Quick ways to improve your focus - yes, coffee is on this list!
Updated: Jan 21, 2020
Neurofeedback and meditation can dramatically improve our ability to concentrate, but there are some surprisingly quick and easy ways to get focused that you can start using right now!
In my work as a neurofeedback practitioner, I coach my clients in using the brain waves associated with engaged and calm focus, these are known as the "good" beta waves. The more these brainwaves are trained, the more easily the brain can access these efficient brainwaves on a regular basis. But when there's no time for training, here are some quick ways to help you get in the right mental state to get the work done.
As I write this, I'm sitting on my couch with my dog at my feet, it's oh so cozy but I'm probably not in the best position for increasing beta waves in the brain. Being in an upright position versus a slouched position has been shown to encourage the good beta brainwaves and is also believed to improve memory retrieval. It's important to remember that though beta waves are desirable when trying to accomplish specific tasks, imagination and creativity are associated with slower activity. Bottomline is, if you need to be active- sit upright. But when you're looking for creative solutions, get comfortable!
Breathing is an excellent way to get into a state of concentration. Longer inhales with shorter exhales can help you when you need some stimulation, while shorter inhales and longer exhales can help you when you need to calm down. External Breathing Pacers like Respirelax are an excellent way to quickly get into a more grounded state. The idea with this 5 minute breathing regulation is to balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic branches of the nervous system, allowing the body to feel that it is in a safe state. It is most effective when done 3 times per day every day but it can also be used as a quick way to prepare for any work that requires attention and concentration.
There are several breathing techniques that are known to promote focus but in my opinion it's best to start with the breathing pacers. Techniques like the 4-7-8 method, where you hold your breath in between the inhale and exhale can be very effective but they can also induce anxiety, even in those experienced with breath work.
Most people won't need any encouragement here! Caffeine is a stimulant and for anyone who is struggling with tiredness or ADHD (which is mostly associated with slower brainwaves) it can induce a more alert and focused state. The problem with this approach is that we're not always so great at controlling our dosage... we can then find ourselves feeling more agitated and anxious and this get in the way of focus. If you want to get the mental boost from coffee throughout the day, try having two 1/2 caff coffees evenly spread out through the morning in order to get the brain power without the jitters.
Various studies have examined the effect of different essential oils on cognitive task performance. One study looked at how Lavender and Rosemary influenced EEG activity, mood, and performance. Rosemary was found to encourage more alert state, while Lavender encouraged calm. In the case of the Lavender group, participants reported feeling more relaxed and both speed and accuracy were improved.
Another studied compared Vetiver, Cedarwood, and Lavender for ADHD children. They found that all three oils led to improved performance on tasks, however Vetiver showed the strongest improvement, followed by Cedarwood and Lavender.
Many essential oils have been shown to improve task performance, and it is probably best to choose one that reflects your current state. If you're feeling sluggish, Rosemary Bergamot, Peppermint or Lemon will likely put you into a more alert state, allowing you to think more clearly. On the other hand, if you feel like your mind is everywhere and/or you can't sit still, Vetiver, Lavender and Cedarwood are likely excellent choices.
Many studies have shown a link between a post-exercise state and stronger on-task performance. Exercise brings more oxygenated blood to the brain and activates the hippocampus resulting in a brain that performs better. It is believed these changes might have benefited our ancestors as they were running from danger- having an activated brain would have served them well.
We can likely all relate to feeling more focused in certain stressful times...having a tiger chasing us, or in modern terms, "a deadline" can encourage a more focused state. The problem is that we can become over-reliant on this method. Back then, the tiger either ate you or you managed to escape danger and your nervous system returned to normal. Nowadays, looming deadlines and "the need for external pressures" set you off balance long term as you rarely have moments of feeling safe. This, in turn, puts you at risk of multiple health problems and compromises your ability to feel grounded and focused at the same time. So, get the body moving or follow the other above-mentioned techniques, as they will benefit you more than having that mental tiger always chasing you!