How to improve focus 7 ways to train your brain

Last Updated: March 15, 2021 References Approved

This article was co-authored by Michael Lewis, MD, MPH, MBA, FACPM, FACN. Michael D. Lewis, MD, MPH, MBA, FACPM, FACN, is an expert on nutritional interventions for brain health, particularly the prevention and rehabilitation of brain injury. In 2012 upon retiring as a Colonel after 31 years in the U.S. Army, he founded the nonprofit Brain Health Education and Research Institute. He is in private practice in Potomac, Maryland, and is the author of “When Brains Collide: What every athlete and parent should know about the prevention and treatment of concussions and head injuries.” He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Tulane University School of Medicine. He completed post-graduate training at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Johns Hopkins University, and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Dr. Lewis is board certified and a Fellow of the American College of Preventive Medicine and American College of Nutrition.

There are 19 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.

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Just like your muscles, your brain needs exercise to keep it in good working order. Keeping a healthy diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep are some of the best ways to make sure your brain stays healthy. Beyond that, there are a few ways to enhance your brain power. Although results are mixed on increasing actual cognitive function (using measures such as IQ and specific brain tests), learning something new, working your memory, and reading are all great ways to work your brain to its limit! [1] X Research source

Your ability to focus on a task until it is complete is one of the greatest indicators of your future success.

All millionaires and billionaires have mastered the art of single focusing on one thing until completion before they move onto the next task.

However, we live in a world that is full of distractions and notifications that are constantly vying for your attention.

Your brain is simply not equipped to deal with the massive number of ‘shiny objects’ that are perpetually trying to disrupt your focus.

Learning to become the master of your brain instead of its slave is no easy task.

But, with a few simple hacks, you can quickly take charge of your mind and develop laser-like focus.

1. Start Each Morning With Exercise

One of the most important things that you can do for your brain and your overall well-being is to start every morning with exercise .

You don’t have to go to the gym and spend 3 hours pumping iron like Arnold in his prime either.

Simply getting the blood flowing for 20 minutes will sufficiently spark your mind and help you develop stronger focus throughout the day.

Some great activities to try are; swimming, racquetball, yoga, or cycling.

These exercises are relatively low impact on your body and are a heckuva lot more fun than mindlessly running on the “dreadmill” each morning.

2. Don’t Break Your Fast too Early

If you have been following the health and fitness or biohacking industries in recent years then you have inevitably heard about the phenomenon called intermittent fasting.

Intermittent fasting , or IF, is a fairly simple concept.

For 16 hours out of the day, you fast completely and then consume all of your calories in an 8-hour window.

It is actually a lot easier than it sounds and has numerous benefits.

Outside of the benefits to your metabolism and fat loss goals, IF actually helps you to have more focus in the morning because your body is not wasting precious energy digesting foods.

Instead, it can allocate all of those resources to helping you concentrate on the task at hand .

The best way that I have found to do IF is to skip breakfast , instead drinking 1-2 cups of black coffee, and then break your fast around 1 p.m., eating your last meal around 9 p.m.

If you do this, your focus will shoot through the roof.

3. Get More (Good) Fats in Your Diet

The human brain is made up of roughly 60% fat.

That’s pretty considerable when you think about it!

This poses a problem for the people who have been proponents of low fat diets throughout the years.

One of the best ways to quickly improve cognitive function and thereby your focus is to get more fats in your diet.

If you are following intermittent fasting then I recommend that you eat a lunch that has at least 30 grams of fat in it.

Nuts, avocados, eggs, and coconut oil are all great ways to get healthy fats into your diet and help your brain run more smoothly.

4. Use nootropic herbs.

Recently I’ve been testing with the herb licorice root through a friend’s recommendation and has gotten great results. It contains g lycyrrhizin, a compound that stops brain fog, cloudy-headedness, afternoon fatigue, and sleep disruption by preventing the breakdown of adrenal hormones such as cortisol.

The way I take it is in tea form. I basically just boil it in hot water and drink it daily.

There are other herbs with brain function enhancing properties you can test your self such as schizandra and ginkgo biloba.

4. Write Out Your Critical Tasks Each Hour

One of the best ways to keep your brain focused is to write out the tasks that you want to accomplish within the next hour and then time how long it takes until completion.

By writing out your key tasks each hour, you will refocus your brain on most important projects, and by timing yourself, you will add a sense of urgency that will help you stay focused.

5. Eliminate Pointless Distractions

I really shouldn’t even have to say this.

If your phone is constantly buzzing with new Snapchat notifications and your computer continually dings with new updates on your Facebook feed, then how in the world do you expect to stay focused?

This means that, while you are working, your phone is on airplane mode , your computer has all notifications disabled, and you clearly inform coworkers that you are not to be disturbed.

6. Set Small Daily Goals

Having huge, game changing goals is great.

Everyone should have a bigger vision for who they can be and what they can achieve.

But staying focused on a 10-year vision is no easy task, especially when trying to get through the tiring minutia of the day.

Whether you are bogged down with content marketing , emailing annoying clients, or writing new content , it can be easy to lose focus on the bigger picture.

Instead of focusing on your big, long term goals, start setting small daily goals.

By focusing only on what needs to be accomplished in any one given day, you will set yourself up for success.

Achieving small daily goals will wire your brain for success and trigger the reward mechanism, releasing dopamine when you accomplish your goal.

This will help you stay more focused and increase the odds of you achieving tomorrow’s goal.

7. Get Enough Sleep

Nothing will ruin your focus more than consistent sleep deprivation .

Some of the most successful individuals in our modern business world have attributed much of their success to sleeping 8 hours a night.

You need to sleep more if you want to achieve maximum focus. This is true for everyone ranging from jet lagged digital workers to corporate executives.

Try and get 7 hours of high quality sleep per night minimum.

Conclusion

Mastering your focus is not an easy task.

We did not evolve to cope with the massive number of distractions that we face in our daily lives.

However, by making sure that you are properly fueling and stimulating your brain and eliminating distractions wherever possible, you will be able to master your brain and increase your focus.

What hacks do you have for improving your focus while at work?

I am the cofounder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar, and KISSmetrics. I help companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue. The Wall Street Journal calls me a…

I am the cofounder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar, and KISSmetrics. I help companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue. The Wall Street Journal calls me a top influencer on the web, and Entrepreneur Magazine says I have created one of the 100 most brilliant companies in the world.

How to improve focus 7 ways to train your brain

For some people, creating art is a passion, for others it’s a hobby, and the rest would prefer to just admire art made by someone else. If you fall into that last category and haven’t made art since hand-tracing turkeys in elementary school, you may want to try picking back up this creative hobby. Why? Science has shown drawing can change your brain — often times, for the better.

According to OZY, painter Pablo Picasso once said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” While visual art may have always been considered fulfilling and good for the soul, research is also discovering it’s really good for your brain, and overall sense of wellness. Whether you are painting, drawing, sculpting, designing, collaging, making any kind of visual art — in any medium — packs a positive punch when it comes to your health.

It may be difficult to feel comfortable (and not judge your art!) working with clay or picking up pastels if you aren’t an experienced artist. However, you don’t have to be a trained or “talented” artist to glean the growing list of health benefits that creating visual art has to offer. From alleviating depression, to improving your attention span, here are 7 ways that making art can positively impact you.

Drawing Improves Your Memory

As Artsy reported this past May, a 2016 study led by Yale University researchers “observed a phenomenon they termed the ‘drawing effect’ — that illustrating a word’s meaning always leads to the highest levels of memory recall.” So, if you’re ever struggling to commit a big presentation to memory, sketching it out may help you better retain the information.

Next time you are sitting in a meeting, take a look around. The odds are high that you will see your colleagues checking screens, texting, and emailing while someone is talking or making a presentation. Many of us are proud of our prowess in multitasking, and wear it like a badge of honor. Multitasking may […]

Next time you are sitting in a meeting, take a look around. The odds are high that you will see your colleagues checking screens, texting, and emailing while someone is talking or making a presentation. Many of us are proud of our prowess in multitasking, and wear it like a badge of honor. Multitasking may […]

Next time you are sitting in a meeting, take a look around. The odds are high that you will see your colleagues checking screens, texting, and emailing while someone is talking or making a presentation. Many of us are proud of our prowess in multitasking, and wear it like a badge of honor.

Multitasking may help us check off more things on our to-do lists. But it also makes us more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.

Over the past decade, advances in neuroimaging have been revealing more and more about how the brain works. Studies of adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) using the latest neuroimaging and cognitive testing [PDF] are showing us how the brain focuses, what impairs focus — and how easily the brain is distracted. This research comes at a time when attention deficits have spread far beyond those with ADHD to the rest of us working in an always-on world. The good news is that the brain can learn to ignore distractions, making you more focused, creative, and productive.

Here are three ways you can start to improve your focus.

Tame your frenzy.

Frenzy is an emotional state, a feeling of being a little (or a lot) out of control. It is often underpinned by anxiety, sadness, anger, and related emotions. Emotions are processed by the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped brain structure. It responds powerfully to negative emotions, which are regarded as signals of threat. Functional brain imaging has shown that activation of the amygdala by negative emotions interferes with the brain’s ability to solve problems or do other cognitive work. Positive emotions and thoughts do the opposite — they improve the brain’s executive function, and so help open the door to creative and strategic thinking.

What can you do? Try to improve your balance of positive and negative emotions over the course of a day. Barbara Fredrickson, a noted psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recommends a 3:1 balance of positive and negative emotions, based upon mathematical modeling of ideal team dynamics by her collaborator Marcial Losada, and confirmed by research on individual flourishing and successful marriages. (Calculate your “positivity ratio” at www.positivityratio.com). You can tame negative emotional frenzy by exercising, meditating, and sleeping well. It also helps to notice your negative emotional patterns. Perhaps a coworker often annoys you with some minor habit or quirk, which triggers a downward spiral. Appreciate that such automatic responses may be overdone, take a few breaths, and let go of the irritation.

What can your team do? Start meetings on positive topics and some humor. The positive emotions this generates can improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.

Apply the brakes.

Your brain continuously scans your internal and external environment, even when you are focused on a particular task. Distractions are always lurking: wayward thoughts, emotions, sounds, or interruptions. Fortunately, the brain is designed to instantly stop a random thought, an unnecessary action, and even an instinctive emotion from derailing you and getting you off track.

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What can you do? To prevent distractions from hijacking your focus, use the ABC method as your brain’s brake pedal. Become Aware of your options: you can stop what you are doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go. Breathe deeply and consider your options. Then Choose thoughtfully: Stop? or Go?

What can your team do? Try setting up one-hour distraction-free meetings. Everyone is expected to contribute and offer thoughtful and creative input, and no distractions (like laptops, tablets, cell phones, and other gadgets) are allowed.

Shift Sets.

While it’s great to be focused, sometimes you need to turn your attention to a new problem. Set-shifting refers to shifting all of your focus to a new task, and not leaving any behind on the last one. Sometimes it’s helpful to do this in order to give the brain a break and allow it to take on a new task.

What can you do? Before you turn your attention to a new task, shift your focus from your mind to your body. Go for a walk, climb stairs, do some deep breathing or stretches. Even if you aren’t aware of it, when you are doing this your brain continues working on your past tasks. Sometimes new ideas emerge during such physical breaks.

What can your team do? Schedule a five-minute break for every hour of meeting time, and encourage everyone to do something physical rather than run out to check email. By restoring the brain’s executive function, such breaks can lead to more and better ideas when you reconvene.

Organizing your mind, and your team members’ minds, will yield a solid payoff in the year ahead. Adding “high-quality focus” is a great place to start. Try holding a no-multitasking meeting and see what happens when everyone in the room gives their undivided attention. Have you ever tried this in your organization? If not, do you think it would fly?

How can neuroscience-based innovation enhance behavioral and brain health? This was the question asked at the SharpBrains Virtual Summit, which brought together 170 participants from 19 countries. More than 2 billion people worldwide suffer from brain-based health and productivity challenges resulting in a global economic burden of more than $2 trillion. According to a recent survey, the number one fear of Baby Boomers is getting Alzheimer’s — the debilitating disease that slowly killed my father.

Given advances in imaging technology, we now know that the brain is affected by every experience, thought and emotion. Brain stimulation can increase neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to “rewire” itself) and neurogenesis (the formation of new nerve cells). There is no specific prescription that works across the board for brain fitness. Instead, experts talk about the following “pillars.”

1. Exercise often. Consistent aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging or biking) can generate new cells and blood vessels in the brain, and increase the brain’s volume principally in the frontal and temporal areas involved in executive control such as planning and working memory. Neurosurgeon Larry McCleary M.D., recommends at least 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week, along with a mix of weight training, balance drills and speed/agility components such as jumping rope.

2. Make sleep a priority. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), sleep appears necessary for our nervous systems to work properly. It gives us “downtime” for growth and repair. Studies indicate that many of the body’s cells show increased production and reduced breakdown of proteins during sleep. Products like Lark, a silent, vibrating alarm clock and sleep tracker can help you understand your own sleep patterns.

3. Cross-train your brain. The saying “use it or lose it” clearly applies to brain fitness. It’s vital to constantly step out of your comfort zone. SharpBrains CEO Alvaro Fernandez emphasizes “novelty, variety and challenge.” If you play chess, then take up hiking. If you do a lot of physical activities, then learn another language. Even reading a series of mystery novels, according to acclaimed educator Robert Sylwester, Ph.D., can challenge your brain to keep up with the plots and characters. Learning and “brain play” help to boost cognitive reserve and delay mental decline — and it’s fun! The online training site Lumosity now has 45 million users and 1 billion game plays.

4. Manage stress and meditate. The stress hormone cortisol can kill brain cells, and chronic stress can cause memory loss. Any form of stress management is good. Meditation offers a brain boost. In addition to lowering stress, it has been shown to increase cerebral blood flow and activate certain parts of the brain to improve concentration, focus and mood. Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., President & Medical Director of the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation has done extensive research on Kirtan Kriya — a type of meditation that takes just 12 minutes a day and has been shown to enhance genetic health, and decrease depression and inflammation markers.

5. Eat a plant-based diet. Eating too much sugary, highly processed food is bad for the body and the brain. It can alter blood flow to the brain and impair cognition. This is one reason why diabetes is a risk factor for cognitive dysfunction. Our brains need glucose to function and more natural whole foods provide a slower and more constant source of fuel. The Mediterranean Diet, in particular, has been shown to be brain-healthy. It focuses on a high intake of vegetables, fruit, cereals, unsaturated fats, and a low intake of dairy products and a moderate intake of fish.

6. Be purposeful and connected. Get together with your friends and do something meaningful. People who have a rich social network and who have a clear purpose in life have been shown to have a decreased instance of Alzheimer’s. The key is to increase the frequency of positive experiences. Bill Conklin, Psy.D. said, “Enjoying pleasurable activities, doing something that seems to make time stand still, spending time with loved ones, pursuing meaning in its many forms, and celebrating accomplishments stimulate the activity in your left prefrontal cortex.”

7. Monitor yourself. Remember the mood ring? Now there are a host of devices using biosensors to record things like brain waves, heart rate variability, respiratory rate, and even mood. For example, Emotiv offers a wireless headset that monitors your brain activity and translates EEG into data you can understand. Perhaps there will be a time when we go to the doctor for an annual mental check-up. Until then, sites like Lumosity and BrainBaseline can help you track your own brain’s performance. Misha Pavel, Ph.D., Program Director at the National Science Foundation, said, “We are now in the age of observation. The availability of data allows us to get smarter about our behaviors.”

There is no miracle “smart drug” like in the movie Limitless. Instead, your everyday actions, with the help of technology, can help boost your brain health and thrive at every point in life. As Dr. Khalsa said, “It’s not just about memory. It’s about living the best life you can.”

Dr. Kennedy is an internationally-recognized voice in Personal Empowerment & Leadership, Health & Productivity Management and Sustainability offering a unique, multidisciplinary approach to success in work and life. A Harvard-trained strategist and social entrepreneur, she is known for applying the principles and techniques from yoga and mindfulness to the Power Living coaching process in order to help people boost their brain power and have the clarity and energy to reach their highest potential. Check out her coaching services, private yoga training, inspirational products, blog and/or speaking services.

If you want training in meditation and/or need help optimizing your life for brain health, check out her special “Optimal Brain Power” coaching program. For additional tips, watch the “Optimize your Brain Power” interview with Dr. Michael Hutchinson, Associate Professor of Neurology at the New York University. For more research and information, check out The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance At Any Age.

For more by Dr. Terri Kennedy, click here.

Shaheen Lakhan, MD, PhD, is an award-winning physician-scientist and clinical development specialist.

While you might know that you need to exercise your body, did you know that it might also be important to exercise your mind? You’ve probably heard the old adage “use it or lose it.” Many researchers do believe that this maxim applies to your brain health.

Brain training is all the rage these days, often touted as a way to sharpen your mind and even boost intelligence. While many cognitive scientists suggest that the claims surrounding brain training are both exaggerated and misleading, there is an abundance of research suggesting that certain types of activities can be beneficial for your brain’s health.  

Take Care of Your Body to Take Care of Your Mind

How to improve focus 7 ways to train your brain

If you want to take care of your mind, you need to start by taking care of your body.

Research has time and time again shown that people who engage in healthy behaviors such as exercise and proper nutrition are less susceptible to the cognitive declines associated with the aging process.

Studies from 2006 even suggest that exercise can make you smarter and protect your brain from shrinkage as it ages.   Research on mice in 2013 has even revealed that exercise can increase neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells, in the brain’s hippocampus.  

One study published in 2013 looked at healthy behaviors in nearly 2,300 men over the course of thirty years. Researchers looked at the participants’ behaviors and cognitive abilities starting in middle age tracked their progress throughout old age.  

The researchers found that men who practiced certain healthy behaviors were around 60% less likely to experience cognitive impairment and dementia as they age.

These healthy behaviors included not smoking, maintaining a healthy BMI, regularly exercising, consuming lots of vegetables and fruits, and consuming a low to moderate amount of alcohol.  

So if you want to build a better mind, start by working on your physical health first. Go for a walk, start incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet, and try to give up any bad habits like excessive alcohol consumption or tobacco use. Some of these might be more difficult than others, but your brain will thank you for years to come.

Draw a Map of Your Town From Memory

How to improve focus 7 ways to train your brain

While you might feel like you can navigate the streets of your neighborhood with your eyes closed, try challenging your brain by actually drawing a map of your town or neighborhood from memory. No cheating! Try to include major streets, major side streets, and local landmarks.

Once you are done, compare your memory map to a real map of the area. How did you do? Are you surprised by some of the things that you missed? If you found this activity too easy, try drawing a less familiar area from memory, such as a map of the entire United States or Europe, and try to label every state or country.

Navigating your way to the supermarket or doctor’s office might seem simple and almost automatic when you are behind the wheel of your car. However, forcing yourself to remember the layout of your neighborhood as well as draw and label it helps activate a variety of areas of your brain.

Learn Something New

How to improve focus 7 ways to train your brain

This brain exercise requires a bit of commitment, but it is also one that just might give you the most bang for your buck. Learning something new is one way to keep your brain on its toes and continually introduce new challenges.

In one study, researchers assigned older adults to learn a variety of new skills ranging from digital photography to quilting. They then did memory tests and compared the experimental groups to control groups. Those in the control groups had engaged in activities that were fun but not mentally challenging such as watching movies and listening to the radio.  

The researchers found that only those participants who had learned a new skill experienced improvement on the memory tests.

They also discovered that these memory improvements were still present when tested again a year later.

Some things you might want to try include learning a new language, learning to play a musical instrument or learning a new hobby. Not only will you be stretching your mind, but you will also be continually learning something new as you keep expanding your skills and becoming more accomplished.

How to improve focus 7 ways to train your brain

by TeachThought Staff

What are the executive functions of the brain, and what can you do as an educator to support their development in students?

That’s what the graphic below from understood.org seeks to answer. According to Harvard, “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

Put simply, these are ‘higher-order’ thinking patterns and skills that allow students to live.

So what can be done to promote their development–and in a way that doesn’t require you to turn from teacher to lab-coated neuroscientist? Below are some ideas to get started.

8 Strategies To Improve Executive Functions Of The Brain

1. Impulse Control

What it means: Impulse control helps a student think before acting.

How it looks: Students with weak impulse control might blurt out inappropriate things. They’re also more likely to engage in risky behavior.

Strategy to improve: Provide students with a “Wait 5” strategy–counting to five before verbally responding to an input in the classroom, and a “Wait 3” in personal conversations to think before speaking in pairs or groups.

2. Emotional Control

What it means: Emotional control helps students keep their feelings in check.

How it looks: Students with weak emotional control often overreact. They can have trouble dealing with criticism and regrouping when things go wrong.

Strategy to improve: Help students see the relationship between thoughts and feelings. As they are able to control and reframe their thinking, their emotions can benefit in parallel.

3. Flexible Thinking

What it means: Flexible thinking allows students to adjust to the unexpected.

How it looks: Students with “rigid”thinking don’t “roll with the punches.” They might get frustrated if asked to think about something from a different angle.

Strategy to improve: Create weekly journal prompts that require students to do exactly that–see things from multiple perspectives. A child drops an ice cream cone in front of their friends. A coach screams at a player. A shy student wins an award–describe these situations from the multiple perspectives of different participants.

4. Working Memory

What it means: Working memory helps students keep key information in mind.

How it looks: Students with weak working memory have trouble remembering directions–even if they’ve taken notes or you’ve repeated them several times.

Strategy to improve: Use memory games or apps like Fit Brains Trainer or Lumosity, or use memory-based team-building games that require students to remember something as part of a classroom activity–names, colors, favorite things, etc., and then celebrate their success.

5. Self-Monitoring

What it means: Self-monitoring allows students to evaluate how they’re doing.

How it looks: Students with weak self-monitoring skills may be surprised by a bad grade or negative feedback.

Strategy to improve: ‘Stop & look’–periodically call out to the class ‘Stop and look’ so that they can intentionally pause at any given moment and assess what they’re doing, how they’re feeling, what their engagement level is, and how they are or aren’t making progress towards a personal goal.

6. Planning & Prioritizing

What it means: Planning and prioritizing help your child decide on a goal and a plan to meet it.

How it looks: Students with weak planning and prioritizing skills may not know which parts of a project are most important.

Strategy to improve: Have students crate mock projects–video games, music albums, books, businesses, apps, etc.–and then map out how they could accomplish that goal, then pair-share that map to open for feedback from partners in the classroom (which also helps with Emotional Control and Flexible Thinking as well).

7. Task Initiation

What it means: Task initiation helps students take action and get started.

How it looks: Students who have weak task initiation skills may freeze up because they have no idea where to begin.

Strategy to improve: Create daily prompts of various tasks to complete, and have students brainstorm different “starting points,” then share out.

8. Organization

What it means: Organization helps your child keep track of things physically and mentally.

How it looks: Students with weak organization skills can lose their train of thought–as well as their cell phone and homework.

Strategy to improve: Organizational apps. Checklists. Planners. Different things work for different students. Experiment, persist, and find what works to help students organize themselves.

How to improve focus 7 ways to train your brain

TeachThought is an organization dedicated to innovation in education through the growth of outstanding teachers.

Practicing a new and challenging activity is a good bet for building and maintaining cognitive skills.

How to improve focus 7 ways to train your brainYour brain has the ability to learn and grow as you age — a process called brain plasticity — but for it to do so, you have to train it on a regular basis.

“Eventually, your cognitive skills will wane and thinking and memory will be more challenging, so you need to build up your reserve,” says Dr. John N. Morris, director of social and health policy research at the Harvard-affiliated Institute for Aging Research. “Embracing a new activity that also forces you to think and learn and requires ongoing practice can be one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy.”

Physical and mental game

Research has shown that regular physical exercise is one way to improve cognitive functions like memory recall, problem solving, concentration, and attention to detail. However, it is not clear if the physical aspect alone boosts your brain or if a combination of other factors — like the mental challenge of the activity, the frequency you do it, and the desire to improve — also contribute.

Take swimming, for example. It has obvious cardiovascular and muscle-building benefits, but also involves constant thinking, processing, and learning. You have to be mindful of your breathing rhythm and how to properly execute strokes and kicks. You also can measure your expertise in terms of endurance and speed, which motivates you to practice your skills to be a better swimmer.

A brain training activity doesn’t always have to be exercise-related. Much research has found that creative outlets like painting and other art forms, learning an instrument, doing expressive or autobiographical writing, and learning a language also can improve cognitive function. A 2014 study in Gerontologist reviewed 31 studies that focused on how these specific endeavors affected older adults’ mental skills and found that all of them improved several aspects of memory like recalling instructions and processing speed.

Prep your brain

These tips can support your new brain training endeavor:

Pick one new activity. Devote your time and attention to only one additional activity, so you won’t be tempted by other interests.

Sign up for a class. Classes are a good way to learn the basics of any new activity, especially one that requires specific skills, like painting or music.

Schedule practice time. Don’t focus on the amount of time you practice at first, but rather aim for consistency. Devote what time you can, but be firm with your commitment. Schedule it and do it.

Do the right activity

No matter which new activity you choose, make sure it follows three guidelines in order to maximize brain training, according to Dr. Morris.

Challenging. You have to always challenge your brain in order for it to grow. This is why choosing a new activity is so beneficial. It engages your brain to learn something new and offers the chance to improve.

Not up for a new endeavor? Raise the bar for an existing activity. For instance, if you are a casual golfer, commit to increasing your ability and aim to lower your handicap or shoot a specific score. “You don’t have the challenge of learning something new, but rather the challenge of increasing your skill set and knowledge,” says Dr. Morris.

Complexity. A complex activity not only strikes a match of excitement, but forces your brain to work on specific thought processes like problem solving and creative thinking. A 2013 study in Psychological Science found that older adults ages 60 to 90 who did new and complex activities, such as digital photography or quilting, for an average of 16 hours per week for three months scored better on working and long-term memory tests than those who did more familiar activities like reading and doing crossword puzzles.

Practice. Practice makes permanent, and that goes for brain function, too. “You can’t improve memory if you don’t work at it,” says Dr. Morris. “The more time you devote to engaging your brain, the more it benefits.”

Your activity should require some level of constant practice, but the goal is not to strive for vast improvements. “It is the constant repetition of working to improve, and not the quest for mastery, that can have the greatest impact,” says Dr. Morris.

Image: © Giulio Fornasar/Getty Images

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Next time you are sitting in a meeting, take a look around. The odds are high that you will see your colleagues checking screens, texting, and emailing while someone is talking or making a presentation. Many of us are proud of our prowess in multitasking, and wear it like a badge of honor. Multitasking may […]

Next time you are sitting in a meeting, take a look around. The odds are high that you will see your colleagues checking screens, texting, and emailing while someone is talking or making a presentation. Many of us are proud of our prowess in multitasking, and wear it like a badge of honor. Multitasking may […]

Next time you are sitting in a meeting, take a look around. The odds are high that you will see your colleagues checking screens, texting, and emailing while someone is talking or making a presentation. Many of us are proud of our prowess in multitasking, and wear it like a badge of honor.

Multitasking may help us check off more things on our to-do lists. But it also makes us more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.

Over the past decade, advances in neuroimaging have been revealing more and more about how the brain works. Studies of adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) using the latest neuroimaging and cognitive testing [PDF] are showing us how the brain focuses, what impairs focus — and how easily the brain is distracted. This research comes at a time when attention deficits have spread far beyond those with ADHD to the rest of us working in an always-on world. The good news is that the brain can learn to ignore distractions, making you more focused, creative, and productive.

Here are three ways you can start to improve your focus.

Tame your frenzy.

Frenzy is an emotional state, a feeling of being a little (or a lot) out of control. It is often underpinned by anxiety, sadness, anger, and related emotions. Emotions are processed by the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped brain structure. It responds powerfully to negative emotions, which are regarded as signals of threat. Functional brain imaging has shown that activation of the amygdala by negative emotions interferes with the brain’s ability to solve problems or do other cognitive work. Positive emotions and thoughts do the opposite — they improve the brain’s executive function, and so help open the door to creative and strategic thinking.

What can you do? Try to improve your balance of positive and negative emotions over the course of a day. Barbara Fredrickson, a noted psychology researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recommends a 3:1 balance of positive and negative emotions, based upon mathematical modeling of ideal team dynamics by her collaborator Marcial Losada, and confirmed by research on individual flourishing and successful marriages. (Calculate your “positivity ratio” at www.positivityratio.com). You can tame negative emotional frenzy by exercising, meditating, and sleeping well. It also helps to notice your negative emotional patterns. Perhaps a coworker often annoys you with some minor habit or quirk, which triggers a downward spiral. Appreciate that such automatic responses may be overdone, take a few breaths, and let go of the irritation.

What can your team do? Start meetings on positive topics and some humor. The positive emotions this generates can improve everyone’s brain function, leading to better teamwork and problem solving.

Apply the brakes.

Your brain continuously scans your internal and external environment, even when you are focused on a particular task. Distractions are always lurking: wayward thoughts, emotions, sounds, or interruptions. Fortunately, the brain is designed to instantly stop a random thought, an unnecessary action, and even an instinctive emotion from derailing you and getting you off track.

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How to improve focus 7 ways to train your brain

HBR Guide to Being More Productive
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What can you do? To prevent distractions from hijacking your focus, use the ABC method as your brain’s brake pedal. Become Aware of your options: you can stop what you are doing and address the distraction, or you can let it go. Breathe deeply and consider your options. Then Choose thoughtfully: Stop? or Go?

What can your team do? Try setting up one-hour distraction-free meetings. Everyone is expected to contribute and offer thoughtful and creative input, and no distractions (like laptops, tablets, cell phones, and other gadgets) are allowed.

Shift Sets.

While it’s great to be focused, sometimes you need to turn your attention to a new problem. Set-shifting refers to shifting all of your focus to a new task, and not leaving any behind on the last one. Sometimes it’s helpful to do this in order to give the brain a break and allow it to take on a new task.

What can you do? Before you turn your attention to a new task, shift your focus from your mind to your body. Go for a walk, climb stairs, do some deep breathing or stretches. Even if you aren’t aware of it, when you are doing this your brain continues working on your past tasks. Sometimes new ideas emerge during such physical breaks.

What can your team do? Schedule a five-minute break for every hour of meeting time, and encourage everyone to do something physical rather than run out to check email. By restoring the brain’s executive function, such breaks can lead to more and better ideas when you reconvene.

Organizing your mind, and your team members’ minds, will yield a solid payoff in the year ahead. Adding “high-quality focus” is a great place to start. Try holding a no-multitasking meeting and see what happens when everyone in the room gives their undivided attention. Have you ever tried this in your organization? If not, do you think it would fly?