zen habits : breathe

5 Tips to Maximize Your Ability to Concentrate

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from John Wesley of the Pick the Brain blog.

The quality and quantity of work you can produce is dependent, not only on the effort you put in, but on your ability to concentrate. No matter how hard to you try, if your brain isn’t performing well, you won’t be as productive as you should be.

Although many of the factors affecting concentration are beyond your control, a large amount is determined by behavior. These 5 tips will help you get your mind functioning at peak performance so you can excel at highly creative activities like writing, brainstorming, and strategic thinking.

1. Get Your Rest. It might seem obvious, but the biggest factor affecting concentration is rest. If you aren’t well rested your mind will be scattered and lethargic. Avoid this by making sure you get the right amount of sleep at the right time. Set a regular bed time for yourself and use an evening routine to wind down so you don’t have trouble sleeping.

It’s also important not to sleep too much. Oversleeping disrupts your natural rhythm and leads to grogginess. Avoid this by having a set wake up time. If you have to choose, I’ve found that it’s better to get a little less sleep than too much. If you end up tired, your body will compensate by helping you get to sleep earlier the following night.

2. Make a Plan. When you sit down to work without a plan, it’s easy to get caught up in crutch activities like checking email and browsing the web. Without a purpose, your mind will be pulled in several different directions. Instead of devoting all your attention to one important task, you’ll find yourself distracted by a variety of nagging thoughts.

To avoid this, make a clear plan of action beforehand. If you need to check email, resolve to fire through it as quickly as possible, then close your inbox and move on to your most important task. I like to use a morning run or walk to form my action plan for the day, but another great time to do it is the night before. By making a plan, you decide where your mental energy is allocated instead of allowing to be dispersed randomly.

3. Eat Light and Healthy. Nothing slows down the mind and body like a big greasy meal. Overeating puts a huge load of digestion on the body, sapping strength from the mind. Maximize your ability to concentrate by eating light and healthy meals. As Thomas Jefferson said, we rarely regret eating too little. It’s likely you’ll find that you need less food to satisfy you than you think. If you run out of energy, keep some healthy snacks on hand to give yourself a quick boost.

4. Exercise. The body has pent up energy that needs to be used. If you don’t exercise regularly, this energy can manifest itself in the form of a distracted mind. The best way to improve your concentration all day long is by exercising first thing in the morning. This will clear your head, give you a chance to reflect on the day ahead, and allow your body to sweat out impurities. Afterwards you’ll feel rejuventated, cleansed, and ready to take on tough problems.

5. Take Breaks and Mix Up Your Environment. Stagnation and fatigue are other factors that can negatively affect concentration. When you’ve been working too long in the same place, you start to get stir crazy and lose focus. The best remedy for this is taking breaks and switching up your work environment. When you find yourself losing focus, get up and take a walk. This will get your heart rate up, increase your alertness, and give your mind a chance to work on the problem internally.

It can also be helpful to work in different places. Instead of being chained to your desk all day, make a point of moving around. In a typical day I might spend time working in my apartment, the local library, and at a nearby coffee shop. Each time I move to a new location the change in scenery refreshes me and increases my motivation to work.

Written for ZenHabits by John Wesley. He writes at PickTheBrain.com about self-improvement, self-motivation, and building healthy relationships.

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