Dr. Nada Milosavljevic
5 EASY STEPS TO ACHIEVE MENTAL FOCUS
We’ve all experienced occasions when we’d like to focus on some sort of task but can’t seem to get “in the zone.” Luckily, there are simple ways to achieve focus that are effective. Below, we list five easy steps that will help you to get centered quickly. Each “step” will take you down a new sensory pathway that has an impact on our mood and our ability to concentrate.
You may wonder why sensory pathways can be such effective tools in achieving focus; it’s because they have a very significant impact on the brain. Your sensory system (consisting of sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing) is your only connection to the outside world. To keep you aware of what’s going on around you, that system is working 24/7 to send signals to your brain that you are constantly evaluating, often subconsciously. You then have to decide if a change in sound, movement or a sense of increased heat, for instance, means that something in your vicinity is helpful or harmful. Lots of this kind of stimuli over a period of time can sometimes make us tired and distracted … which gets in the way of our ability focus.
The impact of sensory stimuli on the brain can be dramatic, and many researchers have documented its impact in a number of ways – from the effect of a pleasant view of the outdoors on a patient’s post-operative recovery to the ways that interior design (because of all the sensory experience buildings can elicit) can shape emotions and help or hurt productivity.1
So, in short, being in tune and mindful of your sensory system can carry you a long way to better focus and getting your “game face on.” Here’s what you can do:
Touch. Your sense of touch can be engaged by acupressure. Unlike acupuncture, acupressure does not use needles; instead, it stimulates (according to traditional Chinese medicine) certain active point locations on the body that can elicit a response. One of these responses can be improved focus. There’s a number of points you can use but here’s an easy one: It’s called Governing Vessel, or GV20. It’s on the crown of your head between the cranial bones. To find this point, make a line with both fingers from the back of your ears and they’ll meet at the top of your head where there’s a slight hollow. That’s GV20. Gently rub or stimulate the point for a minute or two. This can be repeated as needed.
Sound. Sound and music can be powerful. The types of music that aid concentration are typically songs with smooth melodies and peaceful harmonies with minimal lyrics. These types of sounds help the mind to become calm and allow the brain to focus.
Taste. In this case, I recommend a tea blend. Both green tea and ginseng can help the brain focus. You can use one or the other or combine both for an extra punch. Green tea has a relatively low amount of caffeine but that caffeine is coupled with another compound found in tea, L-theanine. These two together can actually help calm and focus your brain at the same time. Another option (or a great addition) is ginseng. There are several different kinds of this herb; it’s the panax ginseng type that can help improve aspects of working memory and focus.
Smell. Your sense of smell, or olfaction, offers one of the most direct sensory connections to the brain. So for this sense you should use aromatherapy. I often like using the actual herbs in the form of essential oil and not synthetic mimics. Try these two: rosemary and basil. Inhaling the scent of these herbs has a stimulatory effect on the brain and can be uplifting. You only need to inhale for one to two minutes. You can repeat several times throughout the day for a quick boost.
Sight. This activity deals with sight but it’s also a physical activity. It’s a yoga pose called “tree pose.” The challenge of tree pose is maintaining your balance on one leg. Unlike most poses, this one requires eyes open, which helps cultivate focus. Select a point for your gaze and hold that it will help alignment of your posture. When practicing, it helps to imagine your body as a tree and that the foot you are balanced on acts as the roots and your leg is the trunk. Regular practice of this pose improves concentration, balance and coordination.
Tending to all five of the senses to achieve focus is certainly the most effective way to help yourself get focused and on track. If you don’t have time, two or three of these sensory exercises may do the trick. The more you practice, the more you’ll trust that these methods of self-care can work and the better you’ll become at “getting in the zone.”
1Here are just a few examples of research about the senses’ impact on the brain and mood: Isabelle Peretz, "Brain specialization for music," Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 930.1 (2001): 153-165; Roger S. Ulrich, "View through a window may influence recovery from surgery." Science 224.4647 (1984): 420-421; ibid., "Effects of interior design on wellness: Theory and recent scientific research," Journal of healthcare interior design 3 (1991): 97-109; and, Peter Barrett and Lucinda Barrett, "The potential of positive places: Senses, brain and spaces," Intelligent Buildings International 2 (2010): 218-228.