Our ability to concentrate is often defined by how able we are to stay on task, but let’s face it, we humans can tend to come in and out of focus continually throughout the day. How motivated we are by a deadline or enjoying what we do can have a great effect on how our interest can keep us engaged. So focus is also subjective, we simply don’t want to be staying and doing some less fascinating tasks!
Happy mind wandering
It is the nature of our brains to wander in and out of focus constantly. We can only take in so much information at a time and need a shift in attention quite often to not simply wear down one type of brain function – like repetitive strain for the brain if you will! Famously Winston Churchill would build walls between heavy strategic thinking sessions, switching from more analytical to more three-dimensional and movement-related cognition keeps our minds better all-rounders than simply worn out – more flexible than brittle and frazzled.
It is often cited than we can take in about 17 minutes of learning new facts at a time, highlighting the need for breaks to let information bed into our brain and be laid down as memory. Pushing past this time can leave the brain tired and lacking the creative scope to view new information from creative and rich viewpoints. Even analytical work needs scope and perspective to retain a sense of the overview as we delve into detail. Walking away and coming back can offer new insight, but also reduce the likelihood of making mistakes and having to do more work to rectify.
Coming back from distraction
We can observe those times when our brain is going into a lull and we wander off into a daydream. We could view this as lack of focus or recognise when we need to let our brain shift to a different gear to recuperate. However, watching our tendency for distraction can help us stay focused when we need to simply get something done and the stress of not moving forward can create yet more tension. A mindful attitude to how we work and move through the day can help us notice when we are caught up in an inner dialogue about a past event or an imagining of a future projection. It’s this awareness of distraction that is one of the absolute key facets within mindfulness – when we can stay in the present moment and when a thought, feeling or bodily sensation pops up and leads us astray.
Choosing to notice that distraction is there and noticing it is hones our ability to draw ourselves back to the present moment (without criticism) and a steadiness of coming back to where we are is what we would do in meditation, as in life. We do simply need to come back over and over and over again and it is this new ‘groove’, this new neural pathway of noticing and returning that can cultivate a new habit of easier focus. Mindfulness meditation helps to ripple into life very practically in ways such as these.
The focus of fear
If you’re anything like me, you will understand the focusing effect of the fear of a deadline to actually really hone and focus down. If you have a work framework set by someone else, these might not be such an issue, but if you’re self-employed or managing your own workload, it can be all too easy to prefer the realm of a drifting mind to one with clarity and purpose, particularly if you are preoccupied with something, worried or angsting over a decision.
For those deadlines (some of us!) push up to the line, a little fear is motivating, it creates motivational neurotransmitters like dopamine that keep us going, that keep us with a certain type of mental acuity and a certain single-minded quality of focus. So, often we can push things to the limits, so that we are working close up to the edge. Personally, I can produce good work under those circumstances, but as it involves a stress-inducing pattern, ultimately it is not a sustainable strategy and can leave me exhausted after the event.
Finding the middle ground of where we can gather in focus throughout the day without vacillating between tension and collapse is the key to both productivity and retaining the energy for other parts of our lives.
Smart working – with breaks
Taking breaks and creating a proper shift in attention is absolutely key to focus. Even though we may see this as an interruption, trusting that we can pick up again with a refreshed brain allows us the reset we need.
• Include breaks within practical stuff you have to do, like going to the toilet or to the printer. This is an opportunity to both move and to change scenery and perspective. You can even make this a further journey, like going to a loo further away in your building, especially if that involve stairs or setting your printer further away from your desk. If you need to speak to a colleague, go and talk to them in person rather than picking up the phone.
• Learn to recognise when you’ve hit that overstimulated point and respond before you’ve pushed over the edge. This is the mindful practice is remaining attuned to your body whilst you’re in head mode. If we can keep an inner eye on when our breathing may being held or quickened, when we might get tension in the back of the skull or shoulder aches means we can regulate when we step back and let these signs of stress accumulation move through.
Smart breaks include respite from the constant screen use that can cause repetitive strain with our eyes as they are asked to make continual micromovements that they wouldn’t in any natural scenario. This steals from brain energy and the ability to focus and can cause eye pain and headaches:
• Include stuff to do as a break, like walking to get your lunch and eating it away from your desk, even if this just means getting away from your screen.
• Break away from screens entirely; checking your phone and Facebook is not giving your brain a break. Coming back to the fine art of simply being without yet more information input is a skill that can save from us from overload and the health issues that come with it.
Nutritional help for focus
Some key nutritional tweaks can feed our brains to help them handle the tasks they are thrown during the day:
• B-vitamins, magnesium, zinc, vitamin C are nutrients we need for energy production, so can become depleted if we are working hard. As we also need these for the neurotransmitters we need for focus, we can get into cycles of low motivation and brain fog when these become low. The protein and fat foods mentioned in the article How to Stay Motivated provide these energy nutrients as well as regulate brain activity so low focus doesn’t lead to sugar cravings to prop us up.
• A multivitamin is a good place to start as basic support for these nutrients and I often recommend one such as Lamberts Multiguard ADR (two at breakfast) that also contains the adaptogenic herb Rhodiola – other examples of adrenal adaptogenic herbs that support the adrenal glands are Ginseng, Ashwagandha – these are herbals that help regulate our responses to stress, so we can respond appropriately to challenge. This means we can tend less to anxious responses and maintain our rational focus. You can also take rhodiola separately alongside another multivitamin eg Terra Nova Rhodiola 300mg (one at breakfast).
• Help your breaks nourish your brain’s ability to work by getting regular water, which also stops you turning to too much caffeine instead. Herbal teas are a helpful alternative too and licorice tea can help us maintain focus, such as the delicious Yogi Tea Organic Licorice Tea.
• Include some well-timed snacks – like nuts or fruit – if a long time between meals. This intercepts tendencies to compulsively shuffle in sugary snacks when your brain is desperate for quick fix fuel because it hasn’t rested.
Get things moving
Include standing up and movement whenever you can. Even a few moments getting circulation going and releasing tight shoulders can have profound effects on our circulation and brain activity – a good alternative to that extra cup of coffee!
Stretch up and out; taking your arms above your head wakes up your brain and shoulder rolls relieve that concrete upper back that creates so many postural issues and tension that gets in the way of focus. There’s a reason we stretch first thing in the morning – to make space within connective tissue that feeds awakening sensations to the brain. This is not a jangly, overstimulated energising, but the type of stimulation that still allows us to be alert without needing to go into hypervigilance.
Simple chair yoga
A few regular movements can help relieve feeling locked-in with a chair-sitting posture. We can use that very chair as a useful yoga prop to create resistance and lift that supports easy brain-flow.
1. Sitting up to the front of the chair seat with knees together and heels under them, gives us the chance to lift up through the front of the spine and the back of the neck, where we may have been slumping back and lifting the chin towards a screen. Regularly reset this body awareness to notice your postural habits and invite change.
2. A spine undulation (like a seated ‘cat-cow’ movement) can help create movement in the spine where it gets stuck. As you inhale open the chest, making space in the front body lifting the collarbones rather than leading with the chin. So you retain a sense of space through the back of the neck, especially where it inserts into the base of the skull.
3. Then as you exhale, round the back and draw the chin in. Move between the two motions – letting the breath lead – so you open the front of the spine as you inhale and back body as you exhale. You will also feel the pelvis tilting back and forward to relieve any compression in the lower back that can be a big part of mind-body tension.
4. Re-establish the first position and then inhale to lengthen the spine and twist to one side, taking hold of the back of the chair seat to move the back shoulder blade down and in. this is squeezing into an area that can get pretty concrete so breath with the sensations and sigh out as you feel release occurring. Move to the other side. You can also do inhaling the arms up in the centre and continually moving to alternate sides on the exhalation; this can help naturally raise energy and focus without agitation.
5. An alternative twist also opens the front body where sitting on a chair keeps the knees drawn in towards the chest. Keep both feet parallel and about hip-width apart for stability across the lower back. Open the chest round into the twist as you breath out, letting it evolve rather than forcing.
6. This forward bend is a variation on a child pose and can be done low as the picture shows or staying higher up with elbows on your thighs if you get dizzy – or feels more socially acceptable on an office! Have the knees apart for this, with thighs about 90 degrees from each other and breathe openness into the back of the neck and base of the skull where self-soothing originates to flood through the whole body. We can retain focus more if we feel able to come down from stress.
Originally written for Yoga Matters.
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