How to Focus Easily in a World of Distractions: 6 Techniques

How to focusAttention is a limited resource. As humans, we must be selective about what to focus on.

As a basic component of biology, determining what aspects of the environment to attend to is a process that helps us survive.

Our natural reflex in response to loud noises helps us avoid danger. Paying attention to hunger cues tells us we need to eat.

But what if these cues become overwhelming, and distractions erode our ability to concentrate on a task at hand?

For those who want to know how to focus despite the noise, whether internal or from your environment, we share techniques to help improve your attention.

“Everyone knows what attention is. It is taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”

William James, 1890

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Understanding the Basics of Attention

Understanding the basics of attention is crucial when learning how to focus. In its most basic sense, attention refers to focusing and processing information from the environment.

There are four main types of attention: selective attention, divided attention, sustained attention, and executive attention (Levy, 2019).

Selective attention

Selective attention is also known as concentration, or the ability to focus on one thing for a long period of time. Selective attention involves focusing on one task and engaging in it while simultaneously blocking out distractions.

Selective attention peaks in adults at age 40 and then gradually declines with age (Fortenbaugh et al., 2015).

Divided attention

Divided attention, also called multitasking, involves trying to focus on several different tasks at the same time (Wu, 2015). Similarly, alternate attention is shifting focus from one task to another (back and forth) multiple times.

These types of attention increase the likelihood of making mistakes and are less efficient than other forms of attention (Wu, 2015).

Sustained attention

Sustained attention is focusing on one person, task, or event for a specific period of time (Wu, 2015). For example, staying engaged in a conversation and focused on the dialogue until the conversation is over.

Executive attention

Executive attention is the ability to block out external stimuli in order to focus on a task that has more importance than other stimuli in the environment (Wu, 2015). It is similar to selective attention but involves a conscious effort to prioritize tasks and attend to them accordingly.

5 Reasons You Can’t Stay Focused

Reasons you cannot focusBecause attention is limited both in capacity and duration, staying focused can be challenging for people of all ages and cognitive ability.

The following are just a few of the many contributing factors in the challenge of learning how to focus.

1. Medical conditions

Mental and emotional health issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression contribute directly to attention and the ability to stay focused. Mental illness affects the brain, which is also the central hub of our ability to focus (Liu et al., 2018).

Many mental health issues involve problems producing or using dopamine, which is an essential chemical messenger for motivation, pleasure, and attention regulation (Liu et al., 2018). Dysfunction in dopamine may make tasks seem repetitive and boring and decrease levels of focus.

2. Stress

Both acute and chronic stress have an impact on our ability to focus. Stress impairs cognitive function and the ability to learn, decreases work productivity, and interferes with daily life tasks (Qingjin et al., 2020).

Most of us have personal experience with trying to concentrate during stressful times and know how challenging it can be.

3. Hunger

Hunger causes shifts in attention. Food stands out more and seems more interesting because the physical body is searching for sustenance. The attentional effects of being hungry influence hormones related to hunger. They increase arousal and make it difficult to maintain a vigilant state (Montagrin et al., 2021).

4. Lack of sleep

Sleep is closely tied to mood, energy levels, and attention. Lack of sleep slows cognitive function, impairs the ability to learn and remember, and hampers the ability to concentrate or focus on complex tasks (Peri, n.d.).

5. Poor diet

We all know the importance of a nutritious diet for physical health. But a poor diet affects our mental state as well. It can cause fatigue and poor reaction time and impair decision-making skills (Gomez-Pinilla, 2008).

On the other hand, a healthy diet can improve concentration and ability to focus. Processed foods interfere with dopamine receptors in the brain, which influence an array of mental health issues, particularly increased levels of anxiety and depression (Gomez-Pinilla, 2008).

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How to Focus Better: 4 Proven Strategies

There are many strategies that clients can implement into daily life to improve their general ability to concentrate and learn how to focus better.

1. Practice mindfulness

A regular mindfulness practice can change the neural pathways of the brain and lead to better attention, focus, and cognitive function (Norris et al., 2018).

Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment or expectation.

2. Increase time spent reading

Reading helps work the “focus muscle” of the brain. The longer you can stay engaged in a book, the more focus is rewarded, rather than distraction, which will help increase attention span in daily life (Yildiz & Çetinkaya, 2017).

Reading can also improve memory and decrease levels of stress for many people (Yildiz & Çetinkaya, 2017), making it a helpful strategy to improve focus.

3. Practice holding attention

Just like anything in life, improving the ability to focus takes practice. Taking a few moments every day to intentionally focus on a task can help increase concentration and attention span.

It can be something mundane, such as rehearsing a series of numbers or words and trying to remember them later in the day. Or it may include holding attention for specific periods of time while doing either simple or complex tasks and trying to lengthen the amount of time each week.

4. Get physical activity

As mentioned, physical health directly impacts mental health and wellbeing, including the ability to focus. For example, physical activity helps produce opioids and endocannabinoids that are linked to pleasure, the ability to sleep, and mood states that influence the general ability to concentrate (Mahindru et al., 2023).

Additionally, Mahindru et al. (2023) found that exercise can directly improve attention, focus, memory, cognition, and the ability to make decisions.

This video elaborates on ways to practice and learn how to focus and hold attention.

How to get your brain to focus - Chris Bailey

6 Techniques to Stay Focused & Attentive

In work or school settings, clients can practice simple techniques to help sustain attention and learn how to focus, which will increase efficiency and productivity.

When implemented regularly, these techniques can teach individuals how to focus.

1. Create a distraction to-do list

This technique involves identifying distractions as they come up throughout your day. For example, wanting to check the weather or email while working on an unrelated task can be a distraction.

Checking social media is a common and problematic distraction. When the urge to participate in these distractions pops up, write them down rather than engaging in them. This becomes your distraction to-do list.

With the distracting urge now captured on paper, your focus can again return to the task at hand. The technique is just as effective for “don’t forgets” that pop up while trying to work. Once these distractions are captured in a to-do list, you will have more peace of mind and be able to stay attentive to the current task.

2. Try the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a tool that was designed to help students study, but it can be used to help anyone complete tasks that require mental energy and focus.

This time-management technique involves the following steps:

  • Select a specific task or subject to study.
  • Set a timer for 25–30 minutes and work continuously until the timer goes off.
  • Take a five-minute break.
  • Repeat for four rounds before taking a longer 20-to-30-minute break.

This video from the University of Pittsburgh provides more detail.

Pomodoro technique - Study Lab

3. Assess and adjust stimulation level

Often, we lose focus and attention because tasks are not engaging or stimulating enough. Creating more interest in activities may be able to prolong the attention span.

One way to do this is to make a game of your task. Challenge your ability to stay with it until a specific amount of time has elapsed or you get to a specific stopping point. You could also time yourself to see if you can complete the task faster.

4. Connect with nature

There are a multitude of benefits to being outdoors and connecting with nature. In fact, bringing aspects of nature into the workspace can actually help specifically with focus and concentration.

Nieuwenhuis et al. (2014) found that incorporating plants and outdoor pieces of nature into office spaces increased productivity, satisfaction, and the ability to concentrate.

5. Try caffeine (in moderation)

Moderate amounts of caffeine from coffee or green tea can enhance concentration and focus, particularly on simple and mundane tasks (Einother & Giesbrecht, 2013).

It can also help with executive function, orientation, and staying alert (Einother & Giesbrecht, 2013). Excessive consumption can have effects on the heart and cause jitters, so limiting intake and avoiding caffeine close to bedtime would be optimal.

6. Create a healthy bedtime routine

Since sleep is crucial to mental health and the ability to focus, creating a healthy bedtime routine is a great technique to implement in daily life.

A healthy routine may include going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, shutting off all blue light/technology devices at least 30 minutes before bed, and incorporating a relaxing ritual in the evening, such as taking a bath, doing gentle yoga, reading a book, or meditating.

This article discusses the how-tos and benefits of a body scan meditation, which can help clients fall asleep and improve the quality of sleep.

4 Tips to Increase Concentration & Focus

Tips to increase focusThere are many ways to increase concentration and learn how to focus in even the most stressful environments.

Clients who are particularly prone to distractions or are easily overwhelmed may benefit from these tips.

1. Prioritize tasks

Before starting the day, creating a list of things that need to be done can be helpful. Once the list is completed, prioritize tasks in order of importance.

Some tasks may have deadlines or be more urgent than others, so completing these first while the mind and body are fresh can help improve focus and motivation for the rest of the tasks.

2. Concentrate on one task at a time

Multitasking may seem more efficient in the moment, but research shows that trying to juggle multiple things decreases productivity and increases the likelihood of making mistakes (Schrift & Zauberman, 2018).

Concentrating on one task with sustained attention before moving on to the next will improve the ability to focus.

3. Create a specific space for work

Having a designated area or space to complete work can prepare the mind to focus on the subject matter rather than wandering to other places. A clean, orderly, and calm space will help to improve concentration and focus. Make the workspace only for work and nothing else.

4. Listen to music

Listening to background music has been shown to decrease mind wandering and increase task-focused states (Kiss & Linnell, 2020).

Playing relaxing or repetitive soft music while performing tasks is a simple way to increase concentration and focus.

How to Focus With ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that impacts 8.7% of children and nearly 6.7% of adults in the United States (Abdelnour et al., 2022).

Some of the challenges of ADHD include hyper-focusing or fixating on unimportant tasks, difficulty organizing information, becoming easily distracted, getting sidetracked, and making careless mistakes.

While pharmacology and medication are considered the first line of treatment for ADHD, there are often side effects to the stimulants prescribed, which include decreased appetite, anxiety, headaches, and nausea (Abdelnour et al., 2022).

Non-pharmacological treatment methods include:

  • Parental training can equip parents with information and practical skills to teach children how to focus. Parents learn about reward and consequence systems that improve focus and also how to implement regular routines that can help children remember and organize daily tasks.
  • Mindfulness-based attention training can help both children and adults keep their attention on one thing for longer and decrease the stress response when distractions arise.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques involve changing thinking patterns and implementing behavioral routines. These can help improve focus, decrease the duration of distraction, and increase motivation in completing tasks.

Accessibility tools

Given the prevalence of ADHD in both children and adults, many tools have become available to assist in school, work, scheduling, and daily life while learning how to focus.

Rhyme to Read

Rhyme to read

This program was designed by educators for young students and provides tools to help with reading. By using interactive techniques, students work through activities that teach reading skills and help make learning to read intuitive and fun.

I-Ready learning

I-Ready learning

Curriculum Associates offers K–8 students games to help them learn math. With videos and interactive tools, this program helps keep students engaged and focused.

MindNode

Mindnode

The MindNode app is designed for a multitude of different things. It can be used to help brainstorm, keep track of tasks, manage time, create outlines, and record ideas in the moment.

This is an easily accessible tool and may be helpful for individuals with ADHD who struggle to stay focused and on task and complete projects.

Any.do

Any.do

The Any.do app is a brilliant tool that helps break down tasks into smaller segments, visually organize them, schedule them, and share them with family or team members.

These techniques can be extremely useful for individuals with ADHD who often struggle to stay organized and feel overwhelmed with large tasks.

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Resources From PositivePsychology.com

PositivePsychology.com also offers a variety of resources that can be helpful for guiding clients in how to focus, improve concentration, and accomplish tasks efficiently.

Since mindfulness is beneficial for improving focus, concentration, and learning to eliminate distractions, you may enjoy reading more about the neuroscience of mindfulness and how it can help with the cognitive function of attention.

In addition, we also recommend this article regarding sleep hygiene tips, which provides guidance on how to improve sleep hygiene.

A must-read book for anyone wanting to know how to focus is Deep Work, as this is the nirvana of focus and concentration. It is an incredible, in-depth study on how to manage your time and enhance your focus and productivity.

As mentioned, not only are the benefits of mindfulness helpful for decreasing stress in the moment, but they also extend to better cognitive function and increased ability to concentrate over time. This Breath Awareness worksheet guides clients through a mindful breathing practice that can be done on a regular basis.

Goals can help provide direction, guidance, and motivation that are often needed when the ability to focus is low. This SMART+ Goals Worksheet gives clients a step-by-step guide to setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based goals that will engage attention, awareness, and focus.

Clients often struggle to focus because they are overwhelmed and distracted by indecisiveness. This Decision-Making Worksheet helps clients select a specific problem and work through the decision-making process so they can fully focus attention on completing the task or problem.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others become more productive and efficient, check out this collection of 17 validated productivity and work efficiency exercises. Use them to help others prioritize better, eliminate time wasters, maximize their personal energy, and more.

A Take-Home Message

Learning how to focus is something that many of us struggle with, either acutely or chronically, on a daily basis. Attention plays a role in every area of life, from the time we are newborns to the day that we die. Attention and the ability to focus help humans process information, complete tasks, and create memories.

While attention has been an area of interest for hundreds of years, new ways of understanding and improving it continue to develop. These areas include understanding the neural circuitry related to conditions such as ADHD and identifying ways to strengthen the ability to concentrate and focus.

In a world filled with distractions, learning how to focus is becoming increasingly important to individual and collective wellbeing.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Productivity Exercises for free.

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