• improving focus and concentration

A sustainable formula to improve concentration and focus – part 2

Welcome back to part 2 of creating your own focus formula where we look at a prototypical day of an entrepreneur and give you actionable tips for creating a more focused lifestyle.

In part 1, we explained the pareto principle and how it is an extremely useful tool to declutter your day, find your most effective time slot and to focus on the top 20% most important tasks in your day before moving onto the rest. Next, we ran through the importance of exercising in the morning for your day’s productivity and how exercise can increase your focus for around 3 hours afterwards. Finally, we talked about ways to limit email usage to 3 times a day in order to maintain psychological well being.

In this post we’ll explain how becoming more mindful throughout the day is one of the most powerful secrets to becoming focused. Don’t worry, we’ll give you some easy tips that don’t necessarily involve meditation. We’re also going to go over the neuropsychological benefits of taking a midday siesta and how to actually implement them into a busy workday. Finally, we’re going to give you some powerful evidence for how being altruistic decreases stress in the brain.


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Let’s see what’s up next in our day!

Part 1 (done!)
Wake-up, shower and eat breakfast
Hit the Gym
Check email, grab coffee
Get to the office

Part 2 (right now!)
Emails and meetings
Lunch (if you find the time)
Meetings/research/more emails
Reading/relax (is that a thing?)
Before bed: more emails

 

1. Become zen

Now that you’ve reached your place of work, it’s time to become a little more zen throughout your day. Meditation is all the rage right now but there are so many ways to become more “zen” in life. It doesn’t have to involve becoming a monk or meditating for hours a day (although meditation is extremely beneficial). Devote 15 conscious minutes throughout your day (split it up as you wish) to become more mindful, before you know it, you will be doing these activities automatically and you’ll be on your way to living in the present.

benefits of meditation

source – artofliving.org

Here are some ways to live a more mindful life:

i) Do one thing at a time

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400’s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.” – Greg McKeown

The word priority should not be plural – your priorities make you less productive. Yet multitasking is addictive, our brains actually love it when we multitask because it feels like we’re completing more than we actually are. The truth is, training your mind to focus on one thing at a time will allow you to produce more meaningful results.

Start off small: when you’re eating, eat, when you’re walking, walk. Practice during these types of repetitive tasks, then move onto your bigger, less redundant tasks.

ii) Do things deliberately and slowly

Make all of your actions deliberate, not rushed or random – basically, just slow everything down and really think about what you’re doing.

Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly, and creative. It is what we do when the pressure is off, and there is time to let ideas simmer on the back burner. It yields rich, nuanced insights and sometimes surprising breakthroughs. – Carl Honoré, the author of In Praise of Slow

We rely on two systems of thought – one that’s automatic and fast (activating your “sympathetic” nervous system), the other is slow and more logical (activating your “parasympathetic” nervous system). Doing tasks more slowly and deliberately can help us shut down our mental autopilot. When we slow down, we allow the more logical part of our brain to step into the driver’s seat.

Want to learn more about these two thinking systems? Watch this short video by ASAP, to get a better idea for how these things work.

iii) Do things completely

We tend to jump from task to task before finishing them completely. Although switching between tasks may only cost a few tenths of a second, this adds up fast. In fact according to the American Psychological Association, constantly switching tasks can add up to a loss of 40% productivity – that’s over 3.2 hours a day!

Focus your mind completely on the task you are doing and that task only. Try not to move onto something else until you are completely finished.

iv) Develop rituals

A ritual is an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner – Merriam Webster

Rituals give tasks a sense of importance – this importance makes it easier to give tasks your entire attention by doing them slowly and effortfully. Create your own rituals for what you do when you wake up or before your go to bed, what you do before you exercise or before you get to work. These allow you to make small incremental modifications to your day and can add up to big changes in your life.

Tips about developing rituals:

  • Small rituals are key
    • Starting small overcomes the discomfort of something new
  • Add a ritual to an already existing one
    • Whether it’s setting a time for brainstorming or learning to meditate, try doing this around the same time as something else you regularly do like eating dinner or brushing your teeth before bed.
brushing your teeth

source – mirror.co.uk

  • The more you do it, the more it will feel normal
    • Daily rituals will expand your idea of “normal” and after two months you will identify with it as part of your life
  • Rituals will help you regain trust in yourself
    • It’s easy to become discouraged with yourself when you fail at achieving something. Rituals will help you regain self confidence.

vi)  Meditate

Try to dedicate a time in your day for meditation. This can be any activity dedicated to learning to be present. This can be a sitting meditation (use a meditation app such as headspace to get you started) or practice being in the present moment while you go for a run, walk, clean, etc. You can use any activity as long as you remain consistent, do it regularly and practice being in the present.

benefits of mental workout

source – headspace.com

While doing any of the above activities or simply take 2 minutes out of your day to practice one or more of these tips and you’ll train your mind to become more focused:

  • Focus on your senses
    Take 2 minutes during any part of your day and pay attention to everything around you. Try to use all of your senses, focus on the details of what you’re seeing, listen to the sounds around you (how many can you hear?), feel the fabric of your clothes and focus on how they feel. Notice all of this with an open mind, try not to label anything as good or bad, simply observe.

    How is this beneficial?
    This exercise will train your mind to be more present in the moment. With this, you will be more in tune with what you are experiencing- teaching you to pay more attention to your thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad. This will not only decrease your stress response, but it will also increase your experience with positive emotions and help you stay focused throughout your day.
noticing your senses

source – Ben White on Unsplash.com

 

  • Focus on your bodily sensations
    Take 2 minutes to focus on the inner workings of your body. Scan your body from head to toe. In this moment what do you feel? Do you have any discomfort?
    Another way to do this is to simply focus on one part of your body. For example, put all of your focus on your hand. What are the physical sensations you can feel? Can you feel how the energy is flowing through it?

    How is this beneficial?
    Focusing on our bodily sensations gives us the opportunity to experience the body without judgement or without trying to change it. This will release tension we weren’t even aware of before or draw our attention toward a source of discomfort. When we try to resist discomfort, we increase the distress associated with it. In addition to the attentional benefits, this practice will increase our attunement to our physical sensations which can decrease symptoms of stress and improve psychological well-being.

 

  • Label your feeling
    Whenever you’re feeling something outside of neutral take 2 minutes to reflect. What are you feeling? Label it and try to focus on the physical sensations you’re feeling throughout your body. For example, if you are feeling sad, where do you feel that sensation in your body. Follow that sensation and focus on all the physical sensations associated with that feeling.

    How is this beneficial?
    A study conducted by UCLA found that labelling your emotions can make them less intense and slow down your emotional responses. When we experience an emotional response, a part of our brain called the amygdala is activated (reactive brain). When we take the time to focus on these feelings and label them, we activate the prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) which reduces the activation of the amygdala- lessening our emotional responses.

 

label your emotions

source – beattractive.in

 

vii) Think only about what is necessary

Work on thinking only about necessary events in life; don’t bother living in the past or future. Try to establish a state of equanimity where you don’t dwell on things you can’t control and don’t bother worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. This will take some practice but being aware of when your mind goes off track is the first step!

A way to do this is by savoring the positive things throughout your day. Here’s how to practice this:

  • Take 10 minutes a day to go for a walk. Can’t find 10 minutes? Do this while walking from your car to your office or during your commute (park a bit further from work or get off 1-2 stops before your usual stop for a longer walk).
  • As you walk, try to notice as many positive things around you. This can be anything from smells to sights to the physical sensations of the sun or breeze on your skin. For example, you could focus on a beautiful tree you’ve never noticed before or the architecture of a building in your city.
  • As you notice each of these things, consciously focus on them in your mind – really take it in.

How is this beneficial?
During our day, we tend to be rushing from one thing to the next without really noticing or acknowledging the pleasant things around us. As a result, we miss positive emotions and experiences which are essential for long-term happiness. Research shows that this exercise will increase our focus to the positive experiences around us, leading to increased happiness and lower stress – all important for maintaining our overall focus.

Now that you have “zen” tips to implement throughout the meat of your day, let’s move onto what you can do after lunch to improve your focus even further.

 

2. Siesta time!

After lunch (please take the time to eat!- more on this in a future post) we tend to hit a midday slump. Due to biochemical changes in our body caused by digestion. This can make it very difficult to focus leading to a midday unproductivity. However, do not underestimate the power of a midday nap! The science is clear: power naps boost your productivity, increase focus, energy and mood!

Even just one day of insufficient sleep can hinder an individual’s important self control, making them more attentive and more likely to make mistakes. One study demonstrated how sleep habits and self-control are interwoven and how being tired can affect a person’s decision making and ability to deal with conflicts.

power of mid day nap

source – amerisleep.com

Dr. Matthew walker from the University of California Berkeley states:

“If your brain is an email account, sleep—and more specifically, naps—is how you clear out your inbox.”

This idea may seem crazy or even implausible to you however, a 2011 study done by Harvard researchers estimate that lack of sleep cost companies a staggering $63.2 billion in lost productivity. This could be the reason even highly effective companies are endorsing napping in the workplace, creating more productive teams. Just to name a few: Google and PwC have nap pods, Uber has small focus rooms that double as nap rooms and Capital one labs has sleeping nooks for then their team needs a quick shut eye break. Here are a couple tips and reasons why you should make this seemingly impossible task a reality:

i) Reason 1: Napping improves attention

This is the most important benefit. Whether you spend most of your days in meetings, working on product development or observing market trends, staying focused and alert is the most important determinant of efficiency. NASA studies have demonstrated that alertness can actually be improved as much as 100% after a brief nap, even among well-rested subjects!

ii) Reason 2: Napping will clear your brain’s inbox

Research findings suggest that during sleep, information is transferred from short term to long term storage. This action clears space for new learning and helps your brain process information.

iii) Reason 3: Napping lifts your mood and reduces anxiety

Researchers have found that a nap can lower agitation and improve mood. When you don’t get enough sleep, your body releases cortisol – a stress hormone that helps us deal with our fight or flight responses. Too much cortisol not only puts our body in a stressful state but it has also been known to weaken the muscle and immune systems and decreases learning ability.

Added bonus of napping: you release growth hormone which boosts your immune system, increases sexual function, decreases stress and anxiety, helps with muscle repair and weight loss.

iv) Tip 1: Find your circadian dip

Find the time of day when your energy starts to dwindle- usually halfway through wakefulness. For most people this is around 1-3pm in the afternoon. For example, if you wake up at 7am, your lull is probably around 1-2 pm.

From the moment you wake up, your brain produces a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep and suppresses arousal called adenosine. This builds up the longer you’re awake. After about 16 hours of being awake that chemical has build up so much that you have to sleep to release it. This is why napping during the day helps you to feel refreshed – you’re dissipating the adenosine buildup.

How long should you nap? The length of these power naps vary from person to person but generally you will want to aim between 15-20 minutes to avoid deep stages of sleep (which will cause grogginess).

v) Tip 2: Fall asleep quickly

  • Take deep, slow breaths
    • This type of breathing can slow heart rate and lower blood pressure, helping you get into a relaxed state.
  • Keep warm
    • Body temperature plays an important role in maintain circadian rhythms. Have you ever noticed you feel more tired on really hot days? Before your nap try having a hot cup of tea or make sure you’re prepared with warm clothes and blankets.
  • Stretch
    • Stress causes muscle tension, making it harder to lie down and relax. Try doing a couple minutes of stretching before you are about to nap. You could even combine this stretching with the deep breathing -aka yoga– for added relaxation.
  • Unplug
    • This is an obvious one, try to prevent any type of distractions while taking your short nap. Put your phone on silent.


vi) Tip 3: Don’t have nap pods or nap rooms?

For a lot of people finding a place to nap is most of the battle. So where can you find an isolated spot to help you sleep?

  • Your office
    • This is the most obvious solution but not everyone has an office. If you do, then close your door, limit the amount of light and take a snooze.
  • Conference room (for smaller teams or shared offices)
    • This is a great option to catch some z’s but make sure you reserve the room to prevent interruptions.
  • Parked car
    • If you commute to work, take a quick 15 minute nap in your car.
  • Game room (for smaller teams or shared offices)
    • If you have some kind of break room, set designated times in the afternoon devoted to napping.

Now that we’ve gone through most of the work day, let’s look at one of the most important things for our free time (after work).

 

3. Find ways to stay happy

This is one of the most important aspects of a focus formula because if you’re in a negative mood, it’s easy to get sucked into a spiral of worry and fear. With these known mood boosting activities, try to stop that as soon as you feel it coming. Some of these only require around 5 minutes of your day but can have a huge impact on your life and focus abilities.

i) Keep track of your mood with Realife change (iOS)

This app is great for helping you pinpoint your sources of stress by helping you track your mood. Becoming more introspective and understanding what makes you tick is the first step towards a better and happier life.

ii) Help others

Recent neurobiological research has found that both giving and receiving social support is related to a decrease in stress related activity in the brain. It is also associated greater activity in the reward/feel good areas. Helping others can take many forms. Donate your time to a cause you deem important or simply lend a listening ear to a friend.

iii) Make social connections

Maintaining our social relationships can lead to an increase in overall well-being and happiness in the same way as taking care of our body does. A Harvard study done spanning over 75 years and starting in 1938 on 268 males documented their emotional and physical well-being. They found that good relationships are vital to our health and happiness – quality over quantity!

importance of social connections

source – twitter.com

“The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80,” said Robert Waldinger with his wife Jennifer Stone. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer.


iv) Be positive!

power of journalist

source – thehustle.co

Being positive is not always easy but gratitude journaling can really help. Here’s how to do it:

  • Take 10 minutes between 1-3 times a week
  • Write down up to five things you feel grateful for in a journal.

Why try it?

It’s easy to take some of the wonderful things/people in our life for granted but research suggests that consciously acknowledging these things can have a great impact on our well-being and relationships. It can also lead to you becoming a happier person! A study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology had participants write in a gratitude journal weekly for 10 weeks or daily for 2 weeks. They found that those who wrote in the journal weekly for 10 weeks experienced more gratitude, optimism and positive moods compared to those who wrote in the journal daily!

Turn your focus into valuable results. Take some time to think of your own focus formula and master the art of becoming a more productive and valuable leader. Take action now!

 

Recap

Let’s take a look at what we’ve learned in part 2 of “building your own focus formula”. We’ve looked at the second part of our day and we’ve given you some new tools to implement throughout.

Part 1
Wake-up, shower and eat breakfast
Hit the Gym
Check email, grab coffee
Get to the office

Part 2
Emails and meetings
Lunch (if you find the time)
Meetings/research/more emails
Reading/relax (is that a thing?)
Before bed: more emails

Let’s go through these again:

  • We learned the importance of being more zen throughout our day:
    • Avoid multi-tasking; when you’re eating, eat, when you’re walking, walk
    • Make all of your actions deliberate, not rushed or random
    • Try not to jump to something else until you are completely finished
    • Develop rituals to make small incremental modifications to your day can add up to big changes in your life
    • Try to dedicate a time in your day to be more mindful
    • Don’t bother living in the past or future
  • Napping is good!
    • Napping will clear your brain’s inbox
    • Napping lifts your mood and reduces anxiety
    • Napping improves attention
    • Find your circadian dip
    • Fall asleep quickly
    • Figuring out where to nap is easier than you think!
  • Find ways to stay happy:
    • Keep track of your mood
    • Help others
    • Make social connections
    • Be happy through gratitude

You may be thinking, “this is all great but how does this help me specifically improve my focus?” Well, it’s easy, all of these activities are indirectly related to attention and focus. Mindfulness/meditation is a great way to train your mind to zero in on things and disregard distractions, napping re-sets your attentional system, leaving you feeling refreshed and ready to handle challenges. Finally, training yourself to become and overall happier person allows you to dial in on the tasks at hand without interference. With these lessons, you have enough to start your very own focus formula. Modify as it fits best to you and take this knowledge to inspire you!

2017-09-09T03:14:54+00:00