Some days you’ve just got it goin’ on! Your thoughts are clear, everything is going your way, and you’re nailing every project in your queue. I see you! But not every day is sunshine and rainbows, is it? Call it afternoon slump, overwork, overwhelm, or a case of the derps if you like. We all have days when we are just not firing on all cylinders, and we struggle to find the focus and concentration to accomplish all we’ve set out to do. And that’s okay! Let’s explore some common barriers to focus and attention, and what you can do both now and long-term to train your brain to focus, pay attention, and improve mental clarity.
What causes attention and focus to suffer
Your reasons for experiencing struggles with attention and focus might, or might not, be something you’ve created for yourself. There are various underlying medical conditions that can cause issues with cognition and focus. Struggles like ADHD, mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and trauma related to a head injury can create clinical challenges to focus, concentration, and attention span. Consulting with your health-care professional on how you can overcome these challenges should be a top priority.
Sometimes, though, you’ve gotta own the fact that you’re the cause. No one wants to hear it when they’ve gotten in their own way but hear me out here. Lifestyle choices, indulgences, and deficiencies can really hamper brain power. We all know we have to exercise and sleep properly for, well basically, everything! Attention and focus are no exception. And if you’ve got the imbibe bug, then you’re not doing your focus any favors. Even without an apparent hangover, overindulgence in alcohol takes a toll on mental clarity.
Even daily habits could be causing your brain to work harder than it needs to. Remember that standing desk you bought to help boost your metabolism? Or, let’s be honest, you bought to keep your Apple Watch from screaming at you to stand up. Well, here’s another reason to set calendar reminders to use it. Sitting and other sedentary behaviors are associated with thinner structures in a certain area of the brain called the medial temporal lobe, or MTL. The major bummer is that the MTL is essential to memory function.1 Whether you’re sitting or standing, if you’ve got your face in a screen, then you’re also creating your own barrier to brain function. Screen time is negatively correlated with attention span and focus in both children and adults.
How to improve attention span, mental clarity, and find laser focus
Okay, now that you are identifying and working on what might be causing your focus issues, what can you do about it? Here’s where I have good news. There are many things you can do to improve mental clarity and refocus your mind. Some of them require more effort, some a bit of time, and some are veritable no brainers. Here’s a list of tips and tricks to improve focus and attention:
1. Get a good night’s sleep
– your brain works so hard for you all day, you’ve gotta give it a “rest” every night, right? Well, not so much. Your brain is getting some serious work done while your body is in down time. Sleep is when your brain can take inventory of the short-term memories you’ve taken in each day, sort out what it needs to hang on to, and translate those into long-term memory. Yeah, that’s why cramming before a test doesn’t do you any favors. Having this time to reorganize is essential to enhance attention, improve focus, and sustain memory. Not only does this consolidation phase happen during sleep, but there’s also a bit of brain housekeeping that takes place after bedtime. Toxins and accumulation of byproducts that build up in your brain while you’re awake are filtered and removed from circulation while you sleep. You can support your brain’s sleepy-time natural housekeeping and organization processes with Thorne’s Advanced DHA.* The omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supports cognitive function and promotes healthy mood and behavior patterns.*2 Pro tip: because all this good stuff happens during sleep, supplement with omega-3s before bed.
2. Eat brain-boosting foods
– eating a healthy and well-balanced diet is key to good health but adding a few specific foods and drinks to your daily repertoire could really up your concentration game. Berries are high in brain-healthy polyphenols, and blueberries might be the best of the brain berries, which have been shown to boost cognitive performance.3 Boosting healthy fats in your diet from nuts, seeds, and fatty fish gives your brain the fuel it needs to focus. Recent studies show dietary fiber can reduce dementia risk, so don’t skimp on the roughage.4 And I saved the best for last. Because we’ve established that the booze gets the boot, let’s temper that with a sweet treat. Chocolate intake can improve cognitive function and concentration.5 That’s a big win!
3. Move your bod to max your brain power
– exercise has potent effects on attention and concentration. If you’re ready to mix up your routine, then steer toward these exercises to improve focus.
- Dancing – a famous 20-year study showed that dancing reduces risk of dementia by a whopping 76 percent.6 This blew other studied methods out of the water for brain benefit, including reading, board games, and playing a musical instrument.
- Yoga – not just for balance, yoga increases blood flow to the brain – think crow pose. Tend to get a little scatterbrained when you’re stressed or overwhelmed? Then make yoga your go-to. Studies show yoga increases the relaxing neurotransmitter GABA in the brain.7 A relaxed brain is a focused brain.
- Tai chi – this ancient art of moving meditation has been an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries to balance body and mind. Studies show that tai chi alters brain structure and enhances cognitive flexibility – the ability to easily switch between tasks.8 Studies show after 12 weeks of tai chi, individuals have a significant improvement in global cognitive function.9
4. Play it up
– both digital and analog games can give the brain some concentration exercise of its own. Games also help increase neuroplasticity and reduce risk of cognitive decline with age. Numerous studies have assessed positive benefit from word games like crossword puzzles, number games like sudoku, jigsaw puzzles, and even video games. If you want to up your brain game even further, then there are various apps designed specifically to improve mental clarity, refocus your mind, and help you to pay attention more efficiently.
5. Mindfulness over brain matter
– spending time to unwind with meditation and mindfulness practices can increase brain gyrification (the fancy way our brains fold).10 Meditation can have beneficial effects on brain anatomy by increasing areas associated with empathy and compassion, decreasing areas associated with anger and anxiety, and strengthening areas important for sensory input.
6. Environmental awareness
– you can’t often change where you are, so change what’s around you! The environment where you work, study, or try to be your most creative can have a massive impact on clarity, output, and attention span. Train your brain to focus without distraction by reducing clutter in your surroundings. Keep your décor choices to a minimum, while incorporating nature, green space, and natural lighting as much as possible. One study found that exposure to a green space is associated with higher processing speed, greater attention, and overall improved cognitive function.11 And don’t forget that your environment is not just what you can see. Set the right tone with music that’s not too stimulating, but won’t send you to snore town, either. Last but not least, the nose knows! Decrease mental fatigue and increase mental clarity and focus with essential oils, like peppermint, orange, lemon, or rosemary.
7. Expand your toolbox
– your brain processes more than 6,000 different thoughts daily. So, give yourself a break when you forget the almond milk from the grocery order! Sometimes there’s just so much going on in your brain that you need some external assistance with basic tools. We rely on our devices for so many things, we’ve gotten away from the old-school options like writing a list on paper, keeping a planner (preferably with the pretty colored tabs, please), and journaling our thoughts. Train your brain to focus without screens and reconnect with hand-eye coordination, written learning, and tactile stimulation.
8. Get your fix
– even with the best intentions, ideal lifestyle habits, and a workspace that looks straight out of an Instagram post, sometimes you need a quick fix. Deadlines, stressors, unexpected tasks, and so much more can require a right-now solution. If you want to stick your face into a bowl of ice water, then knock yourself out. If your desk space or mascara won’t allow that, then try some of these quick-action solutions to literally get your attention.
- Caffeine – if afternoon coffee throws your sleep schedule out the window (see section 1 about why you don’t want to do this), then try a “light” version. Matcha green tea is packed with antioxidants and a bit of caffeine for an immediate boost. Bonus points over time – matcha can improve memory and language abilities, at least in women.12
- Supplement – nootropics can give you what you need to get through a term paper, a tight deadline, or a blog on mental focus and concentration techniques. Trust me. To support an aging body and brain, check out Thorne’s Brain Factors.* Brain Factors supports NAD+ as well as BDNF levels to help keep you at the top of your brain game.* If you need a full frontal attack on brain fog while supporting concentration, mental focus, and reaction time, try Thorne’s Memoractiv.* Memoractiv contains six botanical extracts and nutrients to promote focus and reaction time, while helping to protect your eyes from the effects of blue light and fight the effects of stress.*
- Take a breather – simple breathing techniques can increase blood flow to the brain, clear out mental fog, and refocus your mind.
- Box breathing
- Breathe out slowly, releasing all the air from your lungs.
- Breathe in through your nose as you slowly count to four in your head. Be conscious of how the air fills your lungs and stomach.
- Hold your breath and count to four.
- Exhale for another count of four.
- Hold your breath again for a count of four.
- Repeat for three to four rounds.
- Belly breathing
- Place one hand on your upper chest over your heart and the other hand on your belly, below your ribcage.
- Allow your belly to relax, without forcing it inward by squeezing or clenching your muscles.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose and feel your stomach rise.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, feeling your stomach falling inward toward your spine. Take note of your hand on your chest, which should remain relatively still.
- Box breathing
Start today with small adjustments to your lifestyle, surroundings, and supplement regimen to create immediate and lasting changes to brain structure, function, and output. Make a list of your favorites and get started on your path to your attention A game. Now get back to your projects you big-brained, beautiful creature. You’ve got this!
※ This article is transplanted from Thorne's website and partially edited for Asian region. Original one is here.
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Hein S, Whyte AR, Wood E, et al. Systematic review of the effects of blueberry on cognitive performance as we age. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2019;74(7):984-995. doi:10.1093/gerona/glz082
Yamagishi K, Maruyama K, Ikeda A, et al. Dietary fiber intake and risk of incident disabling dementia: the Circulatory Risk in Communities Study. Nutr Neurosci 2022;1-8. doi:10.1080/1028415X.2022.2027592
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Streeter CC, Jensen JE, Perlmutter RM, et al. Yoga asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med 2007;13(4):419-426. doi:10.1089/acm.2007.6338
Cui L, Tao S, Yin HC, et al. Tai chi chuan alters brain functional network plasticity and promotes cognitive flexibility. Frontiers in Psychology 2021;12: 665419.doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.665419
Yu AP, Chin EC, Yu DJ, et al. Tai chi versus conventional exercise for improving cognitive function in older adults: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Sci Rep 2022;12(1):8868. doi:10.1038/s41598-022-12526-5
Luders E, Kurth F, Mayer EA, et al. The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification. Front Hum Neurosci 2012;6:34. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00034
Jimenez MP, Elliott EG, DeVille NV, et al. Residential green space and cognitive function in a large cohort of middle-aged women. JAMA Netw Open 2022;5(4):e229306. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.9306
Sakurai K, Shen C, Ezaki Y, et al. Effects of matcha green tea powder on cognitive functions of community-dwelling elderly individuals. Nutrients 2020; 12(12):3639.