Derek Burnett is a Contributing Writer at Bottom Line Personal, where he writes frequently on health and wellness. He is also a contributing editor with Reader’s Digest magazine.
Whether you’re in your 20s, 50s, or 80s, you’ve probably found yourself thinking, “I wish I could focus better on my work,” or, “I wish I had the same concentration I had when I was younger.” The ability to improve your concentration, to direct and maintain attention, is immensely important, not just for practical reasons such as staying safe on the highway, performing adequately at your job or understanding a doctor’s counsel, but also for less tangible reasons. It gives us a social boost when people know we’re tuned into what they’re saying. We get a feeling of accomplishment from finishing a book, solving a puzzle or completing a handicraft. And it just feels good to concentrate. In that sense, concentration is its own reward. So why is it sometimes so difficult to focus? What can be done if our concentration is starting to fade? How can we learn to concentrate better? What techniques have been proven to boost memory/focus/concentration?
As you’ll see, there’s a lot that we can do to improve concentration, ranging from small tips to major lifestyle changes.
First, let’s get our terms straight. In casual conversation, we often use the words “focus,” “concentration,” and “memory” interchangeably, but for psychologists, each of those words represents a separate skill or capacity. Understanding what’s meant by each will help us in our efforts to improve our cognitive functions.
Concentration and focus are very similar and more closely related to each other than they are to memory. You could have great concentration and focus but a terrible memory, or you could have terrible concentration and focus but a great memory.
Focus is the ability to direct your attention to something. Imagine that you’re sitting in front of a jigsaw puzzle, and every time you reach for a piece, the phone rings, someone knocks on the door, or you start daydreaming about your next vacation. In a world full of distractions, achieving focus—the ability to direct our attention on what we want to direct it to—becomes more and more difficult.
Once we’ve focused on a task, concentration is our ability to remain engaged until the task is complete. You can think of concentration as the ability to keep your focus.
We all talk about memory as if we understand exactly what it is, but the truth is that memory is an extraordinarily complex physiological phenomenon. If you’ve ever had to watch a loved one dealing with Alzheimer’s, you know that our memories are what make us who we are. They are the through-line connecting our present selves to all of the versions of ourselves that have existed in the past, and they serve as the launching-pad for our plans projected into the future.
Memory has three principal modes. Encoding is the process of gathering information and “uploading” it to your brain. This can be conscious, as when you attempt to memorize all 50 US state capitals, or unconscious, as you drive through the countryside seeing what you can see. Input from your various senses takes the form of messages that travel as impulses between brain cells and then get organized into memories in the part of the brain called the hippocampus.
Storage is what happens when a message moves from short-term memory (also called working memory) to long-term memory. If you have nothing to write with when someone tells you a website to visit, you might repeat the URL to yourself several times to “make it stick.” That “making it stick” is the process of storage.
The third phase of memory is retrieval, the process of recalling information stored in the brain. There are two forms of retrieval, “recall” and “recognition.” If you were to walk up to a casual acquaintance and call them by their name, you’d have successfully recalled that name from memory. But even if your relationship with the person is so tenuous that you couldn’t retrieve their name, you might still be able to know who was being referred to when you heard someone else say the name. That would be an example of recognition.
You can improve your concentration, focus and memory at any age. Doing so not only provides immediate rewards but also can delay or lessen the effects of age-related cognitive decline. And the good news is that most of the tricks and techniques for improving concentration and focus make us feel good.
You’ve probably heard before that what’s good for your body is good for your brain, and it’s true. Eating well, exercising often, and getting plenty of good sleep can have a profound effect on our ability to focus, concentrate and remember. You should begin to see positive changes in your cognitive abilities even after making modest improvements to these aspects of your lifestyle.
An inquisitive mindset is a great asset for maintaining your concentration and focus over the long haul. There’s always something new to learn, and applying your brainpower to previously unexplored material (especially if it’s outside your comfort zone) keeps your brain sharp. Next time you learn a new concept or skill, challenge yourself by teaching it to someone else. Switching roles from student to teacher reinforces your learning by forcing you to confront any gaps in your knowledge and by simply putting the knowledge to use.
Just as with physical exercise, you’re more likely to keep at it if you’re having fun. Treat yourself to crossword puzzles, sudoku, video games, chess, board games, trivia night, whatever enjoyable pursuit engages your concentration. These need not be competitive. Reading, for example, requires enough concentration that it is quickly becoming a lost art despite being inherently enjoyable for many people. Lots of non-game hobbies require deep focus, as well, including painting, woodwork, and sewing.
Study after study shows that loneliness is linked to increased risk for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, as well as to faster cognitive decline. There’s just something about mixing with other people that helps to keep our brains sharp. That’s why it’s so important to maintain strong social ties as you age. Even if you don’t have family around, join a club, sports league, gym, community organization, or other group to ensure that you have people to talk and laugh with. It might not seem like the most obvious way to improve your focus, but it’s surprisingly important.