7 Tips To Help You Focus, According to Experts

These research-backed strategies will get you in the zone and help you stay productive.

We live in a world buzzing and flashing with distractions: Slack messages sidle onto screens, phones vibrate with breaking news, pings from the group chat, and worries about world events break our concentration. No wonder staying focused can be a challenge.

A distraction-filled environment is just one factor standing in the way of focus, therapist Billy Roberts, LISW-S, founder and owner of Focused Mind ADHD Counseling, told Health. According to Roberts, the overall stress of your life can also play a role. What's more, your feelings also affect your focus.

"There are times when emotions are running high, and anxiety or frustration gets in the way of concentration," said Roberts.

So, how can you get to a flow state, concentrating on what you're doing at the moment and getting what you need to do done? Experts shared seven strategies to help you get, and stay, in the zone.

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Create a Distraction-Free Environment

Some people can only focus in total silence or need a workspace wiped free of clutter. Others need background classical music or a blaring TV. And some people can only get in the right headspace when their desks display personal mementos, photos of loved ones, or art with personal meaning.

Your work zone is unique to you. There's no single right way to set up a get-things-done environment. The trick is to figure out what works best for your productivity and create that space, even if you have to invest a little money and energy into it.

"There are lots of distractions to consider, but getting really specific to your life is key," said Roberts. Additionally, Roberts recommended considering the sights, sounds, and temperature in your environment, then building what's suitable for you.

Break Down Big Projects Into Bite-Sized Tasks

"Seeing a big project ahead can create a cycle of high anxiety, procrastination, and challenges with focus when you actually get started on it," Scott Allen, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of neurodiversity services at Just Mind Counseling, told Health

As Allen explained, breaking down a major project or task into many steps can help keep your concentration. For example, instead of adding a significant work project to your to-do list, parcel it into several small steps: Call the client, set up a meeting, research pricing, and so on.

Those small tasks have a less intimidating feeling. So, you may find it easier to sustain your focus for a more extended time than before.

What doesn't help focus is trying to tackle a big project or task without thinking through the steps you need to complete (and in what order) to get the project done.

Schedule Short Timeouts

Even people who are good at focusing on a task experience dips and distractions. Our brains are always on alert. 

The solution? Take an occasional short break. Taking breaks doesn't mean you're lazy or poorly using your time. After the break, you'll be more likely to resume your task with focus and efficiency rather than having your attention drift.

Try time-limited sprints, Dorlee Michaeli, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York, told Health. The Pomodoro technique—in which you focus on a task for 25 minutes, then break for 5 minutes—is one popular strategy, noted Michaeli. Or try 90-minute sprints dedicated to a task, followed by a 15- to 20-minute break.

What doesn't help focus is trying to power through by working hours on end without getting up from your chair or leaving your desk.

Start a Meditation Practice

You've probably heard about the power of meditation before. Some evidence suggests that taking a few minutes a day to meditate can improve your focus. And it doesn't take long for the effects of meditation practice to materialize.

"Meditation improves our focus by reducing our stress and enabling us to bounce back more quickly from distractions," explained Michaeli.

Reduced stress makes us react less to minor annoyances and emotional triggers to get in the right headspace to power through. During meditation, you learn to bring your attention back to your breath when your mind wanders, according to Michaeli. 

Building that skill "facilitates our brain's ability to return more quickly to the task at hand when interrupted by a text or phone buzzing," added Michaeli.

What doesn't help focus is feeling stressed out or racing your mind with many different thoughts or feelings.

Get Physical

While focusing is a mental task, physical activity plays a role, too. Exercising can improve your ability to concentrate and boost your memory.  

"Building in time-limited movement breaks helps to keep the brain stimulated and can increase your productivity on long-term projects," said Allen. Regular physical activity, like a morning jog, brisk walk, or gym session, can also relieve stress and clear your head to make focusing easier than usual.

While sustained exercise is helpful, small physical activity can also work. Next time you're feeling distracted, step away from whatever it is you're doing and try one of the following:

  • Go for a quick walk
  • Do a round of jumping jacks
  • Complete a chore that involves being active, like vacuuming or sweeping

What doesn't help focus is sitting for long periods without taking breaks to move and increase circulation. Excessive sitting is associated with poor cognitive function, including memory and attention.

Schedule Activities When You’re Naturally More Alert

Our levels of alertness naturally spike and dip throughout the day, according to Allen. And it often depends on whether you're a morning person or a night owl.

If you're an early riser, load up your morning with the most complex mental tasks on your to-do list. Night owls, on the other hand, should ease into the day, relying on the evening hours for projects that require focus—if your work allows this kind of flexibility, of course. 

"Schedule activities requiring maximal focus during the times of day that you are most alert and focused," said Allen.

What doesn't help focus is trying to force yourself to be at peak alertness when you're tired. Whether you're an early riser or a night owl, fatigue and poor sleep will make it even more challenging to focus. Insufficient sleep impairs decision-making and the speed and accuracy of completing tasks.

Eat Foods That Boost Cognition

What you eat can make a difference in how your brain and body run. Ever eat up a sugary treat that you expected would help fuel your focus, only to experience a crash an hour later? Simple carbohydrates and refined sugar lead to a burst of energy, followed quickly by fatigue. And concentrating when you're fighting to keep your eyes open is hard.

Other foods, in contrast, give your brainpower an assist. The caffeine in a cup of coffee has been shown to help with concentration and mental function. But be careful with how much caffeine you consume. Some people feel anxious or jittery with too much caffeine, making it hard to stay focused.

Other ways to give your brain a boost include:

  • Eat a balanced breakfast daily,
  • Include fruits and vegetables at meals and snacks.
  • Choose nuts, seeds, whole grains, and lean protein sources.

What doesn't help focus is eating highly processed foods and foods high in sugar or fat. The brain uses sugar as fuel, but too much sugar can lead to fatigue and dips in blood sugar, which worsens focus, thinking, and memory.

A Quick Review

The strategies that help you focus may differ from what works for your peers. You may want to try combining several methods. For example, take short walking breaks, do a few minutes of deep breathing mid-morning, and eat a healthy snack mid-afternoon. Those hacks can help sharpen your focus and attention when your thoughts wander.

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