Getting in the Zone

Posted by Mei Ying Teh on

 

Supercharging one’s focus and concentration is to meet optimal productivity every day

 

 

Challenging tasks at work, studying for an important exam, spending time on a personal project—there are things we wish we could finish without struggling so much. But these days, so many things compete for our attention, you’re just taken aback that the day is over and you’ve done so little!

 

We regard productivity as the key to having fulfilled lives. But productivity is impossible without two fundamental cognitive skills: focus and concentration. When these are lacking, the all too many distractions around us can rob us of our limited time and energy. Worse, there might be serious reasons as to why we feel like our mind is in a haze, or what we would call a “brain fog” in other words. Thankfully, there are scientifically and traditionally backed methods with which one could improve their concentration.[1]

 

Focus, concentration, and lack thereof

 

Maintaining focus allows us to arrange our thoughts, motivations, and emotions according to the goals that will be prioritised in our brains. Concentration points us toward whatever we’re doing or learning at a particular moment, allowing the brain to go into detail and depth in a particular subject or activity. At times, it is confused with attention span, which is actually the length of time a person can concentrate on something.[2] [3]

 

Focus and concentration are cognitive skills under the larger umbrella of learning and memory. And because the connections between these are intricate, this difficulty with both things can actually manifest in several ways: [4]

  • Difficulty with short-term memory
  • Listlessness, and difficulty in sitting still
  • Lack of clarity in thought
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Difficulty (or being emotionally overwhelmed) to perform complicated tasks
  • Frequent loss of different things, or inability to remember their placement
  • Lacking energy, physically and mentally
  • Being prone to mistakes

 

 

Signs of deeper problems

 

The skill in sustaining attention roots from an early age, thus contributing to the success of a person’s life. Development factors during childhood and adolescence can either improve or damage the skills needed to concentrate. An important one involves the growth of brain cells, the neurons, and the presence of chemical messengers, the neurotransmitters, which allow communication between the cells. Iron has been pointed out as a significant mineral for the brain during this period, both as for its growth and in regulating neurotransmitter functions. Iron deficiency in children showed as difficulty in focus and learning, and if unaddressed will hamper the individual in later years.[5]

 

Beyond brain development, there are several conditions that can cause significant changes to your ability to buckle down on the job at hand:[6]

 

  • Stress – While the immediate reaction of the body to this is to release adrenaline which can temporarily boost one’s energy and focus, it eventually is a self-defeating cycle. The adrenaline effect spikes then wears off as it seeks to relieve itself of stress, and with it comes loss of focus, which in itself generates more stress.[7] Chronic stress itself lends to a host of other conditions, like inflammation, anxiety, or depressive symptoms, which physically add hurdles to completing things.

 

  • Fatigue – The brain naturally has limits to its activities, but overloading it with too many things to do will send it to overdrive and then arrive at fatigue sooner. Pushing the brain to work at this point will only be increasingly unproductive, and should be remedied with rest.[8] The limit of selective attention span in adults clocks in at 10 - 20 minutes, approximately.[9]

 

 

  • Multi-tasking – Once touted as a must-have ability for our busy lives, it is now widely disputed by health professionals. Research points out that the brain does not simultaneously process information, it simply switches from one task to another quickly. But it risks fatigue and adds a layer of stress if one does not complete the multiple objectives.[10] In fact, multi-tasking eventually works against its users because by training the brain to switch tasks frequently, it actually shortens one’s existing attention span!

 

  • Physical & emotional factors – Inability to concentrate may stem from feeling unwell, either physically or emotionally. Underlying conditions such as certain nutrient deficiencies, mental health issues, insomnia, or thyroid disease bring complications that interfere with cognitive functions.[11] Symptoms like a persistent “brain fog” that does not go away despite sleeping and eating regularly can signal something serious, health-wise. If one suspects that an undiagnosed condition is interfering with a normal amount of activities, see a doctor for proper diagnosis.

 

Pushing to the limit?

 

Given that much of the factors that slow down your focus and concentration actually comes from overusing them in the first place,[12] doctors and researchers are placing an emphasis on proper care and making the most out of the natural limitations of your body. More often than not, the inability to concentrate is a signal from the brain that it needs to momentarily rest for the cells to reset its chemical processes to an optimal level again.[13]

 

Nutritional science has pointed out several key molecules to ensure that the neurons and their pathways are sound enough to function as needed.

 

  • B-Complex Vitamins – This cluster of vitamins, which can be found in most meats, is necessary for the growth and nourishment of the brain and nervous system. Individuals on a plant-based diet might experience difficulty with cognitive tasks as a result of insufficient B-vitamin intake, and supplementation from a product like Now Foods, B-100, 100 Veg Capsules might be recommended.[14]
  • Iron - Just as it figures heavily in childhood, having enough iron daily as an adult—either from one’s diet or through supplements like Now Foods, Iron, Double Strength–brings more clarity to cognitive tasks, as its lack can bring a sense of confusion and palpable fatigue to mental tasks.[15] If you can’t stomach eating liver for lunch as a dietary source of iron, try snacking on pistachios in the afternoon to stave off the afternoon fatigue for a little while longer.
  • Magnesium – As a mineral that regulates neurotransmitters, magnesium plays an important role in relaying messages to the brain, making it crucial for learning and memory. It also protects brain cells from becoming overstimulated and prone to damage. Getting more of magnesium is as easy as a daily glass of Now Foods, Magnesium Inositol Relax, Lemonade, which promotes mental alertness while maintaining a relaxed state.

 

Additionally, pay attention to your meals. Carbohydrates then broken down into glucose is the brain’s main fuel; when its glucose stores are depleted after doing some mental labour, so does its performance wane. A hearty breakfast—preferably one rich with minerals like Now Foods, Organic Rolled Oats— can keep you running during early morning, which is when the body’s energy levels are also at its peak, so you can finish tasks earlier.

 

But it takes more than nutrition to be better in this respect. It means also consciously working out ways on how to perform better within our body’s boundaries.

 

More than just distractions

 

Although it is only able to concentrate on a task for a certain period of time, we can make the most of our focus and concentration by following a few tips: [16]

 

  • Prioritise and be realistic – Not only is attempting to multi-task rather futile, wanting to accomplish too much adds to the stress that wreaks havoc on your brain. Prioritising activities throughout your day helps ease the pressure. Use the most energetic morning hours to accomplish the most important parts, while knowing you can shave off some tasks if you feel the mental fatigue set in later that day.

BONUS TIP: A physical to-do list where you can check off finished tasks is satisfying and makes you conscious off how much energy to allot for every activity during the day.

 

  • Respect rest –15 minute breaks between tasks and 7-8 hours of good quality sleep is even more important to your focus and concentration than nearly everything else. Lack of sleep slows down or hampers learning, memory, judgment and decision-making almost to the same level as being drunk.[17] [18] The sluggishness comes as the brain’s cells aren’t communicating well with one another, and rest helps reset your neurotransmitters. During the day, napping and meditation can be effectively soothing. If you’re suffering from bad sleep patterns, give melatonin from supplements like NOW Foods Melatonin 5 mg, 60 Capsules. Melatonin is a natural hormone which oversees our sleep cycle, so you can feel reinvigorated the next morning.

 

  • Stimulants give you energy, but don’t overdo them – Many associate stimulants like coffee, tea, and energy drinks with being alert and on the go. Going beyond the recommended 400 mg of caffeine (4 cups of brewed coffee or 2 energy drinks) induce nervousness, tremours, and irritability can distract you further by making you more sensitive to unnecessary stimuli.[19] Reduce caffeine intake to the utmost minimum so your overworked brain can actually get what it needs more: rest. But if you need to resort to caffeine for an important meeting or presentation, get it from a source that can give you the minimum side effects, like Now Foods, Sports, Effer-Energy, Tropical Punch.

 

If anything, what science tells us about our brains is that it can be efficient if we know how to work with it. And working with our limitations echoes a wider philosophy about our current lifestyles: that it is not about the quantity of “accomplished” things that will give us fulfillment in the end, but the quality of our activities instead. Focus and concentration are merely tools to achieve an end, which is hopefully not measured by how much work you’ve done, but if you have satisfied the goals behind that work.

 

 

Photo credits:

 

Photo 1: https://unsplash.com/photos/Nv-vx3kUR2A

Photo 2: https://unsplash.com/photos/1K9T5YiZ2WU

Photo 3: https://unsplash.com/photos/wZJUt5mCbR0

Photo 4: https://unsplash.com/photos/2kc-J1JQfuM

Photo 5: https://unsplash.com/photos/RETI_cn1_Vg

Photo 6: https://unsplash.com/photos/RLw-UC03Gwc

 

 

[1] https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/how-to-improve-concentration

[2] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320165

[3] https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/how-to-improve-concentration

[4] https://www.healthline.com/health/unable-to-concentrate#symptoms

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5914328/

[6] https://blog.paolabailey.com/top-five-reasons-why-people-have-difficulty-concentrating-f9e52a500c29

[7] https://www.ccu.edu/blogs/cags/2012/01/how-stress-affects-adult-students-concentration/#:~:text=Ironically%2C%20stress%20does%20improve%20concentration,focus%20on%20tasks%20at%20hand.

[8] https://www.forbes.com/sites/nomanazish/2018/09/25/how-to-overcome-mental-fatigue-according-to-an-expert/?sh=4830d6c51644

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_span#Human_Attention_Span_Over_Time

[10] https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking

[11] https://blog.paolabailey.com/top-five-reasons-why-people-have-difficulty-concentrating-f9e52a500c29

[12] https://www.healthline.com/health/unable-to-concentrate#treatment

[13] https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/imperfect-spirituality/201507/4-things-do-when-your-brain-is-tired#:~:text=Over%20time%2C%20mental%20exhaustion%20can,restore%20and%20feel%20better%20fast.

[14] https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324856#about

[15] https://www.who.int/news/item/20-04-2020-who-guidance-helps-detect-iron-deficiency-and-protect-brain-development

[16] https://www.forbes.com/sites/nomanazish/2018/09/25/how-to-overcome-mental-fatigue-according-to-an-expert/?sh=4830d6c51644

[17] https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/how-lack-sleep-impacts-cognitive-performance-and-focus

[18] https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sharpen-thinking-skills-with-a-better-nights-sleep

[19] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20045678

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