By Christine Schulz on Mon, Jul 19, 2021
We're having troubling focusing. According to our most recent Mental Health Index report, sustained attention is down by 167% from where it was pre-pandemic. The elongated sense of crisis during COVID-19 has certainly upped the distraction factor, but even before then, 75% of us struggled to keep our attention focused and sustained amidst the constant presence of digital distractions.
In building the Total Brain app, one of the most common goals we heard from our user community was the desire to learn how to focus better when studying, or how to focus better at work. The answer is in sharpening your "target thinking" — your brain's ability to focus on a task, without distraction, until it is completed.
There are ways to improve focus through brain training exercises, but first it's important to understand the focusing techniques our brains use to achieve target thinking.
The Neuroscience of Concentration
When you achieve sharper focus, you're essentially improving your ability to enter into and sustain attention. Our brains are doing several things at once in order to pay attention to the task at hand while also minimizing other distractions. This happens in three ways:
Via sustained attention, which is the ability to maintain a consistent level of focus. At peak performance, this is what operates when we are "in the zone." Someone with strong sustained attention can discipline themselves to diligently write a paper for an hour or two without stopping.
Via selective attention, which is the ability to maintain cognitive focus on a particular task all the way to completion. This is what keeps us from getting distracted from other tasks or disruptions. Someone with a well-developed selective attention "muscle" can ignore text message pings while in a meeting.
Via divided attention, which is the ability to simultaneously focus on multiple things, tapping into the brain's ability to balance tasks. Someone who has mastered divided attention can follow a cook a new recipe while also having a conversation — and do both well. Divided attention is what makes effective multitasking at work possible.
There are some common misconceptions around ways to improve focus — primarily, that we are always aware of what's impacting our ability to focus. While we generally view paying attention as a conscious activity, in reality, there's a nonconscious factor to it.
Our brains are always engaging in nonconscious processing. When we have an in-person conversation with someone, we consciously process what they are saying to us, but we also subconsciously process things like body language and facial expressions to glean more information. If the brain is trying hard to hear something, it may choose to diminish our sight for better focus, for example.
Understanding how nonconscious factors influence our ability to pay attention is an important part of addressing the ways they detract from focus. Having a propensity to lean toward the negative, feeling depressed or anxious, and even a lack of sleep can impair your brain function. (Read about the 4 Things Most Likely Affecting Your Brain Function to learn more.) Working through things like nonconscious negativity bias can help you on your path to better focus.
How to Boost Concentration: The Brain-Body Connection
Many of us find ourselves in work cultures that reward long days and remaining on email at all times. But this high-strung state of being isn't a way to increase attention span — it's actually a great way to diminish it.
Our brains undergo different levels of alertness throughout the day (everything between "foggy brain" and hyperawareness); the prime level of alertness is your "optimal arousal" state — the state in which you can maintain motivation and engagement to perform at your best. Shattering the myth that we can push ourselves constantly without hurting our target thinking is crucial to achieving optimal arousal as often as possible. To avoid burnout (which ferries us more toward the "foggy brain" end of the performance spectrum) we need regular periods of rest and relaxation (for mind and body). This fact is why top athletes, for example, have strict rest schedules paired with their rigorous training routines.
This periodic relaxation is intertwined with "dynamism" (or clearheadednes); without it, peak focus is not possible. We know that people who don't rest, take vacations, and consistently work long hours make more mistakes, have reduced capacity for memory, and experience bigger challenges in getting and staying focused. According to our international database, we have found that negativity and inadequate sleep is more associated with reduced sustained attention. Resting the body can help clear the brain in the way that we need for prolonged concentration.
"Positive body language" also influences our concentration — and at the center of this is the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is connected to your heart, digestive system, and lungs (all of which play a vital role in relaxation, which is why meditation involves breathing techniques that have an effect on heart rate and the mind). The vagus state of calm switches off our "fight or flight" survival mode and makes room for flexible focus. Pairing a vagus state with optimal arousal — in other words, mastering the brain-body connection — makes it much easier to improve sustained attention, selective attention, and divided attention.
A final note on this: optimal arousal can look different depending on the task that requires your attention. Work projects, for example, often demand sustained arousal with a narrow spotlight of attention on details until the task is completed. Creative tasks, on the other hand, require low arousal and low adrenaline, with a wide spotlight of focus, so that you can make the instinctive creative associations.
But all of this should be complementary to regular brain training exercises and games, one of the most natural ways to increase focus and concentration.
Tips for Focusing: Improving Concentration Skills
There are several small steps you can take to see big improvements in your target thinking capacities, and the Total Brain app can help with all of them:
Play games. It sounds counterintuitive, but brain training games and exercises on your smartphone are a great way to rewire your brain to better enter — and remain in — a state of focus. The Total Brain app offers a strong library of games that train your target thinking abilities as a whole, as well as the three types of attention individually.
Total Brain's quick initial assessment will give you a baseline to gauge the strength of your focus. From there, it will curate games and exercises specific to your target thinking needs. Practice these games five days a week for as little as 15 minutes a day, and you'll see significant results after the first month.
Think on Target can help you become an expert at target thinking — using an actual target! Tap the screen when the circle crosses over the target to see how close you can get to the bullseye.
Our Slingshot game is a great way to develop your selective attention. This game also uses an actual target, which rotates in a circle along with other dots in the same orbit. Tap the screen when the dots pass through the spotlight to earn points. It requires you to react faster as you progress in level, requiring high levels of concentration and the ability to not get distracted by other items in view.
Think Focus can help increase attention span and improve your overall focus. On the screen you'll see a basketball, which you will need to press to keep balanced — and move with it across the screen. Eventually, other basketballs will come into play to challenge you. If you get frustrated, practice regulating your feelings with our Self Regulate game, which helps people realize and re-associate negative feelings with positive ones.
Think Balance is an effective brain training for multitasking skills, aimed at improving your divided attention. In this game, you'll need to balance a ping pong ball on a wooden board by creating a see-saw balance along with the ball's movement. Because you're required to pay attention to both the ball's movement and the wooden board's positioning, you're actively practicing doing two things at once (and doing them well).
Get positive. Don't forget to tackle negative thinking (both conscious and nonconscious negativity bias), which can influence your ability to focus (another reason why positive work teams are more productive). Total Brain has several games for this: Happy Seeker, which can train your brain to stay positively focused; Thought Tamer, which can challenge your negative thinking patterns; and Positive Affirmations will help you proactively tune into positive feelings.
Rest and Relax. In addition to getting enough sleep, relaxation of body and mind is essential for peak focus. For many of us, it's hard to simply switch into relaxation mode — especially if there's a demanding task at hand. But engaging in Total Brain's brief meditations and breathing exercises help thousands of people feel less anxious and clear their minds every day — and it can help you, too! Try Focus Breath, which sets the tone for dynamism, that clear-headedness that paves the way for peak concentration.
Victory Breath increases calm, reduces stress, and improves mental clarity, and Alternate Nostril Breath — an effective yogic breathing practice — can aid in balancing emotions to find calm focus.
If you're having trouble falling asleep before bed, Total Brain's meditation library can make it easier to transition into relaxation mode, with guided meditations ranging from five to 15 minutes. During the day, try the Power Nap meditation to reboot your mind with a quick mental break.
Check in. After a month of brain training exercises, take a re-assessment with Total Brain to measure your progress — our long-term user data shows you'll definitely see results. Outside of the app, keep track of your progress with a daily self-assessment. At the end of each day, ask yourself how one new focus habit helped you to achieve a task to completion that day (whether at work or at home). If you find you're having an easier time entering a state of focus but still struggle to maintain focus, spend more time on games like Think Focus. Conducting daily self-assessments will help you better identify where the challenge to your attention skills exist.