7 simple ways to sharpen your mind and improve your life (backed by science)

We are overwhelmed by information and it’s breaking our brains.

Our attention-span has become a limited resource that is constantly at war with many things that are fighting for it: whether it’s our jobs, our phones, our computers, our friends or our families, everything and everyone is demanding our focus at various levels.

“Our brains are busier than ever before,” says Dr. Daniel Levitin, cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, referencing the necessary and unnecessary information that’s assaulting our brains, “Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting. At the same time, we are all doing more”.

But not every distraction is external: it can also be our emotional distractions (thoughts/feelings) that pull our focus away from whatever is present.

So what can we do to improve our focus?

1. Meditate more

Meditation is a practice that has been harnessed over thousands of years, and in many forms. Some of the earliest written records of meditation come from Hindu traditions that date back to around 1500 BCE in ancient India.

The healthy benefits of meditation are widely celebrated: reduced stress, increased enjoyment and enhanced focus are just a few.

But is it just a placebo effect?

Harvard Neuroscientist Sara Lazar helped lead a research program at Massachusetts General Hospital that studied how meditation affects the brain. They took people who had never meditated before and put them through an 8-week stress relief program where they were told to meditate every day for 30 to 40 minutes each day.

Meditation subjects are in red (Hölzel, Lazar, et al. 2011)

8 weeks later, MRI scans revealed astounding changes in the brain with a growth of grey matter in areas that are important for learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and self-observation.

Lazar remarks the incredible difference that meditation makes to shaping our brains, “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing,”

An MRI scan of the Left Hippocampus (shown above), associated with learning, memory and emotion regulation, showed a growth in grey matter, “What’s interesting is that there’s less brain matter in this region in people who have depression and PTSD,” says Lazar.

(Hölzel, Lazar, et al. 2011)

Another region they identified changes in the brain is in the Temporo-parietal Junction: the part that’s important for perspective taking and empathy and compassion. Those are functions that people report changing when they start practicing meditation and yoga.

(Hölzel, Lazar, et al. 2011)

Another region they identified was the Amygdala which had a decrease in brain matter which was correlated with a decrease in stress. The more stress reduction people reported, the smaller the amygdala became.

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life,” says Britta Hölzel, one of the researchers leading the study.

Meditation has helped me hugely in reducing my anxiety and improving my focus but I’m not an expert at it, so sometimes I need guided assistance. Meditation is a skill like anything else, to become good at it you need to find yourself a good teacher. Sometimes, I’m unable to find time to join a class but I do use an app regularly that is really helpful.

2. Stop multitasking

We keep trying to cram everything into a single moment and call it ‘multitasking’. We think it’s productive but research shows it’s actually very inefficient and bad for our mental and physical health.

Multitasking, information overload, and constant interruptions are impairing the way our brains work, says Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas — Dallas.

And what’s worse is that multitasking has biochemical effects that are both stressful and addictive,

“Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking” says neurologist Dr. Daniel Levitin, and that multitasking also “creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation”.

Our brains are not wired to handle multitasking well: when we think we’re multitasking, what we’re actually doing is switching from one task to another very rapidly, “We’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner,” says Levitin. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, multitasking makes us less efficient.

3. Be deliberate

Think of someone you know who does something with care and attention, like cooking, and it’s like watching an artist at work: that is someone who is being deliberate.

Being more deliberate with our thoughts and actions can help us switch off autopilot to engage in activities more consciously, learn new skills, and maximise our human experience.

Having this improved self-awareness can really help us with the way we think about ourselves, our actions and our interactions.

Our focus and performance can improve greatly with deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is described as a “special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic,” says self-improvement expert James Clear, “While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance”. Deliberate practice can be used to improve your golf swing, learn how to play the piano or even become a better writer.

Clear emphasises that doing something over and over again is not deliberate practice, he says the danger of mindless repetition is that progress becomes assumed, “we assume we are getting better simply because we are gaining experience. In reality, we are merely reinforcing our current habits — not improving them”.

Deliberate practice takes significant time and effort but the rewards of retraining your brain and setting new habits are incredibly life changing.

Being deliberate not only allows us to master our actions, but plan for enjoyable outcomes by making more decisions that make us happy: like pursuing a new career or deciding to be fully in a moment we might usually take for granted.

4. Mind your meal

One thing we could be more deliberate about is eating.

“Instead of grabbing a quick snack on your way out the door or eating just to calm down at the end of a stressful day, isn’t it about time you let yourself truly appreciate a satisfying, nourishing meal?” says Dr. Susan Albers, New York Times Bestselling Author of ‘Eat Q’ and ‘Eating Mindfully’, who is a clinical psychologist that specialises in eating issues and mindfulness.

Albers says that in the past 20 years, studies have found that mindful eating can help improve a lot of eating issues (overeating, binge eating, weight gain) and chronic eating problems (anorexia, bulimia), “Intuitively, it makes sense that mindful eating is helpful to overeaters. It slows you down, makes you more aware of portion sizes and helps you get out of negative, automatic food habits like overeating while watching your favourite TV show”.

Albers’ observations are eyeopening at how easy it is to develop automatic habits.

For example, breakfast time: it’s a necessity to help give us energy for the day. But how often do you observe the ritual of your breakfast and fully enjoy the moment?

I could easily scroll through the news on my phone while shovelling cereal with some strawberries and yogurt down the hatch, then run out the door.

Or I could draw out the moment: letting the sweet scent of ripe, freshly-cut strawberries find my nose as my spoon gets closer to my mouth and then deeply taste how the delicate tartness of the strawberries compliments the creaminess of the yogurt.

She says that being more attentive and aware in all aspects of our life can help improve our eating habits, “This is good news if you aren’t ready to change what you put on your plate. Start by being more mentally present with your significant other, put away your cell phone and be more engaged with what you are doing and do one thing at a time instead of multitasking”.

Eating slowly and mindfully can also help us be in tune with our body’s appetite signals, improve digestion and energy, “Mindful eating plugs you back into your body’s cues so you know when to stop and start eating. This can be such a difficult task if your sense of hunger and fullness has been skewed or warped by large restaurant portions, fad diets or comfort eating”, says Albers.

By slowing ourselves down when we eat we can fully appreciate the full flavour of the meal and our bodies can also get the nutrients and nourishment it needs.

5. Be selective

Having deliberate focus shouldn’t be about being conscious of every action. It should be about having very selective focus, choosing only a handful of things that are manageable and focusing on those.

But we must accept that losing focus is inevitable. However, it’s being able to refocus and return to task that takes some practice. As mentioned earlier, there are some great benefits of meditation that can help you focus and refocus. Also, looking at your daily routine seeing what you can change can help you benefit greatly.

Here are some tips you can help you focus and get more out of your everyday life:

6. How to focus on being at home

These tips will help you focus on healthier habits and enjoy your life at home.

  1. Prepare for Monday on Sunday (ease that anxiety by using a little bit of time to plan for Monday and next week)
  2. Wake up to an actual alarm clock (this will stop you from browsing your phone for 30 minutes before getting out of bed)
  3. Drink a glass of water (this will help you wake up)
  4. Make your bed (you just started the day with achieving something)
  5. Meditate first thing in the morning (use an app to help you if you don’t know how — meditating will help you focus for the day)
  6. Eat your meal without looking at your phone (mmm strawberries)
  7. Walk without looking at your phone (that hot person just smiled at you and you didn’t even see it)
  8. Walk without listening to music (when was the last time you heard birds singing or the sound of the wind through the trees)
  9. Plan for offline time (being online all the time can be stressful: make a time for when you’re not on the internet)
  10. Turn your phone on flight mode before bed (unless you’re an ‘on-call’ doctor)
  11. Keep your laptop and phone out of your bed (get a book or a person instead)
  12. Meditate before you sleep (this will help you unpack the day and sleep more deeply)

7. How to focus on being at work

These tips will help you focus on your work and enjoy being productive.

  1. Check your email twice a day (start of day and end of day — if it’s urgent, they should call you)
  2. Turn off your email notifications (you can survive without them)
  3. Turn off your app notifications (do you really need to know immediately who liked your Instagram photo?)
  4. Prioritise your tasks: what are the critical details about this task that make it so important? How does that importance fit into the bigger vision (goal or project) of what you’re trying to achieve? Can it be done today? Can it be delegated to someone in your team?
  5. Do one task at a time until completion (multitasking is a great way to do nothing: “he who chases two rabbits, catches none”)
  6. Make your first task the one you don’t want to do (your day can only go upward from there)
  7. If the task is too big to do at once, break up it into smaller steps or tasks (e.g. Going to the gym = 1. Wake up. 2. Get out of bed, 3. Get gym clothes, etc)
  8. Give your tasks emotional meaning to motivate you: will getting this done make a huge difference and make you breathe a sigh of relief? Or will getting this done be a significant step in a huge project, getting you that one step closer to the excitement of achieving it?
  9. Know what tasks need extra focus then plan your ‘do not disturb time’ to do them (communicate that with your colleagues: e.g. earphones in means ‘do not disturb’)
  10. Take a brain break: you’ll yield higher results by resting your brain for 5 or 10 minutes after every hour of focused work.
  11. Use one tab in your browser at a time (use what you need to, presently)
  12. Manage your meetings: how important is it? Does it have to be in person? It could be a discussion for email, phone call or video call.
  13. Have your lunch away from your desk (you need to take that break)
  14. Look at all the things you achieved today (and feel great about it)
  15. Write tomorrow’s to-do list today (this will help stop you worrying about tomorrow)
  16. Set your out-of-office (set expectations and let people know when you are unavailable and when you will be next available)
  17. Go home and focus on what you can do to make it a relaxing experience (this will help you stop thinking about work when at home)

When we take time to deliberately focus, what we are doing is directing our attention to where it needs to be and allowing ourselves to be completely present, productive and relaxed in our experiences.

I’ve barely scratched the surface with a lot of these topics because there’s so much more to learn. If you want deeper knowledge, then I recommend clicking any of the source links below.

What focus habits have I missed that work for you? Let me know in the comments below!

Thank you for taking the time to read with me.

Sources for further reading:

Why The Modern World Is Bad For Your Brain by Dr. Daniel Levitin (The Guardian)

The Beginner’s Guide To Deliberate Practice by James Clear (James Clear.com)

Surprisingly Simple Ways You Can Trick Your Brain Into Focusing by Gwen Morgan (Fast Company)

The Two Brain Systems that Control Our Attention: The Science of Gaining Focus by Belle Beth Cooper (Buffer)

How The Brain Pays Attention by Anne Trafton (MIT)

How Meditation Can Reshape Our Brains by Sara Lazar (Tedx)

Meditation Not Only Reduces Stress, Here’s How It Changes Your Brain by Brigid Schulte feat. Sara Lazar (Washington Post)

Eight Weeks To A Better Brain by Sue McGreevey feat. Sara Lazar and Britta Hölzel (MGH Communications/Harvard University)

How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds by Tristan Harris (Google/Time Well Spent)

Get More Done by Checking Your Email Only Twice a Day by Craig Jarrow (Time Management Ninja)

The Surprising Benefits of Mindful Eating by Dr. Susan Albers (HuffPost)

45 Productivity Tips For Extremely Busy People by Editor (The Daily Muse)