Focus is a skill necessary for almost anything important in life, from finishing that term paper, to listening to your boss's instructions, to organizing your schedule for the day. Unfortunately, for many of us, focus is in short supply. It could be a natural difficulty zeroing in on the task at hand. It could be a susceptibility to distractions like listicles or social-media interactions. It could even take the form of being so overwhelmed with work that you can't focus on any one thing for a designated period of time.
Focus is difficult to master, and it may feel like it's completely out of your control, but like any skill or ability, it can be developed over time. Try using these seven exercises to gradually increase your ability to focus in almost any situation:
- Find less distracting environments. This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but have you really tried it? Spend a day evaluating your focus as it grows and wanes throughout your routine. When does it seem to spike? When does it fall off? Identify the root causes for your distraction. Are you especially tired and reluctant to get going? Are you full from lunch and unable to regain your momentum? Are you too tempted by the social-media notifications on your phone? Try getting more sleep, eating lighter and taking shorter lunch breaks, and turning off those notifications. You may also find certain times of day or certain physical locations less distracting than others--seek them out!
- Meditate. The benefits of meditation are well documented. As a practice, it's all about allowing your mind to return to a natural state--free from distraction, rogue thoughts, and general clutter. Finding that "mindfulness" state is difficult, so it might take you a while to get it right--every time a thought, image, or sound enters your mind, visualize yourself releasing it and keep your mind as blank as possible. Doing this regularly will increase your ability to relieve yourself of distractions and maintain a clear head in stressful situations.
- Exercise. Multiple scientific studies have demonstrated a correlation between physical exercise and concentration ability (measured in the form of an academic test performance). Slipping in a morning jog or a quick workout during lunch can boost your focus for a few hours--but the benefits don't stop there. Exercising on a regular basis gives your mind a chance to decompress, and relieves the mental and physical stress you accumulate throughout the day. It also keeps you healthier in general, keeping your mind and body in better shape and giving you clearer focus for your daily activities.
- Make lists. Creating lists can help you focus in several different ways. First, they can help you stay focused on your most important tasks. For example, at the start of your day, you can list out your most important priorities and focus on those until they're complete. You can also use lists to categorize your distractions. For example, let's say you're working on a report and you get the urge to look up some information on a potential purchase. Instead of getting distracted for several minutes, take a few seconds to write that distraction down and follow up on it only when you've completed your task.
- Memorize things. Practicing regular memorization carries a number of benefits, including improved ability to focus. Memorizing passages, poems, and quotes helps you build a better vocabulary and speak in more deliberate, articulate ways, so start memorizing one new thing each day--or each week, if you prefer to start slow. Take an hour (or less if you're exceptionally skilled) to memorize the passage, and recall it for several days after your initial memorization to make sure it sticks.
- Break things down into smaller components. When your goals appear too big or too intimidating, it's difficult to focus on their completion. Developing the habit of breaking down big things into smaller pieces gives you more reasonably-sized chunks to focus on and helps you direct your focus to what matters most. For example, instead of focusing on "completing your social-media marketing audit," you can break down your audit by platform, and then each platform by task. It's much easier to focus on a five-minute task than it is to focus on something gargantuan and impenetrable.
- Set sprints for yourself. One of the best ways to increase focus isn't to eliminate distractions but rather to quarantine them. You can do this by establishing sprints and rests for yourself, much in the same way you could alternate sprinting and walking on a track instead of a constant jog. For example, you could set 45 minutes to work on a specific task, followed by a 15-minute break (the exact breakdown is up to you--everyone will have different preferences and natural tendencies). Because you know a break is coming, you'll be less tempted by incoming distractions.
Don't expect your ability to focus to turn around overnight. Only after practicing consistently will you start to see improvements, and even those will be gradual when you're first starting out. Instead of trying to find an action-reaction relationship between these exercises and measurable results, focus on making these exercises habits in your normal routine.