Focus – How To Hone It In Four Easy Steps

We are fast approaching that time of the year where energy supplies might be taking a hit.  Focus and concentration are fairly important at any time of the year but when the finish line of December beckons, sometimes it take a bit more effort to push through right?

This brings me to Craig Lowndes, the Australian V8 Supercar champion.  Prior to his retirement, he spent a vast majority of his time at work skillfully driving powerful cars around a track at warp speed. The specialised skills that Craig developed led to him achieving global excellence and enabled him to become a V8 Supercar champion.

V8 Supercar driving requires 100% focus. Legendary British racing driver Stirling Moss describes competitive high speed driving perfectly, “It is necessary to relax your muscles when you can. Relaxing your brain is fatal.” Losing focus and concentration in whatever we do at work or at home can indeed have major consequences.

 

How can YOU increase your focus?

In our time poor world, it is so easy to get caught up in trying to do twenty things at the same time, aka multi-tasking.  Hordes of us believe that this is a prized skill and do the proverbial octopus dance every day.  Clinical research shows that the reality of multi-tasking is quite different.  We are not wired to juggle several tasks at a time because we just can’t concentrate and focus on any of them, resulting in lacklustre performance and complete lack of effectiveness while at work. Focus on one thing at a time and you will be amazed at how quickly and effectively you can complete a task or job.

 

 1. Be as fresh as a daisy

After breathing, sleep is our most fundamental need.  Its also the first thing we are willing to give up in an effort to get more done. The fact is, that even small amount’s of sleep deprivation makes us vastly less effective.

If you are not currently sleeping at least 7 hours each night, look at what you need to do to make that a reality, and then start pushing your bedtime earlier by 15 minutes until it becomes natural. Make getting 7-8 hours sleep your highest priority and your desire to make the most of each day skyrockets.

 

2. Focus on Taking a Break 

Research has shown that working in 90-minute cycles of intense effort followed by a brief recovery period is crucial to maintaining focus and concentration.  This means focusing intently on one task at a time.   The break doesn’t need to be mammoth and can be as simple as a deep-breathing exercise, getting up from your computer for 5 minutes, having a stretch or taking a fuel stop. The fuel stop will replenish both your brain and your body – setting you up for the next 90-minute bout. We all know how easy it is to work for hours on end without a break, so set a timer if you need to. I am personally truly unreliable in this department, so I do set a timer.

Taking regular breaks is crucial to your energy maintenance and recovery. Some healthy snacks for your break could include:

  • ½ cup of grainy cereal like oats or Weet-bix with milk
  • A handful of nuts (not the whole bag!)
  • 1 piece of fresh fruit or punnet of strawberries or blueberries
  • 1 small tub yoghurt + banana
  • Small tin of baked beans or tuna

 

3. Coffee Culture

Our coffee culture around the world is a thriving phenomenon and many people will swear by their first cup of the day to get them prepared for work.  It’s true that caffeine is a stimulant that speeds up parts of the body and brain and may enhance your performance and focus if used properly.

Most authorities agree that the safe daily upper limit for caffeine is around 300mg – equivalent to 3-4 cups of brewed coffee (cafe latte, cappuccino, flat white etc.) and consuming more than this can lead to issues with sleep, excessive alertness (more than you actually need), nausea and anxiety.

The important thing here is to be aware of the amount of caffeine that is right for you and treading that line between enhanced focus and over stimulation, when its hard to get any work done at all.

4. Drink up

It is so easy to get dehydrated in an air-conditioned work environment, hot or cold. You know that feeling of your brain winding down, down, down? You have just said hello and how are you to dehydration, which can very quickly lead to a headache, nausea and inability to focus clearly or work effectively.

Drinking coffee and tea often becomes the go to choice at work and although these beverages do provide some fluid, alternating with water is a simple way of staying hydrated. 

Our bodies are not great at sending a reliable thirst message as sometimes we mistake it for hunger and other times by the time we get the memo, our bodies and brain are already gasping for a drink. Positioning a bottle or glass on your desk or bench is a constant reminder – just aim to drink around a glass each hour.

The image that you can see above is my daughter who has just retired from from her gymnastics career at the ripe old age of 16 years.  She has been in the sport since she was four years old, so its been a while.

There is nothing quite like being suspended in mid air to truly make you focus on what you are doing. However, no matter what you do everyday, remember to……

“Be like a postage stamp – stick to one thing” – Beverley Sills

The Flavoured Milk Wagon

Flavoured milk may bring the image of chocolate, spearmint and strawberry to mind but flavoured milk can also include many beverages in this somewhat crowded space.

Take a Break

Before we start talking about flavoured milk let’s establish that it is more important than ever to renew our energy throughout the day, particularly if we spend a lot of time sitting. One way of doing this is to take regular breaks to refuel or physically move to get our circulation flowing to brains and bodies and therefore increasing our well-being and productivity.

When we take a break, one of our most common habits is to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee. Depending on where you are, the array of choices can be extremely limited or overwhelmingly diverse. They could range from a decaf skinny latte to a rich hot chocolate. It is very easy to dismiss our favourite beverage as a comforting pick me up without registering how much they are contributing to your daily diet. Not necessarily in a positive way either.

Which to Choose?

On the plus side, many cafes and roadhouses do use reduced fat milk when they are making beverages, due to the superior frothing ability of low fat milk. When considering the large amount of fat, sugar and calories in various types of full cream coffee, it can be advisable to request reduced fat milk, especially if you are consuming a few during the day.  To be sure you are choosing a regular or skinny coffee, just ask your barista.

Enjoying a coffee is one of the beautiful things in life from my perspective. However, I am aware that my best personal choice is a small without added sugar. Do you know what yours is?

Flavoured Milk of The Day

Flavoured milks are also a popular choice for many but can be equivalent to eating a meal as shown by a 600ml carton of ice coffee or choc milk. When choosing flavoured milk it is best to select the reduced fat 300ml variety, which provides a smaller number of calories while contributing a serve of calcium.

Just remember that taking regular breaks from behind the desk or wheel is vital to your health and well being but consider your choices when a break beckons and choose wisely.

The Sporty Advantage

As a kid I loved choc-milk, so it’s pretty exciting that it is championed by science. Sports nutrition research has shown that choc-milk, other favoured milk and just plain milk supplies the nutrition your body needs after exercise.  Studies have shown that women who drink 500ml of skim milk after training gain more muscle and lose more fat compared to women who drink carbohydrate drinks. There is good news for the men too.  Men who drink the same amount of skim milk after a resistance workout have been shown to gain 63% more muscle mass than those who drink carbohydrate-based beverages.

Milk and its flavoured counterparts provide you with:

  • Carbohydrates to help refuel muscles and energy stores
  • High quality protein to promote muscle recovery and growth
  • Fluid and electrolytes to help replenish what is lost in sweat

We know that a combination of protein and carbohydrate is best for recovery after exercise and with the exception of cheese, dairy products are a winning combination of both. For some super delicious recipes based on dairy products go check out Legendairy where you will find something for everyone.

 

Mood food

When someone in my house is in the grip of a bad mood moment, we nominate them as the ‘Grumpy Fish, so-called after a much-loved children’s book, Hooray for Fish by Lucy Cousins. It’s almost impossible to keep up a bad mood with that tag following you.

Jokes aside, good mood vs. bad mood is a real thing and many people are really interested in the potential link between good mood and food. Over the last week I have been interviewed on TV and radio on the subject and it seems that most people can identify at least one positive mood food and another that sends them down into the dungeons.

I’ve picked out a few mood foods that may actually perk you up (and your health as a bonus side effect).

Eggs – For many years the humble egg has been given a bad rap on the cholesterol front. The fact is, the egg yolk is home to a healthy mix of poly and monounsaturated fats with only a smidgen of saturated fat and should be an essential part of a healthy diet, even if you have high cholesterol and raised blood lipids. Eggs are also a great source of protein and energy but their secret weapon is the nutrient choline. Choline is vital for the functioning of cells and neurotransmitters thought to be related to mood and energy. Plus having your brain work properly is always a mood enhancer!

Dark chocolate – Many chocolate lovers will agree that there is something about chocolate that quite simply makes you happy! Before we get too carried away in a moment of joy and happiness at this thought, its important to know that the darker varieties are preferred as they contain higher amounts of cocoa and therefore, antioxidants in the form of flavonoids. Chocolate does contain both fat and sugar but a small amount in an otherwise healthy diet, a small amount can be enjoyed, happily.

Coffee – The morning coffee fix is one that you can see played out in cafe’s all over the world and many people feel that it provides them with an energy boost and alertness they simply can’t do without. Yes, we do need to be aware of how much caffeine we consume each day but if your morning ritual improves your mood and your outlook, that can only be a positive. In addition, coffee is rich in antioxidants and has been linked to a decreased risk of dementia.

Milk – My Nan often advised a warm milk before bed for a restful sleep and although this might seem like a bedtime story, it’s actually based on fact. Protein is made up of many different amino acids (a bit like Lego pieces) and one of these, tryptophan, helps in the production of the sleep inducing chemicals, serotonin and melatonin. Milk and other dairy products are rich in tryptophan, hence the milk before bed. I think we all know that more sleep (or even simply enough) is possibly the best mood enhancer ever!

Vitamin D – This vitamin or the lack of it has been linked to being a risk factor for many lifestyle diseases including cancer and heart disease. Vitamin D is not an easy vitamin to get through food and the vast majority for us humans, comes from sunlight. Light deprivation is one reason people feel tired (and grumpy) and just five minutes of sunlight ups the production of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that improve mood. Not only is stepping into the sunlight for a brief moment mood enhancing but it also boosts your Vitamin D stores. Win-win.

 

 

Just one thing

Italian barista

There are few people that would dispute my conviction that Italy produces the best coffee in the world and my current sea change in this beautiful country has meant that I have been able to conduct some serious research into the topic. This morning as I greeted my favourite barista and watched her expertly take orders, make my coffee and at least ten others, serve pastries whilst washing cups and greeting every single person that walked through the door with a smile, it was obvious to me that she was expert at multi-tasking. It certainly didn’t appear to be negatively impacting my Italian barista but is multi-tasking such a good thing? These days, multi-tasking is a term thrown around in all directions and is something we are expected to do in the workplace, at home and in the general management of our lives.

The term “multi-tasking” is not new though and originated in the computer industry, referring to the ability of a microprocessor to process several tasks simultaneously with the first published use of the word appearing in 1965.

Almost 50 years later, multi-tasking is alive and well and it is very difficult not to do it. We are expected to achieve a great deal each day (often quite unrealistically) and we are bombarded with a constant stream of information and technology. Most of us think we are good at it and it is common knowledge that many women believe they are much better at multi-tasking than men, quite often congratulating themselves on their prowess. Leading brain expert, Norman Doidge M.D. author of The Brain that Changes Itself, discusses some research in his book that suggests the left and right hemispheres are better connected in women and that women are better at multi-tasking than men. For all the indignant males out there, it is a moot point anyway as you will soon see.

Doing things like speaking on the phone while folding washing or watching the TV screen while on the treadmill are easy and possible without error, because they don’t require much brainpower.  However, if you want to learn a particular skill or do something well that requires concerted effort, multi-tasking is not advisable, according to Norman Doidge, who is a passionate anti multi-tasker.

It would seem that our brains just aren’t equipped for multi-tasks that require brainpower. George A. Miller, a respected cognitive psychologist, published one of the most highly cited papers in psychology that is often interpreted to suggest that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7+/- 2. This is usually referred to as Millers Law. When information doesn’t make it into short- term memory, it can’t be transferred into long-term memory for later use. The bottom line is, if you can’t recall it you can’t use it.

In The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge points to the detailed studies that have been done on multi-tasking which show that people don’t do things as well. It takes a certain amount of mental effort and time to switch from Topic A to Topic B and, if you’re truly multi-tasking – activity A to activity B, you are constantly shifting your brain just like a computer, booting up some circuitry and closing down other circuitry. In the end multi-tasking is working against you and results in inefficiency, fatigue and stress.

Multi-tasking can be dangerous too. Distraction is known to be the leading cause in 22% of car crashes and 71% of truck crashes, with one of the major distractions being the use of mobile phones and hand-held devices. The use of mobile phones, in particular texting, increases the risk of a car crash four-fold. Driving a vehicle is a multi-tasked activity itself and a classic example of where multi-tasking cannot work, constituting a major threat to life.

Children are no different to adults and do not possess any special ability to multi-task.  Many brain experts agree that learning to concentrate is a skill not just useful for academic pursuits but also for life.

So instead of reading this blog while watching the news, cooking dinner, and talking to your kids, try something new.  Just do one thing. Do nothing else and give your brain a rest. Everything else can wait.