossword puzzles, chess or other memory games per day can have a significant impact on concentration. Brain training can also help you to develop your working and short-term memory.
Get your game on. A 2018 study - conducted by the Chengdu Brain Science Institute, the University of Electronic Sciences, Chengdu, and the School of Science and Technology of China - showed that playing video games can improve your "Visual Selective Attention".
Improve sleep. Increasing the amount of sleep I got from less than 7 to almost 8 hours on average helped a great deal to improve my levels of concentration, focus, attention and motivation to do things that I'd usually avoid after a bad night of sleep.
Make time for exercise. There are tons of studies to back this but from my personal experience, working out once a day and getting my heart rate to above 170 has helped me to reset and refocus for whatever unpleasant tasks I was facing. Although aerobic (cardio) exercises are recommended due to it's positive effects on the human metabolism, brain functionality, etc., doing what you can is better than doing nothing.
Do a concentration workout. My wife and I regularly play table tennis. Most of the time we play just for fun, but sometimes we practice and focus on certain parts of the game. These 15-20 minutes of "concentration workout" are stimulating specific parts of the brain that are responsible for motion and procedure related learning and the creation of new patterns. While doing these workouts, it is important to realize and distinguish if, where and when you lost focus and concentration and how you managed to regain it and refocus. There is a ton of "concentration workout" exercises out there, so you might want to give it a try.
Spend time in nature. If you want to boost your concentration naturally, try to get outside every day. UK reserach has shown that spending 120 minutes per week in nature can have a significant impact on mental well-being and physical health.
Meditate. I wrote a whole article about the benefits of meditation. Just give it a try!!!
Take breaks. As mentioned in the article above, taking regular breaks - scheduled if needed - can help to reset and refocus on new tasks.
Listen to music. I do this a lot while thinking about topics for my blog or trying to settle my mind and relax. It's another form of meditation that can greatly improve concentration.
Vary your diet. Having a diet that makes you and your tummy feel good is key to your mental abilities. Food can greatly affect cognitive functions like concentration and memory. I've increased the amount of fatty fish (e.g. salmon, fatty tuna), blueberries and other berries, eggs, nuts and crucifers (e.g. broccoli) to my diet and greatly reduced the amount of processed foods, sugar, grease and fat. Works for my tummy, works for my brain. Also, eating a protein rich breakfast within the first thirty to sixty minutes after waking up (e.g. oatmeal, eggs, plain yogurt with fruit and berries) gives you and your brain an energy boost that lasts for hours and hours.
Drink caffeine. I wouldn't claim that I have a healthy intake of coffee. I drink too much of it to be frank. There's no need to add caffeine in your diet if you prefer to avoid it, but research suggests that it can in fact increase attention and focus. A serving of dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher), matcha or green tea are great alternatives to coffee. They contain phytochemicals which not only improve cognitive functions but also promote relaxation.
Try supplements. There are certain supplements that may help to increase concentration and focus as well as the overall brain health. I don't want to get into it too much since I am quite wary regarding most of the stuff. However, I can say from personal experience that the regular intake of vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids generally improve my overall well-being.
These 12 ways to improve focus, attention and concentration will certainly not help each and everyone in the same way. I've picked them because some of them came very naturally to me while I had to force myself to follow others. Through all of this I have learned one final thing that I want to share. Sometimes we are focused and concentrated on a specific tasks when something negative or unpleasant pops up in our mind. My natural reaction to it was to push it aside as fast as possible. But here's what I've learn: never forcefully try to turn your attention away from whatever thoughts or problems come to your mind, no matter how distracting they are. Give them a couple of minutes to dissolve, write them down, get them out of your brain gently. Otherwise they will return time and time again...
I've gathered a few good ideas for this article from the book "12 Rules for Life" by Jordan B. Peterson, which you can find here (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/3eM7YIm)