Focus is a fascinating concept, not least of all because the object of our focus differs wildly. Whether it's gaming, studying, or getting ahead at work, improved focus is the culmination of our memory, concentration, and reaction time. To find out what you need to know about focus, and, most importantly, how to improve focus, keep reading.
The object of your focus may differ from someone else's, but the principle remains the same—"focus is the act of concentrating your interest or activity on something". Now, that something could be work, it could be gaming, it could even be studying or chores at home. Whatever your "something" is, focus helps your mind give all its attention to the task at hand.
But what happens when a function we often take for granted doesn't work? When you need to focus and can't, what are the options? Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes for focus. There are a handful of short-term boosts in the form of supplements, but these are no replacement for a balanced approach to diet, exercise, and sleep.
A lack of focus can be disastrous, especially if you're under pressure to complete a task or activity. However, poor focus is a very familiar occurrence, especially in today's world.
To focus, we need to give a task our undivided attention, but when you factor in work stress, poor diet, an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, and inadequate sleep, focusing can become nearly impossible. Most of the time, an inability to focus stems from too much or too little of something, for example:
Although it will likely come as no surprise, excessive alcohol consumption is a significant contributor to a lack of focus. In fact, the influence of alcohol does everything it can to disrupt focus by blocking chemical signals in the brain, making it increasingly difficult for us to regulate social behaviour or exercise sound judgment and reasoning.
While some people believe smoking can help them focus, at least in the short term, it's a fallacious approach. The near-immediate boost to mood and concentration quickly fades, turning into irritability, anxiety, and a craving for nicotine. That craving rapidly takes over logical reasoning, interrupting our ability to focus.
Unfortunately, in the modern age, information overload is a common cause of poor focus. While many perceive an ability to multitask as desirable, our brain has a limit to how many tasks it can handle effectively—the keyword here being "effectively".
Working on a task before quickly stopping to check emails is a typical scenario, but you've probably noticed it takes several minutes before you're back on track. That's because even the slightest distraction can interrupt our brain's ability to focus. All that time spent re-focusing soon adds up, even if it doesn't feel wasted at the time.
Alternatively, struggling to focus could also be because you're not getting enough of something you need, such as:
Your mind and body need the correct nutrition to feel at their best. If you don't give your mind the fuel it needs to function, then there's no hope of focusing when needed. A balanced diet is typically the best approach.
You can also try supplementing your body with specific vitamins, minerals, and compounds to fill gaps in your nutrition, and thus support focus—we'll cover more on these later.
Exercise, specifically a lack of it, has a significant impact on how well we can focus. Regular physical activity boosts the body's natural levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. All three hormones play a crucial role in focus and attention, so it's imperative we keep our body moving to benefit from their cognitive effects.
There's also evidence to suggest that aerobic exercise enhances the size of our hippocampus—part of the brain directly linked to memory and learning. In short, a lack of movement guarantees an interruption to our focus.
Sleep deprivation is a well-documented contributor to poor focus. Not only can it impair judgement, but a lack of sleep makes it much more difficult to pay attention and perform tasks that require logical reasoning.
During restful sleep, the mind recovers from the day's events, generating new synapses and processing thoughts and emotions. Without these crucial processes, focusing on complex tasks is significantly harder and leads to an all-too-common feeling—mental fogginess.
If you're not sure where to start with improving focus, there are dozens of simple activities and several supplements that can help optimise mental performance. It's important to note that no single exercise or supplement will boost cognitive performance.
Instead, improving focus is about breaking the concept down into three key areas: memory, concentration, and reaction time. Focusing on the area you struggle with most can directly support your ability to focus—just don't forget to eat well and get plenty of sleep too.
If you're looking to improve your memory, the good news is there are numerous activities you can try. You can perform most in minutes, but the key is consistency.
Although the two practices are similar, there are some crucial differences. Meditation is more of a physical process that uses specific breathing and relaxation techniques. Although mindfulness does include controlled breathing, it's a more fluid process as you try to centre your thoughts and develop awareness.
Regardless of which you choose—meditation or mindfulness—both are believed to help improve memory performance, spatial working memory (the ability to hold and process information, and reduce age-related memory decline.
Vitamin D has links to dozens of functions throughout the body, and a deficiency can quickly lead to debilitating health issues. In the case of concentration, a lack of vitamin D may cause a decline in cognitive abilities, which also worsens as we age.
Fortunately, topping up your body's levels of vitamin D is simple. The most direct method is spending more time outside (safely, of course). Our body uses natural sunlight to produce vitamin D, and for most people, this is more than enough.
However, if you live in a climate where spending time outside is difficult, you can also try oily fish, red meat, eggs, or specially formulated vitamin D supplements.
The second stop on our journey to improved focus is concentration. Concentration plays a considerable role in how well we can focus, especially when you're up against work deadlines or in the middle of an exam.
To enhance the "mental effort" you can direct toward a task, you need to think of concentration as a muscle. And like all muscles, you can train your concentration to become stronger and last longer.
A fun and simple way to improve concentration is by playing games that require complex thought, such as sudoku, chess, and memory games. These kinds of activities work wonders for our attention and are suitable for kids and adults alike.
If you require a short-term boost to concentration, some foods and supplements can help. Caffeine is the most common choice, but supplements that contain vitamin K, guarana seed extract, and omega-3 fatty acids can also help.
Before deciding on any supplement, you must match the benefits to your current lifestyle. If in doubt, speak to your doctor.
The third and final factor to focus is reaction time. Improving reaction time makes it easier for us to switch between tasks if we get distracted, supports our ability to think on the spot, and enhances our gaming or sports performance.
Fast reactions rely on both mental and physical quickness. Warming up is essential to improving our reactions for one simple reason—heat. Heat enables atoms to move faster, translating to faster cell reaction times.
Start by moving your hands, mimicking the movements you plan to make, or warm them up by holding a cup of tea or coffee. Sounds simple enough, but if you've ever tried to do delicate or precise work with your hands when they're cold, you'll understand how much of an impact heat has.
Improving our reaction time ultimately comes down to practise—there are no cheat codes for fast reactions. However, you mustn't just practise the same movements over and over again.
Our reaction response is equal parts physical and mental, so try exposing yourself to various stimuli. Facing new or unique situations will help with mental reaction times, slowly increasing your ability to act on impulse.
Supplements are a common choice for improving focus, but of all the options on the market, what can CBD do to help?
First, let's quickly cover off what CBD is and how it influences the body. Extracted from hemp, CBD is an all-natural supplement most commonly consumed as an oil. It won't get you high and is well-tolerated in humans, but the lack of toxicity is its most significant benefit. What makes CBD stand out is its broad influence on the mind and body.
CBD interacts with special receptors spread all over our body, triggering biological changes that contribute to a homeostatic state. To focus correctly, we need a body that's firing on all cylinders, so CBD could provide a much-needed boost.
However, CBD's proposed impact on focus isn't as direct as it sounds. Instead, the molecule appears to support the body overall, rather than enhancing areas specifically linked to focus. Fortunately, how we think and feel influences our ability to focus, so CBD's effect on mood, pain, appetite, and sleep could prove crucial to improving focus.
The mind is a complex organism, making it difficult for researchers to give a definitive answer on CBD's efficacy. However, there are some encouraging results from preclinical and animal model studies.
The bulk of these studies all point toward the same mechanism—neurogenesis. CBD is believed to promote neurogenesis, our body's means of developing neurons. While it's true that neurogenesis occurs naturally, the process deteriorates as we age, and any boost comes with significant benefits. A lack of new neurons increases the risk of cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and deficits in social recognition memory.
Given how sophisticated our brain function is—especially memory—there are still many variables to examine. Thankfully, research is ongoing, with many scientists focused on how CBD can help alleviate cognitive diseases such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease, and brain ischemia.
There are no shortcuts for improving mental performance, whether it's concentration, memory, or reactions. Staying focused on the task at hand is a skill in itself, but it is a skill that simple lifestyle changes can directly support.
Eating well, staying hydrated, getting plenty of sleep—while they sound simple enough, all of these activities have a dramatic impact on our ability to focus. If, however, it becomes a struggle balancing these three elements, that's when supplements can provide a short-term boost to focus. Remember, they should never replace an active and balanced lifestyle, but they are there to help when you need them most.
Mental fogginess and a lack of focus are somewhat unavoidable ailments in today's modern society, but they don't have to stop you from doing the things you love, or the things you simply need to get done. Whether it's gaming, sport, finishing a work project, or studying, there will always be times when focus is of the utmost importance—that's when simple lifestyle changes can make a dramatic difference!