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

Nutrition in the News

In the early part of the year, it shouldn’t be surprising that nutrition and well-being is at the top of the list in the media. Many of us may have been lured into making those rash New Years Resolutions, which lasted for a couple of days at the most and yet, we are still looking for ways in which we can boost our health and well-being. Thats a good thing. I have been doing some writing and contributing for various publications over February and some of the nutrition in the news below might just contain the tip that can help prepare you to do amazing things. This year is the International Year of Pulses and we are not talking about whether your heart is beating, but those little nutritious treasures such as baked beans, lentils, chickpeas and their friends. You can see what I had to say about them as a Bowel Cancer Australia Ambassador here. You might also like to check out the resources of Pulse Australia and grab some recipes here too. The school year took off with a bang a couple of weeks ago in Western Australia and ‘Today Tonight’ ran a story on an innovative concept called BakeSw@p – initiated by a group of women and mum’s at a West Australian primary school.  Each parent registered with BakeSw@p brings a plate of their own healthy snacks for school, meets at the designated meet-up spot and swaps their own kids snacks with other parents. Each family then takes home a variety of healthy school snacks for the week.  The story than ran on Channel 7 a couple of weeks ago, generated huge interest – I always love hearing about people being engaged in improving the health of their children by home cooking and limiting the use of prepackaged foods.  You can check out the segment here and what BakeSw@p are all about here. Lastly, lets not forget the annual issue of getting back to work after taking a festive break – this one can most certainly be a tough gig. Getting traction and enthusiasm can be all too elusive at the beginning of the year but never fear, there are ways and means to enhance our focus and concentration while at work. My article over on WatchFit runs through some strategies to do just that – you can take a look here. Not all news is bad right?    

Sprint Finish

running sprint vs marathonA few nights ago I came to the end of my first month back at interval run training.  I say back, because prior to this, the last time I graced the springy grass track was over 10 years ago before I had kids.  It has hurt me big time, because for many years I have just been running. Training for 10, 21 and 42km events that have seen my pace pretty much stay the same.  Flatline. This year, I wanted to shake it up a bit and see if my legs could turn over a little faster. It seems they can. Going to intervals makes me anxious. I know its going to be hard and competitive. My heart and lungs will feel like they are about to jump out and run their own race.  But what gets me to the end of each gritty set, is the finish line and a short breather. These days we run our lives like a marathon event with no rest and no finish line in sight.  We just keep going without regularly stopping to recover and regroup, which dramatically impacts our quality of life and ability to stay at the top of our game. Research shows that our bodies work best with 90 minute cycles of work, followed by a brief break.  This means focusing on whatever your task may be for 90 minutes, reaching the finish line and then taking a 5 minute breather.  Your focus will be hugely improved, your energy levels will be stable and you will be amazed at what you can achieve.  It cuts down on distraction when you know there is a finish line just around the corner. Start thinking about your life as a sprint event not a marathon.  Sprinters give 100% because they can see the finish line.    

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.