We all do it, walk into a room to get something and have a complete brain blank as to what it was. Or start a conversation only to tail off half way through having lost your train of thought. We are not losing our minds, we are losing our ability to focus. In a world that is increasingly full of distractions, our attention is being constantly disrupted which is having a huge impact on our ability to concentrate, as well as on our mental wellbeing.
The human brain can only think about one thing at a time. Multi tasking between cooking, scrolling through emails and having a conversation with someone may seem like we are achieving more in a shorter time. However because your brain is actually switching between these things and without direct focus on each task, we are actually doing it all less competently.
When we consider our work or study, being able to concentrate on what is in front of you for a prolonged period of time will allow you to be creative and work to the best of your ability. Think about how much more we could achieve doing something really important to us if we could truly, completely focus.
It’s not you, it’s them
In his latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari explains that it’s not our fault that we have lost focus through laziness or a lack of will power, our attention has been stolen. In the last decade there has been what he describes as a global attention crisis. Technology, whilst not being the only change, has had the biggest impact on our ability to concentrate by directing so much of our daily lives towards our devices. We flit between apps- news, content, social media, work so the brain is constantly having to switch and change it’s thought processes. It’s exhausting and this interrupted thinking is then carried into other areas of our lives.
Tech companies are perfecting ways to infiltrate yours and our children attention in order to drive you towards their platforms and ultimately maximise their profits. Setting boundaries with the use of tech is one of the toughest hurdles in modern society. As an individual, without focus, we may not be able achieve our personal goals but Johann delves deeper. Without the ability to pay attention and really listen to others in our world, we will be less likely to form sustained connections and show kindness to one another.
Social media giants are creating a world that actively persuades more time communicating behind screens and less time physically with each other. They want to keep our attention for as long as possible so they can serve us ads and increase their profit margins. ‘Social’ media is actually highly anti-social. What they know, as every media outlet does, is that we as humans have a natural negative bias and we are more likely to engage in negative content and stories. This leads to rifts within societies.
It’s not just the tech companies, we all know how fast paced and competitive the world is becoming at every level and it may feel overwelming. But there are ways that with practice, we can regain control and introduce habits that will claw back this vital ability to concentrate and properly connect with others.
Yoga: Mastery over the mind
Introducing yoga! The purpose of traditional yoga practice is to achieve mastery over the mind. The ability to be still with your thoughts and improve awareness in the moment. Whilst the physical practice of yoga is in part to exercise to keep the body fit, it is also to release tension held in the body so we can be still for periods of time in order to meditate.
When yoga was first founded thousands of years ago, of course technology was not in existence. Yet still there was a need for yoga as a way to calm our thoughts and prevent mental distress. The mind is prone to chatter which is how we process information around us and make decisions. But this chatter can get out of control, thoughts can start to loop and when there is too much going on in our brains, focussing on a single task becomes impossible. Through meditation, we can learn to calm the mind, slow racing thoughts and take a sense of calm focus into our daily lives. Yoga and meditation practice don’t have to be complicated. Incorporating some simple daily habits can make a huge difference to your mental state.
Stress and anxiety
The brain is wired to protect us when we perceive danger with the sympathetic nervous system triggering a ‘fight of flight’ reaction. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released to the body to heighten our thought processing to deal with the threat.
This is useful if faced with a short term life or death situation that we need to run from or fight. The issue these days with sensory overload from our busy lives, 24/7 news and social media at our finger tips, is that the brain often perceives an increasing level of day to day mental ‘threats’ as dangerous and has the same reaction which may lead to prolonged periods of hyper-vigilance. When we don’t feel safe and are stressed it is impossible to concentrate on anything else properly as the brain is busy focussing on the stressor.
Yoga is known to be an excellent way to de-stress the body and mind. Physical movement has a hugely positive impact on brain functioning and yoga in particular helps switch on the para-sympathetic nervous response, rest and relaxation. In particular yin, or restorative yoga, can help those that are prone to anxiety
Pranayama & breathing
The traditional Sanskrit meaning of pranayama is to guide and maintain the body’s vital life force, or energy flow. “Prana” means life energy and “yama” means control. A more modern interpretation is that it is the regulation of the breath, which is associated with the prana, through certain techniques and exercises. Full breathing brings fresh oxygen to the brain, as well as helping the para-sympathetic nervous system regulate stress and anxiety. Both of these factors allow us to concentrate and focus.
There are many simple pranayama techniques such as yogic breathing that encourage slow, mindful breathing using the full capacity of the lungs. Consciously breathing into the abdomen, middle chest and upper chest, holding the breath for some time and the releasing, pausing at empty, can help calm us, bringing clarity. Here is a great overview of some other techniques https://yogapractice.com/yoga/pranayamas-for-beginners/. The more advanced techniques such as Kapalabhati, skull cleansing breathing would be best practiced with a teacher. If you have any health concerns such as high blood pressure, please be careful of practicing any vigorous techniques and don’t practice alone.
James Nestor, author of Breath, talks to Ella Mills in this podcast which is a fantastic overview for how to consider the impact of breath on the body and mind. https://deliciouslyella.com/podcast/simple-tools-for-health-breath/. In the book he explores the roots and power of conscious breathing in the Buddhist philosophy, how we have forgotten how to breathe in modern life and physical techniques to regain control over something that is fundamental to life.
What has been practiced for centuries by many cultures, and is becoming more understood globally is the impact that meditating can have on our mental state. Mediation is the pathway to the ultimate goal of yoga practice- the ability to reach samadhi, a blissful form of total meditative absorption and connection with the universal spirit. Whilst this may sound a little ‘woo woo’ for some, even simple meditation allows you to find some headspace by slowing down racing thoughts. By focussing on one thing- the flow of breath in and out of the body, a vision like a blue sky or waterfall, a sound or chant like ‘Ommm’ or a flickering candle we force the mind to calm and the nervous system to relax.
Meditation does not need to be complicated or take up too much time. You can start with a YouTube video, podcast or by subscribing to an platform like Calm or Headspace for guidance. Or, if available, join a specific meditation or yoga class with a teacher you connect with.
With practice over time, meditative techniques have the ability to effectively ‘rewire the brain’, changing our thoughts and therefore feelings. There are also many techniques of visualisation or manifestation that we can add in that could alter the course of the day and ultimately our life. With a quieter, calmer and more positive mindset we find the ability to truly focus on a task at hand and are less likely to get distracted by our own thoughts.
I enjoy a flow yoga practice, sometimes called Vinyassa, moving in time with breath and music. I like concentrating on the movement and find it distracts my wandering mind for a while, eventually being able to slow down and hold asanas for longer periods of time.
When moving through the postures and relaxing into the sequence I find myself in ‘flow state’, a term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi which means the feeling of peace and calm when we are able to solely focus on one single task. Time can whizz by and we achieve more in a short time with single focus than in a longer time with distraction. When you are in a flow state, attention comes easily.
For me, its flow yoga, but there will be different activities for different people depending on your passions. Dancing, cooking, painting, writing… finding an activity that is meaningful to you at that you become immersed in with a clear goal. Challenge yourself to something that’s a bit harder than something you have done before, but not out of reach.
By spending time in this focussed state of flow, the mind becomes more used to concentrating and we take this to other areas and tasks in our lives. And so, our attention improves.
Hold the pose
Certain asanas take more concentration than others, particularly those that require balance. By focussing on getting into and holding a challenging pose (and not falling over!) we become practiced at concentrating deeply on one thing. Tree pose, for example requires the brain to think about multiple muscles of the body at once to stay upright, whilst continuing to breathe. The warriors, in particular warrior 3, Virabhadrasana III, again require a lot’s of mental energy to hold, reducing the chance of distracting thoughts creeping in. For those that are new to yoga, the levels of concentration to perfect a pose are likely even higher.
Depending on your preferred style of practice, warming up with flow or sun salutations while focussing on breathing, then holding a few balances for increasing periods of time can be a great combination.
Being present in the moment
A principle of yoga practice that you will likely be aware of is being present in a particular moment. Many spiritual teachers around the world encourage us to ground ourselves and to focus on what is happening at this point of time. With our busy lives we have a tendency to get caught up in the past and worrying about the future which can leave you worn out and feeling out of touch with yourself and those around you. Of course, we all experience dark times that perhaps we don’t want to dwell on at that given moment. But hopefully the majority of the time we are ‘OK’ and when we sit down and think logically about it, of course we should let go of the past which you cannot change and not worry too much about the future which hasn’t yet happened. (If you are thinking that actually for the majority of the the time you don’t feel ‘OK’ please seek help from friends, family and mental health professionals, don’t suffer in silence).
“Realise deeply the present moment is all you’ll ever have.”Eckhart Tolle
With practice it will certainly benefit our ability to focus on a single task if we are able to be consumed fully in that present moment. The main way we can look to achieve this is through meditation, as we have already discussed, but also by consciously taking in you surroundings at any moment, especially during.a yoga practice. Focus on each sense- what can you see, what can you hear, what can you smell and how you feel in a particular posture. And again, bring it back to the breath- focus on the feeling of your lungs filling and emptying with air. Our breath is our constant connection to the here and now. With practice, bringing yourself back to the present moment will become a habit.
Exercise, food and sleep
Part of practicing yoga holistically includes what we put into our bodies, how we rest and what other exercise we do. These areas contribute to how clearly we can think, and how well we can concentrate. A bad nights sleep will leave us reaching for sugar and coffee and too tiered to exercise so the three are interwoven together.
When it comes to food, nutritionally balanced eating throughout the day allows the body to get all the protein, carbs, fibre, fats, vitamins and minerals we need to function at our best. At every meal add lots of vegetables, some fruits, nuts, wholegrain complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and quality protein to your plate. In particular for brain health, think about choosing unsaturated fats, especially omega- 3 from polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) which are important in supporting long term brain function. As well as being an anti- imflammory, the omega-3 is converted into DHA which is crucial for brain development and maintenance. This may help keep mood balanced which can help with focus. PUFAs can be found in fish and shellfish in particular fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout and herring. Nuts, nut oil or butter, seeds and seed oil like sunflower, flax, chia and sesame, olives and olive oil, soya and avocado all contain ALA which is converted into DHA.
Balance your blood sugar by being mindful of carbohydrate intake throughout the day, in particular in the morning. Carbs are essential for the energy needed by all cells to perform their function, including brain cells. But when we eat a carb heavy meal, especially refined processed carbs like white bread and sugary cereals, our blood sugar will spike quickly followed by a subsequent release of insulin to metabolise the sugar. Too much insulin and we may have a blood sugar crash and craving for sugary foods. This can start a rollercoaster of blood sugar spike and crash throughout the day which really impacts our mood and ability to concentrate. Children in particular will find it impossible to pay attention if they are feeling hungry or have a blood sugar low. Try and choose complex carbs and whole-grains which give more consistent energy.
In extreme scenarios the foods that are so temptingly marketed to us can be damaging. Additives such as food dyes as well as altered ingredients like trans fats, are chemicals that act on the brain like drugs would which may impact our ability to think clearly. Bright cheerful foods packaged to attract children are often full of many additives that may impact their behaviour making it really hard to concentrate.
Be mindful of hydration and caffeine intake throughout the day. Aim for around 2 litres of water, or hydrating drinks such as herbal tea or some juice (in moderation as its often sugary). Caffeine is likely to impact your sleep cycle and stress levels if you drink too much. A small cup of freshly ground coffee or tea (in particular matcha green tea) is full of antioxidants so can be beneficial for the body, and for a burst of concentration when needed, if it doesn’t give you the jitters. Listen to your own body!
Movement hugely promotes attention and focus. In the recently published book Move! The new science of body of mind by Caroline Williams, she tells us that “Being sedentary for long periods is the enemy of focussed attention, memory and planning ability and puts an unnecessary lid on our creativity.” She says that in particular children have an intrinsic need to move in order to learn. Their ability to capture academic concepts is hugely improved with regular bursts of movement.
During and post exercise there are physical changes that improve our immediate ability to think and remember. Caroline suggests that ‘binge- exercise’ by doing a high intensity gym class isn’t necessarily going to help long term if you are spending the majority of the time either side sitting still. Regular movement throughout the day is key to reducing inflammation in the body and brain, releasing endorphins and happy hormone serotonin whilst reducing stress inducing cortisol. Exercise also stimulates the production of growth hormones, brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This promotes new connections in the brain, can help repair damaged brain cells and improve memory. With a brain that’s working well, your ability to concentrate and think clearly will really improve.
Good quality sleep has consistently been proven to be important for a healthy immune system, and vital in brain functioning. The ability to pay attention dramatically drops after being awake for 18 hours. We need sleep, in particular deep, slow wave sleep, to process the events of the day and to cleanse the brain of metabolic waste which short term will lead to that brain fog feeling, and long term becomes a risk factor in cognitive decline.
Anyone who struggles with sleep will tell you how debilitating it is to be tiered all the time and struggling to get to sleep can be a huge source of anxiety. There are many lifestyle changes we can make to encourage quality sleep. The cycle of the production of sleep inducing hormone melatonin starts from the morning and is regulated by exposure to daylight throughout the day so where possible get outside, even for 10 minutes here and there. Likewise in the evening, low lighting can help the brain switch to sleep mode. An evening wind down doing calming, relaxing activities such as gentle yoga, reading, warm baths and crucially avoiding screens also helps the mind slow down enough to encourage sleep. Ayurveda philosophy suggests being in bed before 10pm is supportive of the kapha energy that will be more conducive of rest. Consider your sleep environment, the temperature of the room and look into aromatherapy essential oils such as lavender which may help. I acknowledge that in our busy lives with many work and caring commitments its not always possible to follow this. Take a step back and think about even some small changes you could make that may help find rest.
Even if we are aware of the issues in our lives that are contributing to an inability to focus, changing habits it far from easy. When is comes to our work, flexible working can of course be helpful with in the daily juggle of work and family care. However, in some work places this often translates into being contactable all the time and an expectation to be available to work 24/7. There are many people in office based jobs sitting for 12 hours a day at their desk, 5 days a week that may actually be much less productive if they were able to work in shorter sprints, punctuated with movement and rest. It may sound idealist, but many studies show that reducing work hours but being more focussed in the hours we are working brings balance to our lives and makes us generally happier as people.
Progressive, thoughtful companies have recognised this and employees are actively encouraged to use down time to rest and recharge bringing renewed energy to the work place on return. But for many businesses there’s still a mentality of pushing people to their limits in the name of profit, increasing the chance of burn out and chronic stress for their employees..
It’s not always your choice about what hours you work, or this may not be an issue for you. You can then consider other lifestyle areas to address based on the information above, in particular look at your phone and tech usage habits. Even if you think you usually have self control and clear boundaries, software engineers are constantly getting better at breaking our resolve in a fight for attention. In her book How to break up with your phone, journalist Catherine Price delves further into the addictive nature of phones and apps and presents practical changes you can make to your settings, apps, environment, and mindset that will enable you to take back control over your phone usage.
There are apps such as Freedom that temporarily block certain distracting social media apps and websites. Or you could buy a timed phone safe that will lock your phone away. This may all sound extreme, but the fact these tools are available out there shows how addicted we have become, and the help we need as a society.
The next generation
For those of us over 30 we will have been bought up with limited screens and no phones that could access the internet, so we remember time before this distraction overload. The children of today however are growing up with the infiltration of tech as the norm and really don’t understand a world without it.
Of course technological advancements have had monumental positive impact on many aspects of society. However, human brains haven’t changed in the way they develop. We are playing catch up in the way we bring up the next generation. There has to be ways to support children in schools and at home to manage the impact of tech. I’m not in education myself so can’t offer specific answers, but have a constant battle with screens with my family and can really see the impact to concentration, creativity and the ability to focus in my children. Free, creative play away from tech is crucial during a child’s development and many countries are committed to carving out this time as part of their formal education. Also focussing on mindfulness and how to deal with social media as part of the school curriculum will help foster an understanding of how to balance our thoughts and attention.
The future, could be, bright
Yoga practices will go some way to helping you regain focus and embrace creative thinking. Hopefully with this you will be find it easier to follow your path towards the goals your may have for your life. But this can only get us so far. Circling back to Johans rallying cry, we also need to take on the external forces that are attacking our best intentions by putting pressure on the tech industry, the food industry and employers exceptions. We should be able to find ways to grow together with tech without losing what it is to be human. We must to act now while we still remember a world that was free of many of the distractions and pressures that will impact the generations to come. Let’s go back to our roots, tap into our inner wisdom and regain some of the the quietness and calm that is crucial for mental and emotional balance.
Johann Hari, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention
James Nestor, Breath
Caroline Williams, Move! The new science of body of mind
Catherine Price, How to break up with your phone