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How To Actually Concentrate

It’s not easy, but you can do it

by Carolyn Yates

Ever have those trains of thought that just... wait, what were we talking about, again? Staying focused can be hard, especially in an age when there are tons of distractions around you. So, whether it’s something you don’t really want to have to pay attention to—like work; or something you do—like talking to a friend in a crowded bar—sometimes it’s just plain hard to concentrate on what’s happening right in front of you.

Jumping to other stimuli—like someone looking at you, or your phone buzzing—can give you a dopamine push, which is one reason it can be so appealing. But another is that, when multitasking is the norm, it’s hard to stop doing it. “We have trained ourselves to be constantly distracted and multitasking, so even though we may have a project in front of us, or we may be talking to someone, our minds have been trained to look to other things,” says Natalie Bell, a mindfulness coach based in Los Angeles.

Distractibility can run deeper than habit. “You might be distracted because you have sensory problems or visual processing problems or slow processing or memory problems, and you can also have biochemical problems,” says Kelly Dorfman, a clinical nutritionist. "If your chemistry is out of balance, then your brain doesn’t work.” What you’re eating and when can impact that chemistry. Skipping meals, eating irritants, and not eating nutrient-rich foods can make it harder to concentrate. 

What’s going on around you and where you are right now as a person also matter. You might be more distracted in some environments, and less distracted in others. Or while working on certain tasks. Or while talking to different people. "It might have to do with something as simple as how much sleep you got, or what else is going on in your life. There are a lot of different factors. But being tuned into what your tendency is and what your current state of being is can go a long way to helping you make the adjustments you need to be able to focus on the things that are important,” says Natalie Houston, a productivity coach in the Boston area.

But it is possible to change your attention span. To get better at concentrating, start small."Choose one point of focus or one task. Just choose one, putting all others to the side or shutting them down,” says Bell. If you’re working on one project, clear away materials that don’t have anything to do with it, like closing tabs, moving papers off of your desk, and putting down your phone. “A sense of more calm in the immediate visual environment helps you focus better,” says Houston.

Look at the rest of your environment, too: Does silence help you more? Or do you work better with ambient noise? Or maybe white noise? Or even music? How comfortable is your chair? Are you better at doing certain tasks in certain places? 

You can also train yourself to be more mindful by focusing on your breath in your body. Set a timer for three minutes and keep your attention on your breath as it goes in and out, and bring your mind back to your breath when it inevitably wanders. "Learning to refocus attention by using that kind of mindfulness technique can really help you to train your attention back to focus on one thing,” says Bell.

If focusing on your breath doesn’t work, try turning your awareness to the soles of your feet where they touch the floor. Or to the sensations of where you’re sitting. Or to your hands, as they rest against each other. "Try to use a sensory experience to help focus attention while you’re in the middle of something," says Bell. "Any sensation can help you ground yourself.”

Being compassionate with yourself helps, too. If you’re distracted because of something going on internally or something bigger happening in your life, be kind to yourself and remind yourself that’s what’s going on. "There’s a saying in mindfulness, name it to tame it. If you can name a difficult experience, your brain can begin to regulate that feeling in your body,” says Bell. Share with someone around you if that’s an option, but if it’s not, talk to yourself like you’re your own supportive friend. Or put a hand over your heart or give yourself a hug. "Be there for yourself. Physical soothing touch releases oxytocin and other opiates in your bloodstream to counteract stress. So this is really powerful neuroscience,” says Bell.

If you’re distracted because you’re just really busy right now, keep a notepad nearby to jot down thoughts, so your brain doesn’t have to worry about remembering them. That way, "your brain can just relax, instead of tapping you on the shoulder every 10 minutes saying, ‘Don’t forget,’” says Houston. 

And don’t be afraid of getting distracted—because you’re going to get distracted. When that happens, notice it and gently bring your attention back. Remember, once you get used to mindfulness, it becomes way easier to practice it anywhere. "The more you do these practices, the more you train yourself to have that response. You need to remember that you can do these things,” says Bell.

But total mindfulness and balance are lies we tell ourselves in order to live. “It’s really important as an idea, and it’s also in some ways a fiction,” says Houston. Instead, “allowing for seasonal shifts helps us relax about the idea of feeling insufficient if we’re not living up to some kind of fictitious ideal of work-life balance that very few people really enact." 

After all, distraction is a capitalist construct. "We live in a world where the financial interests of large corporations put a lot of effort into keeping us distracted. When we’re distracted, we spend more time online, we spend more time in front of advertisements, we spend more time in various states of trance, meaning eating, drinking, shopping, consuming our ways into distracting ourselves from the harder questions in our lives,” says Houston.

Break out of that by finding joy in smaller moments of focus, and then building. "We need to recondition ourselves to find a certain pleasure in focused attention. Which actually there is,” says Bell. "What we get from focusing our attention is a sense of calm in our mind and body.”