3 Science-Based Practices To Regain Focus
Or how to train your mind to wander less
Our attention runs away with whatever dangles an alluring carrot in front of it. Because the promise of an immediate reward is too hard to resist for a human brain. And off we go, from a task at hand into a rabbit hole of whatever shines the most.
But it does not have to be this way. Our attention span is comparable to a muscle that could be trained to be less distracted.
1. Monitor and observe without attachment
Amishi Jha, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, recommends practising paying attention to what’s happening around you without fixating on an object. It forms part of the MBAT or mindfulness-based program.
“You don’t process it, you don’t think about it, you just notice its occurrence and allow it to dissipate.” — Amishi Jha
The trick is to observe everything that is happening around you like they are sea waves, crushing against the beach. Things come and go, people or objects appear and disappear. We don’t linger on anything; we don’t start analysing or thinking about what we are seeing.
If our mind keeps wandering to have a ponder, we could label what we see as ‘over-analysing, judging’, etc. Jha compares this activity with cloud watching. You are aware of their different shapes, colours and density, but you don’t get attached to any cloud, you allow them to float by.
2. Introduce a brief diversion
A study conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shows that a brief distraction could help us stay focused for longer.
If we spend too much time concentrating on one task, for example writing a report, the chances are we’ll soon lose focus. This is because our brain becomes so used to the task that it stops classify it as ‘meaningful’. It’s known as ‘goal habituation’. But if we introduce short or rare breaks or switch tasks to perform something different, we will revert focus to the original task.
“From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!” — Alejandro Lleras
If you are out of focus and stuck unable to complete your task, do not push on. Instead, do something else for some time. Maybe answer a quick question on Quora or call that plumber that you meant to book last week.
3. Play a video game
Do you love playing video games? Then, I have good news for you.
“A growing body of evidence suggests that action videogames could enhance a variety of cognitive skills and more specifically attention skills.” — Frontiers in Psychology
According to the study by the University of Arkansas, ‘just one hour spent playing video games has an effect on the brain’. Scientists used electroencephalography, or EEG to monitor participant’s brain activity during the experiment. And apparently, games, especially at an expert level, can improve attention skills and visual selective attention.
Another study shows that ‘shooter’ action games could have a positive effect on task-switching skills and attentional control. This is because when playing you need to monitor the game field, pay extra attention to multiple objects and rapidly switch your focus.
But all researchers point out that further studies are needed to understand how long-lasting the effect is and if there are other implications. The benefits are also more obvious in experts or those who play often and consistently.
So next time you feel that your focus is dwindling, why not reach out to that game console and exercise your fingers and your brain? Who knows and in a few months' time you might become an expert and improve your focus and attention as a bonus.
And there you have it. 3 useful practices to regain focus.
If you are short on time and need to regain focus, try open monitoring as it will also calm your mind and help you relax.
If you are in the middle of something long and laborious, taking breaks or chunking your task into smaller parts might do the trick.
Or if you are into video games, do not put off reaching an expert level as it will eventually do you a good deed by improving your attention skills.