In today’s world, it’s harder than ever to focus and concentrate. Emails, texts, and the latest YouTube video sensation beckon. But learning to concentrate may be more important than ever to get and stay ahead at work or school. As pressure mounts, college students, entrepreneurs, and people in highly competitive jobs are turning more and more to smart drugs like piracetam, modafinil, and off-label use ADHD medications to help. But this is unfortunate because they come with a high price tag (literally), including a boat load of side effects and the possibility of addiction.
Fortunately, there are many natural ways — from food and supplements to mind-body healing techniques — that you can use to sharpen your concentration and focus.
1. Eat Brain-Healthy Foods
Your brain is a high performance organ. And just as you wouldn’t put cheap gasoline in a sports car, you shouldn’t expect your brain to run smoothly when you feed it processed, artificial food. Dietary advice has gotten unnecessarily complicated. Michael Pollan, journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of several blockbuster books on food, made diet advice simple when he famously said, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” That’s good basic advice for maintaining health. It’s excellent advice for optimizing your brain power as well.
The experts can’t agree on what is the best diet to follow but there is one thing on which nearly everyone agrees — refined sugar is bad news. Sugar will give you a temporary mental boost but ultimately sends your blood sugar and your ability to concentrate on a roller coaster ride. Sugar negatively impacts your attention span, short-term memory, ability to learn, and mood. It actually changes your brainwave patterns, making it hard to think clearly.
The top brain-healthy foods to include in your diet are berries of all kinds, green leafy vegetables, nuts, cold-water fatty fish, coconut oil, dark chocolate, the herb rosemary, and the spice turmeric. They contain the vitamins, minerals, essential fats, antioxidants, and phytonutrients your brain needs to thrive.
2. Use Caffeine Wisely
Caffeine is the most popular brain-altering substance in the world. Billions of people start the day with traditional caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea, and yerba mate. When used wisely, caffeine can definitely help you concentrate and focus and provide a temporary energy boost. Caffeine increases alertness, memory, focus, and productivity by increasing the levels of the brain chemical dopamine.
These drinks are loaded with antioxidants — in fact, coffee is the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet! Yerba mate is said to give a more mellow lift than coffee without the caffeine crashes. It contains so many nutrients, it’s been said that you can live on it. And green tea contains less caffeine plus relaxing compounds like theanine and EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) that smooth out caffeine’s rough edges.
But there’s an unfortunate trend for young adults, teens, and even kids to have caffeinated sodas or energy drinks for breakfast which gives them an unhealthy dose of sugar on the side. These drinks are chemical concoctions masquerading as food. They have no nutritive value and should be avoided.
For most people, a moderate amount of caffeine is an ideal way to increase concentration. But be careful not to overdo it and avoid caffeine entirely if you are prone to anxiety. Consuming too much caffeine can double your levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine causing caffeine-induced anxiety, insomnia, irritability, heart palpitations, and even full-blown panic attacks.
Pharmacist Suzy Cohen reveals in her book Drug Muggers: Which Medications Are Robbing Your Body of Essential Nutrients — and Natural Ways to Restore Them that caffeine should not be mixed with many medications including antidepressants and ADHD medications. Surprisingly, caffeine actually reduces blood flow to the brain. So there is little point in taking brain-boosting supplements that work by increasing blood flow to the brain like ginkgo, citicoline, or curcumin if you regularly consume caffeine.
3. Take Concentration-Enhancing Supplements
There are a handful of naturally-sourced supplements that offer many brain benefits, including increased concentration.
Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri) is a highly esteemed Ayurvedic herb that’s been used for thousands of years as a brain tonic to enhance concentration, memory, and learning. It works by balancing neurotransmitters and hormones. It is a common ingredient found in many brain supplement formulas. Studies show that it can improve attention, memory, and the ability to learn in both seniors and children. It’s also useful for anxiety and depression.
Phosphatidylserine is a naturally occurring phospholipid found in high concentrations in the brain. It acts as the brain’s gatekeeper, regulating nutrients coming in and waste going out of the brain. It can improve concentration, memory, and the ability to learn. It’s been shown to be a safe and effective way to minimize symptoms of ADHD in children.
Citicoline is synthesized in the body from the choline found in eggs and meat. Study results have found the effect on concentration and learning to be overwhelmingly positive. One study found it improved concentration, focus and memory as well as piracetam, a popular “study” drug. Citicoline works by increasing acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning. It’s one of the few supplements considered potent enough for treating serious neurological disorders such as brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia.
Huperzine A is a compound isolated from Chinese club moss (Huperzia serrata), a traditional Chinese herb. It is included in many brain supplements to improve concentration, focus, and memory. Huperzine A raises acetylcholine levels and shows promise in treating Alzheimer’s. It works by a similar mechanism as the Alzheimer’s drug Aricept.
4. Unplug And Chill Out
If you are stressed out and trying to do a zillion things at once, it’s no wonder you can’t concentrate. In short bursts, stress can improve focus due to a burst of adrenaline. But over time, stress takes a toll on your mental powers, leading to reduced attention span, poor judgment, and memory impairment. Neuroscientists at the University of California have found that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in brain structure and function causing certain areas of the brain to literally shrink.
One of the worst things you can do for your concentration and focus is to multitask. Most people do this to try to be more productive, but it actually has the opposite effect. Some tasks are so habitual that they can be performed with essentially no conscious effort. For example, walking and talking simultaneously is easy. Once the tasks get more complicated or less common than that though, you are sacrificing the efficiency of one task for another. Multitasking requires your brain to quickly toggle back and forth between tasks and, according to the American Psychological Association, this can waste 40 percent of your productive time. The research firm Basex estimates that multitasking costs the U.S. economy an astounding $650 billion annually in wasted productivity.
Another concentration drain is clutter. Ridding clutter from your life can make you more focused, relaxed, and productive. Using MRIs and other diagnostic tools, research shows that clutter affects your ability to concentrate and process information. Conversely, uncluttered space increases your ability to concentrate and focus.
The ancient practice of meditation is one of the best ways to train your brain to focus and stay on task. Meditation alters your brainwave state to improve focus, inspire creativity, and enhance your ability to learn. Regular meditators experience greater productivity and increased focus and attention. They are less likely to ruminate or be distracted. Exercises like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are moving meditations and can be equally effective. Just one 20-minute session of yoga can significantly improve focus and working memory. According to Yoga.com, the top poses for better concentration include the prayer pose, eagle pose, crane pose, warrior 2, and seated forward bend.
Your brain needs a continual supply of oxygen, yet many people hold their breath while concentrating. A whopping 80 percent of people suffer from “email apnea” — a habit of holding your breath while checking emails or using electronics. Make a point of breathing with your diaphragm regularly throughout the day. Or give alternate nostril breathing, also called Nadi Shodhana, a try. This is a yoga breathing technique that can improve attention and other cognitive skills, and reduce stress and anxiety. You can find instructions on how to do this on Chopra.com.
Lastly, take breaks throughout the day to spend time outdoors. If that’s not possible, at least gaze outside through a window. A University of Melbourne study found that the simple act of glancing at a grassy green roof for only 40 seconds markedly increased participants’ concentration. And if you can’t do that, look at pictures of nature or have a plant on your desk. Taking mini-breaks as short as 30 seconds throughout the day can help you regain your focus.
5. Focus On One Thing
The writings of productivity and creativity expert James Clear have been covered by dozens of major media outlets like TIME, Entrepreneur, and Forbes. In one of his most popular blog posts, he compares the struggle of staying focused to that of a lion tamer. Clear observes that, “The classic image of a lion tamer is one of the entertainer holding a whip and a chair. The whip gets all of the attention, but it’s mostly for show. In reality, it’s the chair that does the important work. When a lion tamer holds a chair in front of the lion’s face, the lion tries to focus on all four legs of the chair at the same time. With its focus divided, the lion becomes confused and is unsure about what to do next. When faced with so many options, the lion chooses to freeze and wait instead of attacking the man holding the chair.”
Most of us can relate to the confused and overwhelmed lion when there are too many choices demanding our attention! Clear goes on to point out that, “Anytime you find the world waving a chair in your face, remember this: all you need to do is commit to one thing.” You can make this easier by removing distractions, such as turning off your mobile phone and email and text notifications, to give yourself a chance at focusing for set blocks of time.
My favorite concentration hack is the Pomodoro technique. It sounds almost too simple, but it really works. First, remove all distractions in your work space and get comfortable. Then, set a timer for 25 minutes and do your absolute best to concentrate on the task at hand for the entire 25 minutes. As in meditation, if you find your mind wandering, simply stop and get back on track. When the time is up, take a break. You can do as many 25-minute blocks of time as you want during the day.
I write several hours every day and do all of my writing this way. Not only are you increasing your concentration in the moment, but you are actually retraining your brain to focus for short bursts of time. I find this technique particularly helpful for tasks I really don’t want to do like doing my taxes. It will help you blast through procrastination and is highly motivating since you’ll almost certainly accomplish a surprising amount in a short time.
Putting it All Together: The Whole Enchilada
While you will benefit from doing just one or two of these concentration tips, your reward will be exponentially greater when you do more of them. Chris Bailey has been called “the most productive man you’d ever hope to meet.” When he got out of college, he turned down two lucrative job offers to pursue his passion of performing personal experiments in order to learn how to achieve maximum productivity. He records his results on his blog A Life of Productivity.
He ultimately came to realize that, “Sure, sipping a cup of coffee will make you focus better, but it likely won’t if you eat a ton of junk food along with it, or if the room you’re working in is a complete mess. What I’ve discovered is that you can’t just improve your focus by doing one or two things right, which is too bad, because that could save you and me a ton of time. To focus to the best of your ability, you have to be firing on all cylinders — eating well, meditating, working out, cleaning up, practicing self-honesty, and more.”