8 Ways to Improve Your Focus and Control Your Attention

by Stephen Mills on October 25, 2010

Focus

These days there may be no scarce resource more valuable than your attention and no ability more important than being able to focus that attention.  Success, however you define it, is dependent upon your ability to focus your attention.

This is such an important topic it cannot be covered in depth in a blog article, even a long one like this.  This article will provide you valuable practical tips, but if you want to go deeper into the subject I would recommend the following resources:

Leo Babauta has written a free eBook Focus: A Simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction.  It is fairly wide ranging and covers Leo’s overall simplicity and single-task focus philosophy.  Like all of Leo’s work it is well done and short.  It’s free and so it is well worth your time (a couple of hours to read).  He has a paid version with additional material that I did not purchase.

A much more content dense and frankly significantly better book is Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload by Lucy Jo Palladino.  While Leo’s book is useful, this book is much more focused on focus and I got a lot of practical tips out of it.  Of course you have to pay for this one.

A very different book is Can I Have Your Attention?: How to Think Fast, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Concentration by Joseph Cardillo.  This book contains a lot of science and interesting information.  It was a very compelling read that I couldn’t put down, but it is rather light on practical tips.

How to Improve Your Focus and Control Your Attention

1 – Improve Your Working Memory

This is something that is not very widely known, but research has clearly demonstrated that working memory capacity is is critical to both controlling your attention and the ability to ignore distractions.  I put this number one because I think it may be the most important and you ignore it at your own peril.  Working memory capacity was believed to be fixed and genetically determined, but it has been recently shown that it can be improved significantly.  Working memory also declines with age, stress, and lack of exercise.  See my article Working Memory – Why It’s Important and How To Improve It for more information.

2 – Control Your Environment

If you fail to control your environment, you will harm your ability to focus.  Even if you think you are focusing well, you will be using some working memory resources to filter out distractions.  Those resources are better utilized in the activity on which you have focused your attention.

Do not worry too much about what other people will think including your family.  Some people are offended if you put on headphones or go into another room.  As if your job at work or life is to be on instant response alert to their needs.  Get over it.  If you are truly needing to focus then you should give it your all and give your coworkers or family the full attention they deserve some other time.

  • If you are exposed to auditory distractions like co-workers, TV, or family racket go somewhere quiet or try sound isolating earphones.  Play your music or stimulation sounds as described below.  If you don’t want to play sounds then just go for inexpensive foam earplugs.
  • If you are exposed to visual distractions go somewhere else or block your view.  Visual distractions, especially electronic ones like TV are designed to grab your attention.  You can’t help being distracted even peripherally no matter what you think.  You simply must block it from view.  All kinds of visual distraction – the hubbub of people and activity around you for example – can be very tempting and disruptive. In your work area is open, put up plants, pictures, or other items to block your line of sight.
  • Shut down any computer or electronic equipment that may potentially distract you.  Don’t use willpower to resist temptation because willpower is a limited resource.  The more you use it the less you have.  The more difficult you make it to be distracted, by shutting down email, IM, cell phones and computers, the better.  If you are working on your computer, only open the applications needed to perform the task and shut down everything else.
  • For some people it also helps to eliminate clutter or other objects that might distract them – that includes photographs that may tempt them to take a trip down memory lane.

3 – Limiting Daily Disruption and Demands on Your Time

Daily disruptions and ad-hoc requests are a huge problem for most people.  We are constantly being pinged; by IM, email, text, cell phone, banners, pop-ups, etc.  Rings, pings, and bells from your friends, family, and colleagues aren’t the only problem.  Marketers via internet, television, and print ads are using sophisticated techniques informed by brain science to figure out how to grab your attention.  Your brain is wired in ways that make it almost impossible to resist these techniques.  You are increasingly bombarded with demands on your attention, and failure to control it means failure to be who you really want to be.  You do not have to respond to all of this.  Doing so simply makes a a slave to the demands of others.

“We flit from one task to another, one response to another, living a life driven by the needs of others, instead of what we need, what we feel is important.

You don’t need to respond.” –Leo Babauta

If you have trained others that your are always available to respond to requests, you need to retrain them to expect something else.  Make it clear to people when you will be available for ad hoc requests and when you aren’t.

  • You can schedule blocks of uninterrupted time.
  • You can put up signs in your work area that you are not available.
  • You can close the door.
  • You can shut down IM and email and either turn off or not answer your phone.
  • You can find a privacy room, a conference room, a library, or a coffee shop to get away from others.
  • You can be assertive with your valuable time and resources

4 – Be Aware of Your Stimulation Level

In her book Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, Lucy Jo Palladino describes the inverted U theory of performance and being in the “focus zone”.

Inverted U

The zone is the area between too little and too much stimulation where optimal performance can occur.  Too little stimulation leads to boredom and you are unable to maintain focus.  Too much stimulation leads to anxiousness and hyper activeness that decrease performance.

You need to monitor your stimulation level and increase it when it is too low and decrease it when it is too high.  Palladino suggest you rate your stimulation level on on a scale of 1 to 10.  To help you you with that, think of 0 (most relaxed) being equivalent to laying in a hammock stretched between palm trees on a beach; 5 (relaxed but alert) would be how you feel when you are working at your desk getting things done; 10 (most tense) would be waiting for news about a loved one after an accident.

5 – Adjust Your Stimulation Level

Depending upon the activity in which you are engaged, the level of stimulation required probably ranges between 3 and 7.  Focusing on a good novel might only be a 3 while a relaxed zone athletic performance might need to be a 7.  If you are having trouble focusing, decide whether you need to increase or decrease your your stimulation level.

To lower your stimulation level
  • The very best way I have found is belly breathing.  You can do this anywhere and anytime.  You can do it more subtly than shown in this video if you are in public.
    If you don’t see the video in email click here.

  • Play music or sounds that relax you.  It can be anything that works for you.  I like ocean and rain sounds.
  • Take a low stimulation break.  Set outside, drink a cup of tea, take a short walk, or do some stretching.
To increase your stimulation level
  • Play upbeat music or videos.  Try listening to or playing the Theme from Rocky video or Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer on the piano.  Upbeat classical music like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is also excellent.  Play loud rock and roll music (with headphones if you are around others) or whatever gets you pumped.
  • Take a power break.  It can be anything you want.  Watch funny YouTube videos, play an intense video game, run around the block or dance a little jig.  Getting up and moving around is a great way to both increase your stimulation when you are bored and decrease your stimulation when you are stressed.
  • Multitask.  That’s right I said multitask.  The one time I would recommend multitasking is when you are doing something that is not stimulating.  I often do my boring tasks while watching sports on TV.  You can actually increase your focus on the boring task and perhaps keep from falling asleep or screaming in frustration by doing something else at the same time.

6 – Just Say No To Commitments

Many, if not most people enslave themselves in their commitments.  I think commitments of time and money are enormous mistakes.  If you commitment money to cars, homes, or a lifestyle, you are committing your time and focus to earning money to pay for them.  That is time and focus you will not have for what you really want.

When you commitment your time, you are making the same mistake, although time commitments may be easier to escape.  You can volunteer, help others, or do whatever else you do via commitments in a dynamic and ad-hoc way; you do not have to commit to them.  Commitments almost never fail to come back to haunt you because they show up at the worst possible time – time when you want or need to focus on something else.

I’ve written about this topic in Edit Your Life and Freedom from Commitment. You will never truly have the time or attention to focus on what you really want unless you break free of the chains of commitment.

7 – Control Your Emotions

On this blog I preach the importance of peaceful well-being.  By nature I’m a moody person and I’ve had to work hard to develop my own peace and well-being.  I still have a long way to go, but  I can attest to the importance of a calm centeredness and mindful awareness and their impact on your ability to focus your attention.  I spent many years too stressed and moody to focus effectively.  Too much adrenaline prevents you from controlling your focus.  Too much cortisol (stress hormone) and you lose the ability to focus on much of anything as well as inflicting long term damage on important parts of your brain.

Do yourself a favor and get this book which is about life not just work: Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful – No Matter What If you check out the reviews you will see I’m not the only person who raved about it.

See these article for more information:

Put Down Those Rocks
Eliminating Your Investment in the Outcome
Top 25 Small Things You Let Ruin Your Mood
The Best Ways To Not Sweat The Small Stuff – Part I and  Part II

8 – Limit Your Stream of Information

“With so many distractions, it’s impossible to truly focus on the important.
We try to drink the stream, but it’s too voluminous and never-ending to take
in this way.” – Leo Babauta

Accept the fact that you cannot possibly absorb it all or even the teeny tiniest fraction.

“A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England.”  — Theodore Roszak

I used to have a severe problem with limiting my stream because I was suffering from the fear of missing out.  The trouble is that when you try to drink from the fire hose of  available information, you actually do miss out.  You are so distracted and overwhelmed you don’t have time to absorb and integrate anything valuable.  When I finally stood up to the fear and just let it go I was able to reduce the stream to something interesting and manageable.

You do not have to read / listen to/ watch every available tweet, Face Book update, IM, email, news update, blog article (except mine of course), podcast, TV show, or video.  I would recommend starting from scratch.  Get rid of all your sources of information and add back only those you truly need or want.  I’ve probably eliminated 95% of my stream over the last couple of years.

Well there it is.  What do YOU think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.

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Rene
November 1, 2010 at 11:13 am
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August 8, 2014 at 12:44 am

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Heather October 25, 2010 at 5:59 pm

I love to read your page because you always help me in one way or another. You try steer people in the right direction instead of on a wild goose chase. I want to thank you for this. I feel better about myself because I have tried several of your suggestions.

Reply

Stephen Mills October 26, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Hello Heather, that was a wonderful thing to say. Thank you! :-)

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Marion Anderson October 26, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Stephen this is excellent. There is so much information and so many resources. I love the knock on effect to – if you can focus and control your attention you make much better use of your time and improve your time management skills. Also as you work on one thing at a time you feel less overwhelmed.
Great post – Thank you
Marion Anderson´s last [type] ..Have you turned into a Frog

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Stephen Mills October 26, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Hi Marion, thanks. I’m glad you liked it! :-)

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Pearl December 11, 2012 at 12:19 am

The brief magnetic peluss emitted during TMS depolarize the neurons in the prefrontal cortex.This depolarization causes the neuron to send an electrical signal down the axon in order to signal the release of neurotransmitters. This signaling continues throughout the neurocircuit which connects the PFC to the Limbic System (the brain’s emotional center). With repeated stimulation, this activity becomes self-sustaining and promotes the growth of new connections through neuroplasticity.

Reply

Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills October 27, 2010 at 12:08 am

So many great tips Stephen. It’s amazing how much effort needs to go into eliminating distractions these days. The overall effect of electronic noise is quite unique to our place in history and seems to increasing at a staggering rate. Having a list of practical steps designed to support focus is a must anymore. Without a strategy we can easily be swallowed up.
Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last [type] ..TRUE SELF its Who You Are not What You Do

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Stephen Mills October 27, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Hi Jonathan, that’s an interesting perspective that I’ve never though of: how much effort goes into not being distracted. There is some balance in taking advantage of all the benefits without as you say “getting swallowed up.” Thanks for commenting :-)

Reply

Steven Aitchison October 27, 2010 at 12:51 am

Hi Stephen. A lot of great information in this article. Sometimes the amount of information we have to take in with distractions and over stimulation is deafening.

I love the video on belly breathing.
Steven Aitchison´s last [type] ..Why Female Entrepreneurs Are Better Than The Men

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Stephen Mills October 27, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Hi Steven, thanks. I’ve cut the amount of information I allow myself to be exposed to very significantly and I haven’t noticed that I’m losing out on anything :-)

Reply

Haider October 27, 2010 at 2:24 am

Hi Stephen,

Thank you for the tips, and your book recommendations! :D

I’m going to have to disagree about the belly breathing bit, though. I took a few Alexander Technique sessions last summer and discovered why belly breathing doesn’t match the way the human body functions.

We don’t breathe with our bellies. We breathe with our lungs.

The Alexander Technique encourages effortless breathing by exhaling, then allowing the lungs to act as a vacuum to draw the air in. It also points out how we have a skewed understanding of our rib movement, which restricts our breathing. The ribs have the capacity to expand in all directions, but we limit their movement forward, while ignoring the sides and back, and belly breathing seems to encourage this limited movement.

Just thought I’d share what I’ve learned, and I highly recommend that you check out the Alexander Technique. I found it very effective in overcoming back pains that result from ineffective movements, as well as making my movement much smoother.
Haider´s last [type] ..Video Challenge Day 6: The Success Triangle

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Stephen Mills October 27, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Hello Haider, I’ll check that Alexander technique out. However there are a couple of things about belly breathing. First it causes deeper breathing by utilizing the diaphragm more fully. Secondly it’s stimulates the Vagus nerve which is key to reducing stress and relaxing, which was the whole point of belly breathing – to relax a little. Thank you for commenting :-)

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Matt Clark October 27, 2010 at 7:51 am

Great tips, one I would add is to do your most challenging task in your best time. Most of us have a time of day when we are at our best, some in the mornings (like me) others in afternoon or evenings. If you know when that time is, and you have a particularly challenging task to complete do it at that time. You will have the focus and energy to complete and you will feel great afterwords.
Matt Clark´s last [type] ..Unplug Less Stress and More Success

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Stephen Mills October 27, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Hi Matt, that’s a good point. I’m a morning person myself and there is no question that is when I do my best work. Thanks for the comment :-)

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Zengirl @ Heart and Mind October 27, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Stephen,

Lovely list of books and 8 ways we can keep control. I sometimes feel like 5 year old, when I am excited about some concept, I almost lose focus on big picture. So this post is so for me.

One thing that helps me focus is eat well and get enough rest, otherwise it does not work for me to focus or “be present”.

Preeti
Zengirl @ Heart and Mind´s last [type] ..101 changes: Change 8 Stretch Your Comfort Zone

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Stephen Mills October 27, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Hello Preeti! Absolutely yes on the health. It’s the foundation of everything. When you are tired and your brain is not rested it can’t focus. Thanks for commenting :-)

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Nea | Self Improvement Saga October 27, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Hi Stephen. This was right on time for me. I’ve noticed lately that I’m a lot more unfocused than usual. I know that one reason is over-stimulation. I’d been talking on the phone more. That alone isn’t so horrible, but the T.V. and radio are also on while I’m on the phone, attempting to clean up, and listening to my daughter talk about random teenage drama. It’s time for another environmental cleansing in my home. Every once in a while I go cold turkey with no T.V., only meditation CDs for music, and very limited telephone usage. This always helps me to refocus.
Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last [type] ..8 Ways to Look and Feel Better Than You Ever Have

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Stephen Mills October 27, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Hi Nea that sounds like a fantastic idea – “environmental cleanse”. I love that. Thanks :-)

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Henway October 27, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Great tips here. For the past year, I’ve gotten rid of many distractions and it does work in improving focus. I also find meditating works, and being with nature. Sometimes we just got to be still, and reflect on ourselves .
Henway´s last [type] ..Soy Protein and Medifast

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Stephen Mills October 28, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Hello Henway. I don’t meditate, although I know I should, but I do love to be still, reflect, and be in nature. I do as much of that as I can. :-)

Reply

Celina October 24, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Stephen,

That sounds like meditation to me. Meditation does not have to be a chant or anything specific, just a cleanse of the mind. :D

Reply

Madison October 28, 2010 at 8:32 pm

I do some of your tips already but I will have to improve on the rest of them. I like what you have to say very much. Great article.

Reply

Stephen Mills October 28, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Hi Madison, thank you very much and good luck :-)

Reply

Steven October 30, 2010 at 9:33 am

Killer post on attention! It’s a heavy topic, everyone has their own ways of maintaining stamina and revitalizing themselves when they really need it. I like the tips about taking breaks between different tasks and trying to be more mindful of your emotions. Sometimes if I am really frustrated or angry (it happens), I need to go for a drive or take a walk outside to regain my concentration.
Steven´s last [type] ..5 Demands Of The New Economy

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Sarah Stewart March 16, 2011 at 10:48 am

Very interesting. I am really going to try some of the suggestions and reference links reffered to. Especially the free ebook. Thanks for a great article.

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Jimmy September 2, 2012 at 3:25 pm

What I found that works like a charm is just forgetting about it all,clearing your mind,taking deep and slow breaths while listening to nature sounds.Do it and feel free.God’s Speed

Reply

Dr Suds November 9, 2012 at 11:50 am

This is awesome. I took a gander at your free book and in the first few pages it really addresses the issues we all know we have with the modern day world.

You really have your head screwed on straight. I have so much to learn!

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