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Why Your Thoughts Wander, and What You Can Do About It
When people lose focus, they tend to blame themselves. You may decide you’re not trying hard enough, or you’re not thinking the right way, but these aren’t accurate assessments. When it comes to concentration, a lot has to do with your physical health, immediate surroundings, and natural mental tendencies.
In order to improve your concentration, you need to create conditions that make it easier to focus. Once you understand what commonly interferes with attention, you can shake up your routine and shift your perspective to restore your focus.
It’s no surprise fatigue can sap concentration. Since the mind and body are connected, depleting the body’s energy will surely encourage fuzzy thinking and problems with focus. Indeed, studies show that sleep loss impairs a variety of brain functions, from attention span to memory.
But did you know staying up just one hour longer than usual can affect your focus the next day? Not only is fatigue one of the strongest concentration-killers, it also adds up more quickly than you might imagine. Every person has slightly different sleep needs, but if you’re getting less than seven hours a night, consider making some adjustments to allow for a bit more shut-eye.
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Worry can seep into every corner of your life, and whether you’re fretting over finances or dwelling on a bothersome interaction, it’s going to infect your current line of thought. The worst part is that worrying won’t bring you any sort of resolution — you’re taxing your mind and focus for no reward.
The quicker you can overcome this major mental distraction, the quicker you will regain your confidence and concentration. Of course, disposing of worry is easier said than done, but one way to get rid of your thoughts is to physically transfer them onto paper: quickly jot down anything that’s worrying you, along with any related issues to revisit later on.
Prefer to talk through your anxieties? Recruit a good listener, or use a voice recording app for note-taking.
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It’s far more difficult to focus on dull or boring tasks that don’t tap into your interests or challenge your mind. Couple boredom with ready access to the Internet, and you’ve got a recipe for chronic distraction.
Not every aspect of life will be equally stimulating, but you can make the more mundane tasks seem a bit more appealing by giving yourself small rewards for staying on task. A cup of tea, a little walk, a chapter from a good book, or a bite of satisfying chocolate are all good options. Just be careful not to go overboard, especially when high-calorie treats are involved.
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You probably know malnutrition can be physically harmful, but even skipping a meal can have nasty effects on your mental acuity. Painful rumblings in your stomach are distracting, low blood sugar leads directly to fatigue, and a lack of nutrients will slow down brain function. All of this works against your concentration.
You can ward off hunger by eating something every few hours, but choose your menu carefully: poor or incomplete nutrition can be almost as bad for brain power as no food at all. Protein is crucial to produce important brain chemicals, while iron and vitamins B and D will bolster your cognitive function.
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For most people, some degree of stress is inevitable. In manageable amounts, stress won’t damage your day — in fact, it could even help you stay motivated. But when little bouts of stress merge into consistent and pervasive stress, your mind will almost certainly suffer.
Chronic stress interferes with your body and mind at a cellular level. Physical and emotional stress alter hormone levels, and can short-circuit messages in the brain, leaving you feeling anxious and mentally disorganized. If you can get a handle on your stress, you’re sure to see improvements in every areas of your daily life.
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Lack of Exercise
Exercising regularly will help your concentration in a few ways. First, it helps you burn off extra energy or restlessness that can keep your attention jumping around, but a good workout can also increase your capacity to learn and remember (which makes it particularly important for anyone with ADHD).
Heart-pumping exercise is psychologically rejuvenating, but simply moving around can bring measurable improvement in your focus, too. Researchers have found that walking stimulates cognitive function and creativity, which explains why a solitary stroll can help you solve problems or build ideas.
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Multitasking is a powerful illusion: it seems like you’re getting more done, but the slivers of time it takes to switch back and forth between tasks will add up to a big slice of your day. A good deal of your brainpower is lost in those transitions — you need to subconsciously reset each time you turn your attention to something new.
Taking on simultaneous tasks may not be avoidable, but you can pick and choose which projects go together (and which should not). In general, a mentally demanding task should take all of your attention at any given time, but something very familiar or automatic can pair with a similarly routine task. Be smart about your multitasking, and you’ll save your focus when you really need it.
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For many people, computers and smartphones are practically extensions of the body, and they’re constantly begging for attention. A flicker on the screen or a ringing alert is enough to pull you from any task at hand, especially if you’ve made it a habit to favor your device.
Although it’s common to feel like you need to read or respond to the message right away, that’s hardly ever the case. In order to take back control over technology, set aside specific times to check email and social media. You don’t have to limit yourself to once a day, just be sure you stick to your schedule so you can work (or think, or complete any other task) when you need to, without interruption.
Busy lives breed lots of distraction, and you’ll need to address different aspects of your lifestyle, obligations and expectations to find out where to make the most changes for more focus. There’s no single solution to concentration problems, but meditation is one route that can improve mental control.
A mindfulness meditation course will teach you how to manage distracting thoughts and direct your focus where you need it, and once you get the hang of the method, you’ll be able to apply it to any situation.