We all know that person. The infuriatingly together human who always seems focused on the task at hand when they need to. What if we said that you can be that person too! The secret? Train your brain and give it the tools it needs to focus better.
Lack of motivation keeping you from staying focused on long-term goals or distracting you in the moment? Sidestep your limited motivation by following the ‘if-then’ rule often used by sports psychologists.
The rule works like this: If X happens, do Y.
It’s as simple as that.
‘X’ and ‘Y’ can be almost anything you need them to be. For example, if it’s not raining on a Wednesday morning, then I’ll go for a 5k run. Or if I’m offered a second slice of cake, then I’ll say no.”
The benefit of the ‘if-then’ rule is how specific it is. It’s a process you can easily follow, rather than something so broad as ‘get strong’ or ‘lose weight’.
Breaking tasks down into manageable chunks makes them less daunting. Why tackle a mountain when you can climb a series of molehills? Especially when each molehill you conquer will give you a lovely dopamine reward.
Setting micro-goals (‘I will start each day by doing press-ups to failure’, ‘I will always take the escalator instead of the stairs') that support your broad goals (‘get strong’, ‘lose weight’) keep you on track and give you multiple successes to focus on instead of dwelling on perceived failures that can easily send you off-course.
It might seem counterintuitive, but focusing for long stretches puts a lot of energy demands on your frontal cortex; the part of the brain responsible for ignoring distractions and resisting the urge to do something else. Unsurprisingly, daydreaming uses less energy and that’s why your brain will default to it when it needs to recharge.
Rather than battling this natural tendency, include it in your schedule. When you’ve finished a set in the gym, allow your mind to wander and focus on whatever it likes rather than worrying about your next lift. Doing that will allow your mind to recharge and focus better when you really need it.
If you completed our mindfulness challenge, you’ll know we’re advocates for the beneficial effects of meditation. That’s because (among many other reasons) a recent study found that not only can meditation help you focus on tasks in high-pressure situations, once the pressure has eased, it can make you feel more satisfied and enriched too.
There are lots of good apps you can use to meditate, but if you want a simple meditation to try, give this breathing exercise a go:
Get comfortable – sitting or laying down – and close your eyes.
Focus completely on each breath, from the inhalation to the exhalation. Pay attention to each part of your body as it moves with your breathing. If your mind starts to drift, bring your attention back to your breathing.
Do this for a couple of minutes at first, gradually increasing the time as you get more used to the process. Don’t worry if your mind seems to keep wondering, simply being aware of that fact and consciously trying to bring your focus back to your breathing is a mindful practice in and of itself.
Give the breathing exercise a go whenever you feel yourself losing focus. It will help reset your brain and remove the noisy distractions so you can fully concentrate on the task at hand.
Record-breaking swimmer Michael Phelps found it easier to focus during competition when he knew he’d visualised every possible scenario, from the perfect race to the disastrous.
His coach, Bob Bowman, reckons this made it easier for Phelps to keep his mind focused on performance. ‘When he swims the race he's already programmed his nervous system,’ Bowman says. ‘And he'll just pick the [scenario] that happens to come up.’
Do this for everything from smashing your bench press PB to passing your driving test. Picturing yourself succeeding (and exploring the potential actions that could lead to you failing so you know what not to do) is half the battle.
So, put any cynicism you might have on ice and give these evidence-based focus-boosting methods a go. Keeping your eyes on the prize will never have been so easy!