Focus on concentration

Here's what to do when your mind tends to wander.

Published: February, 2020

Everyone's attention can drift at times, like when you lose your concentration for a moment while doing routine tasks.

Many people shrug off these lapses in focus as "senior moments," but they might be related to a vulnerable brain process called executive function.

"Your brain's executive function helps you plan, make decisions, and — perhaps most important — pay attention," says Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. "It acts much like the captain of the ship."

A slow, gradual decline

Your executive function peaks alongside other brain functions in your early 20s and then gradually diminishes over time. Fortunately, the process is quite slow, says Dr. Salinas.

Everyone's brain is wired and programmed differently, and some people struggle with attention more than others. But if you notice any sudden change in your ability to concentrate — for example, if you have a harder time finishing routine tasks and chores, regularly misplace essential items, make more errors than you used to in your day-to-day life, or make more frequent poor decisions — don't ignore it. Speak with your doctor, says Dr. Salinas.

Such symptoms may be due to an underlying condition, like mild cognitive impairment, or a mood disorder, like depression and anxiety. Declining focus also could result from lifestyle issues that should be addressed, such as stress, fatigue, poor sleep, dehydration, an unhealthy diet, or sedentary behavior.

For regular age-related decline in executive function, you can take steps to improve your ability to concentrate. Here are some strategies that Dr. Salinas recommends.

Track your lack of attention. Observe situations when you lose focus. For instance, when you read a book passage and feel your attention waning, make a mental note when it happens. "Keeping a tally can help drive your attention, as it teaches you to be more observant when it occurs," says Dr. Salinas. "Also, plan activities that require less focus during times when you know your attention is at its lowest."

Practice mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation teaches you how to bring your thoughts back to the present when your mind veers off. The practice also helps to manage anxiety and stress, which may contribute to lack of focus, according to a study published in the April 2018 issue of Psychiatry Research. Many yoga studios and community centers offer meditation programs for beginners.

Stop distractions. Change items in your living space that grab your attention, such as equipment that produces distracting sounds or lights. Also, turn off notifications on your phone when you need to concentrate, and set up website blockers so you won't be tempted by the Internet.

Work in blocks of time. Much research has suggested that working in small chunks of time, with rest periods in between, can help with focus, since our attention tends to wane after a certain period. How long that time period lasts depends on the person. Some studies that have looked at work and classroom performance place the range anywhere from 10 minutes to 52 minutes. Experiment with a time frame that works for you. "You should be able to find a range where your attention is at its peak," says Dr. Salinas.

Engage your brain. Do more activities that involve using your executive function skills. "You want to take up something that stimulates and requires mental effort, but not so much that it overwhelms and dissuades you," says Dr. Salinas. He suggests something that teaches a new skill, such as painting, cooking, dancing, or learning a language. "These require focus and attention, but are set up to show progress and offer encouragement. They can also help reduce stress."

Review your medication. Some drugs, especially those used to treat sleep problems, anxiety, or pain, can make you feel drowsy or fatigued. Note any connection between taking medication and difficulties with attention, and speak with your doctor about amending your dosage or switching medication.

Watch caffeine and sugar intake. Sudden spikes and dips in your blood sugar levels can affect attention, says Dr. Salinas. "In general, focusing on eating more fruits, vegetables, and high-fiber foods while avoiding simple sugars can be enough to keep your blood sugar levels more even," he says. While a small amount of caffeine can give you a short-term mental boost, too much can overstimulate you and make you feel anxious or giddy, and affect your ability to stay focused. Keep track of when and how your attention changes after you drink caffeinated beverages so you can make adjustments to your daily intake.

Stay social. Social engagement protects against loneliness, which can lead to depression, anxiety, and stress, all of which can affect attention. "Being more social also helps with focus, since you have to listen to conversations and retain information," says Dr. Salinas.

Image: mihailomilovanovic/Getty Images

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