Experts Say This Mental Trick Can Improve Your Focus

Updated 04/21/17

In a world where technology rules and a never-ending news cycle provide constant stimulation, it’s a rarity to spend even a few minutes a day not really doing anything. The side effects of speeding through your to-do list without a moment’s rest are all too common: trouble focusing, stress, anxiety, and a cluttered mind.

Sound familiar? Lots of people spend their me time watching hours of Netflix, scrolling through their social feeds, or reading up on what’s going on in the world, and while we’re certainly not saying you should stop doing any of those things altogether, there’s something to be said for slowing down and learning to be in the moment.

“Being present to our surroundings helps us connect with ourselves and notice how we’re feeling,” explains Megan Mook, head teacher at MNDFL Meditation, who specializes in emotional intelligence and meditation. “When we are present to how we feel, we have more options for how to respond. The less present we are, the more we revert to automatic reactions, which are often limited. In short, being present opens up possibilities,” she says. So if you’re used to feeling stressed, you’ll continue to feel stressed unless you give your mind the chance to try something new—like feeling calm.

Basically, the more possibilities your mind has, the better, and all you have to do to get there is to actually take a purposeful break.

Below we asked mindfulness, mental health, and integrative wellness experts how you can take a mental pause during the day. Try out their strategies for feeling more focused, present, and at ease.

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Prolong Your Attention Span

Try This: Instituting Tech-Free Times

You probably get a steady stream of push notifications, and you might not even realize how much it’s distracting you. “The average American checks their smartphone between 35 and 75 times per day, depending on age group,” notes Tiffany Louise, LCSW, a professional coach and therapist. Phone checking can actually become a compulsive habit, which not only interrupts your thought processes when you’re trying to get things done but can also be used as a roundabout way to deal with feelings of stress.

“Interrupting this pattern can be a powerful act of mindfulness,” says Louise. By designating certain times when you don’t use your phone, tablet, or computer, you’re setting your brain up to get out of the custom of reaching for a device impulsively. In other words, specifically not using tech at certain points in the day will keep you from feeling like you need it in the middle of completing a task. “Oftentimes we turn to our phones when we are lonely, anxious, bored, or sad. And while we think it will make us feel better, scrolling through our feeds can be like a Band-Aid on something that actually needs stitches,” Louise explains.

Breaking the cycle of tech use can help you identify your feelings more clearly and stop distractions in their tracks. “Instead of turning to your tech, you can pick up the phone, write a letter, or meet a friend for coffee—something that can truly make you feel more connected.”

Reduce Mind Clutter

Try This: Concentrate on Small Actions

Ever feel like your mind is constantly jumping from one thought to another, even when you’re trying to accomplish one task? Mook says the answer to this is simple: Take an actual break. “Schedule white space in your calendar,” she recommends. “Downtime is essential for creativity and rejuvenation.” And aside from creating a full block of time in your schedule daily or weekly to just chill out, she has a couple of ways you can use a very short amount of time to reset your mind.

“Take sky-gazing breaks,” she suggests. “Look out the window or up at the sky and take three to five deep breaths. The expanse helps to reset and open the mind.” If that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, try this mindful activity: “Wash your hands in warm water and pay full attention to how relaxing and pleasurable the sensations are. Simple sensory pleasures help relax and destimulate the mind.” For the full effect, use a calming, aromatic hand soap and breathe deeply.

Be In The Moment

Try This: Making Your Meals Mindful

Eating shouldn’t just be something you have to do, and it definitely shouldn’t be rushed. “There’s something about having hot water and lemon in the morning that I like as a ritual,” says Vincent Pedre, MD and author of Happy Gut. “It slows you down.” In fact, he thinks the slow food movement is onto something, and focusing on your food while you eat can help you feel more present. “Everything in our lives has become so fast, but we need to recognize that we can’t reprogram our bodies to match our lifestyle.

Our digestive system isn’t like a computer.”

Makes sense, right? Your body is meant to do its own thing, in its own time, and trying to make it work faster will just make you feel stressed and possibly even sick. “That’s why it’s so detrimental to eat your lunch while rushed at your desk,” Pedre explains. So instead of scarfing down your food while you work, take your lunch outside, put your work away, take a look at your surroundings, and enjoy the fact that all you have to do for the next 30 minutes or so is eat.

Improve Focus

Try This: Creating a Later List

If you ever feel like you just can’t stay on track, there’s a really simple strategy for keeping your thoughts in check. “When you think of something that you want to look up that's unrelated to what you're working on, instead of switching tasks, jot it down on a notepad and save it for later,” recommends Mook. It might sound easy, but getting into the habit of not opening a million browser tabs for various ongoing tasks is actually pretty hard. That being said, once you get good at it, you’ll find it much easier to accomplish your daily goals.

Reduce Stress

Try This: Starting Your Day With Something Inspiring

“How we start our mornings can set the tone for the day, so our a.m. routines can be a great place to begin training our brains,” explains Louise. So if you normally reach for your phone to check your email and social channels as soon as you wake up, try something else for a few days and see how you feel. “Focus on consuming content that uplifts and centers you,” she suggests. “This could be an inspirational podcast, a daily meditation reading, or a series of deep breathing exercises. We often hear you are what you eat, and I would also argue that we can become what we consume and associate with.”

It makes sense that if you start your day by reading messages from your boss, thinking about everything you need to get done, and reading the latest anxiety-provoking headlines, you’ll be feeling stressed for the rest of the day. Instead, prioritize an activity that makes you feel great, like using a meditation app, and then tackle all the other stuff.

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Have you tried any of these mindfulness techniques? Tell us if you noticed a difference.

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