Have you had trouble focusing or achieving your potential mentally and otherwise?
Well, who hasn’t?
We have a nasty habit of blaming ourselves so intensely for these failures that we come to believe that those greater mental and personal aspirations are simply impossible for us.
However, that’s simply not true, as these accessible focus-boosting mental exercises and lifestyle changes demonstrate.
1. Avoid High-Level Distractions
Maybe you’ve been making an honest effort to up your focus already but just can’t seem to do it. Every time you get started you simply find yourself getting sidetracked onto something else, and again and again until you can’t even remember what you were originally trying to work on in the first place.
If this sounds familiar, you’re in good company — Modernist writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were also keenly aware of how stream of consciousness and “high-level distractions” (even if they don’t use that word) has a way of dividing and sidetracking our focus. However, there’s a reason why the Modernists are also famous for striving to capture the fragmentation of thought and society.
Intense sights, sounds, reminiscences, interactions with others online and in person — all of these things are fun and engaging in their own way, but they also have a habit of fragmenting one’s ability to concentrate.
Do your best to avoid these high-level distractions when the time comes for you to give your undivided attention to the task at hand, and you may well find you have a much easier job with it.
2. Multitasking Divides Your Attention
On the one hand, the world is more globalized and interconnected than ever.
On the other hand, we’re also busier and life moves at a more hectic, exhausting pace than ever.
These two facts are not unrelated.
We have so much to keep up with these days — school, work, relationships, hopes, dreams, whatever social media is excited or angry about today, the list is endless. In fact, there’s so much to do and so little time in which to do it that it’s incredibly tempting to multitask. Society increasingly encourages it, as do the myriad multifunctional machines we carry around with us every moment of every day.
Multitasking seems efficient, and can be in the right circumstances — but for those looking to boost their brain power and focus on a specific topic, it’s a massive trap.
There’s simply no substitute for focusing all your attention on a single thing and pursuing it with everything you have.
Tennyson’s “Ulysses” implores us “To strive, to seek to find, and not to yield” — not to split your attention between your phone, TV, and Skype.
The same goes for relationships. Romeo and Juliet is a highly romanticized ideal of passion, to put it mildly, but it just wouldn’t have been the same if in the Balcony Scene Romeo declared “It is the east, and Juliet is the — ooh, who liked my post on Instagram?”
Multitasking is great for doing a lot of little things quickly.
For the big moments and people in your life, however, your full focus is necessary.
3. Working Out on a Regular Basis
Let’s be honest — this is the option on this list you are least likely to actually do. We all know that exercise is important and good for not just your body but your mental and emotional well-being as well.
Yet for as much as we all swear this time we’re really, absolutely, seriously going to get started, we always seem to find an excuse to procrastinate.
The advice here is as simple as it is difficult — don’t.
Make this the year that you actually make good on your word by exercising. You don’t have to go from zero to Dwayne Johnson overnight. Physical fitness is at its best when it is personalized, and that means listening to your body and shooting for small, consistent gains. Trying to achieve the seemingly unachievable or expecting huge progress in a short amount of time will likely only discourage you and lead to more procrastination-inducing excuses. Instead, remember that any progress is good progress, and that physical fitness is at its best when people focus on consistent improvements and personal bests.
4. Practicing Meditation
One of the biggest reasons people put off exercising is that they imagine it’s going to be an exhaustingly, even painfully intense endeavor. For those who are more naturally inclined toward fitness and athleticism, this can be part of the fun, but those who are lacking in that regard can feel drained or even ashamed. However, it doesn’t have to be that way, and meditation is a perfect counterpoint to the intimidation of over-intensity.
Meditation isn’t a competition. It’s all about achieving your personal best through focusing inward. Yoga, for example, stretches back to texts like the Bhagavat Gita and other foundational Hindu texts, where it served as a meditative self-focusing tied into Hindu ideas of nirvana and personal transcendence.
Even if your meditation sessions don’t result in something as groundbreaking as that, however, they are nevertheless a great way to focus your mind without the stress of having to focus on “something.” Meditation is all about clearing your mind and clearing away the mental clutter that can cause stress.
It may also be a good way for those looking to make inroads at work to both refocus their minds and use the process itself to network with others in the office and beyond. In-office meditation and yoga “clubs” have been a hot business trend for years, and it makes sense why. It’s something that can be done within the office, it’s a low-stress activity for people who already have enough stress in their work life, and from the late Steve Jobs onward it’s received one celebrity CEO endorsement after another.
5. Handwriting Can Positively Affect Your Brain
Speaking of meditation, handwriting can actually stimulate neural activity in some parts of the brain in a similar manner as meditating. In addition, handwriting can help improve mental faculties such as the ability to think and process information, healing, language, and working memory.
All of these benefits help reinforce the metanarrative that multitasking via machines which encourage typing or text-to-type voice recognition may be “efficient” in some ways, but rob us of mental-focusing advantages such as these.
The very fact that handwriting forces you to slow down and write things out by hand can also potentially change the way you process that information. There is some evidence to suggest that it can boost creativity. Others have found writing things down helps boost their ability to remember them, as their mind links the act of writing with the action or thought itself.
Once again, there is a big difference between trying to do something as fast as possible via multitasking, and actually taking your time and focusing on the task at hand.
6. Clear Your Mind in Wonderful Nature
Think of William Wordsworth musing how he “walked as lonely as a cloud.”
Or Claude Monet capturing the serenity of summer days and scintillating water lilies.
Or Japanese gardens with their calming, wabi-sabi Zen Buddhist ethos.
For cultures all around the world, nature has a way of clearing and improving one’s mind.
It also has the added benefit of being extremely easy to adapt for your specific goals.
Looking to focus more on work and improve relationships there?
A day in the park or a nature hike as a team building exercise, when done right, can do wonders for office morale as well as your reputation.
If your high school or university environment is too noisy and chaotic (see: All Night Frat Parties) reading beneath a tree can be a great way to improve your attention span.
Whether you’re looking for a low-pressure first date or a way to take things to the next level, you can’t go wrong with a walk in nature.
Natural settings are as varied as they are united in their absolute beauty, and it’s no small wonder that a reverence for nature is as universal a mark of intelligence, culture, and respect as there is.
7. Practice Active Listening
We mentioned above how multitasking can be a nightmare for those looking to actually focus on a specific task and give people the attention they deserve.
If you missed that, maybe you need to practice a bit more active listening (or in this case, reading).
The big keys here are reciprocity and engagement. No one likes feeling as though they’ve been brushed off and don’t matter. What’s more, when you do actively listen to, engage with, and respond to someone’s ideas, you typically have an easier time recalling what they said and, likewise, what you think about it.
Raw intelligence alone isn’t enough to take you to the top. You need to show others that you actually care to use it for something, and that means showing them that you do actually care about them.
Needless to say, active listening and multitasking simply do not mix. You can’t actively engage with someone’s thoughts and ideas when your own thoughts are split between different screens and messages bombarding you with information — and how much of that do you truly absorb, anyway?
As mentioned above, the big moments and people of your life require and, if we’re honest, deserve the respect of your undivided attention.
Improving your attention span, raw intelligence, and the totality of your mental abilities can seem hard — especially when you put it in as stark terms as that.
However, all it takes is a little patience and focus to achieve new daily personal bests, mentally and otherwise.