Call it fuzzy thinking, zoning out, feeling spacy, or being in a fog — lack of focus and concentration is worrying millions of women who are desperate to stay sharp for as long as possible. We’re nervous about losing our edge at work, being inattentive at home and being distracted while driving.
“I don’t focus on what I’m up against. I focus on my goals and I try to ignore the rest.”
Pro tennis player
When you’re fully focused, you’re calm and relaxed but alert and paying attention. You have steady energy without feeling stressed or wired. You’re able to persist as you focus on your goal and you experience the joy of satisfaction when it’s complete. When is the last time you felt like that?
More and more women are finding it hard — or even impossible — to concentrate when it matters most, and it’s scaring the heck out of us. We fear our “senior moments” may be more than momentary brain glitches. Menopausal women, in particular, struggle with feeling foggy on top of other issues like insomnia, depressed feelings and physical symptoms because menopause, mood and mental fitness are tightly linked.
Staying on task, feeling sharp and being able to focus like a laser make you feel strong, smart and aware. They’re also key indicators of a healthy brain, and a healthy life. Several easily identified factors can blur your focus and disrupt your ability to concentrate, but you can, and should, do something about them — before another day goes by.
It seems that it takes just one nanosecond for your focus to drift but an eternity to get it back. That’s because your ability to focus is generally at the mercy of your ability to be distracted. You can be focused like a laser on a project ‘til you hear a noise outside — or a random thought dances into your mind. Even an itch on your arm can derail your train of thought.
We also get distracted when we’re bored, sad, mad or confused. Any strong emotion — frustration with a co-worker, troubles at home, even gleefulness — can shatter your focus. And restoring focus is no cake walk, partially because of multitasking: we’ve trained our brains to juggle a variety of things simultaneously but to focus sharply on exactly none of them.
Distractions can undermine the best attempts to concentrate but there are other factors at play when it comes to losing focus that you can’t blame on a scattered mind. If you want to blame something for your inability to focus and concentrate, choose one of these focus breakers:
Nothing steals your attention like a loud, unexpected noise — a truck backfiring, a horn honking, the ringing phone. You might jump up to take care of the interruption or see what’s going on, but when you sit back down… now, what exactly were you working on anyway? If you’re trying to concentrate in a noisy space, you won’t be very productive. Workplaces are best when they have both quiet areas for individual focusing and noisier venues for group collaboration and discussion.
Maybe not. A study published in Psychological Science suggests that a daydreaming mind is linked to better working memory. Cognitive scientists define this type of memory as the ability to retain and recall information in the face of distractions.
Lack of sleep
Getting enough sleep is a key element for learning, memory and the ability to focus. You already know what it’s like to read or work while drowsy. Your very consciousness is altered when you’re sleepy and your brain changes too. While you are in the process of falling asleep — even when it’s unintentional — your brain experiences a shift in “spatial attention,” very much like stroke patients who have difficulty keeping alert.
Menopause and hormone shifts
Loss of focus is tightly linked to the hormonal changes women undergo in perimenopause and menopause, when estrogen levels begin to drop. Research shows that later, when women are post-menopausal, those with the highest levels of estrogen in their blood have better brain function. They remember more words and have better judgment, and they’re also less stressed by their tasks.
Stress, pressure and trying too hard
You may think you work better under pressure, but external influences that encourage you to rush can force you off track. Rushing raises your heart rate which can have a negative effect on your work, and your sense of wellbeing. Feeling pressured and hurrying to finish something can feed negative thoughts — “I’ll never get this done!” or “I don’t have enough time to make this good!”
These “interfering cues” don’t inspire you, instead causing you to focus intently on what you can’t do. Focus-splitting negative cues also include anxiety about the quality of your work, and fearful thoughts about what might happen in the future. Another focus buster is simply trying too hard because sadly, overachievers often lose sight of the goal they mean to focus on.
Being on auto-pilot
All of us may be less focused than we realize. Studies shows that we operate on auto-pilot about 95% of the time as we follow our deeply ingrained routines and patterns. An example of this “failed focus” is driving and arriving home without remembering specifics of the ride.
Clear your focus and feel better about your brain function
You can resharpen your focus using the same steps that support and enhance memory function. Because you need to remember what to focus on, the brain mechanisms that hold information in your working memory correspond with the ones that control your ability to focus. And if you have a good working memory you are more able to stay on task even when it’s a tough challenge.
There are four top guidelines to improving focus and the ability to concentrate.
1. Supply your brain with the nutrients it absolutely must have for healthy function. To get enough of each, look for a supplement that includes a range of high quality B vitamins, the powerful antioxidant quercetin and vitamin D. The latest research on a cutting-edge ingredient — curcumin — shows that it can support and enhance memory, so seek that out as well.
You can’t have one without the other
Focus and memory may seem separate, but research shows that the factors that can improve and enhance focus are mostly the same as those for better memory.
When you take steps to improve your focus, you’re helping your memory function as well. But know that the reverse is also true: when focus is dull or cloudy, your memory will probably reflect that.
2. Gradually switch your diet to the Mediterranean-style of eating. Add whole grains, heaps of vegetables, plenty of fruit and choose fish more often for protein.
3. Exercise about a half hour a day, or more, four to five times a week. On top of the physical support, working out or walking can clear your mind.
4. Try meditation to offset the effects that stress and tension have on your ability to concentrate. Start by bringing your focus to your breath, noticing — but not overreacting — when your mind drifts. Calmly disengage from any thoughts, letting them slip by like leaves floating on water. Bring your focus back to your breath and hold it there. For beginning meditators — from my college-age daughter to patients — I recommend the website Headspace. It makes meditating much more accessible, engaging and useful.
There is an endless supply of tips to help you focus — here are my absolute favorites:
- Avoid distractions in the first place. Start with a to-do list but keep it spare and doable. Structure your time well and stay in the present moment as you work. You have to notice you’re drifting in order to change it.
- Plan breaks and eat on time — don’t get ravenous. You’re more easily distracted when you’re hungry, uncomfortable or tired. Refresh your mind by taking a walk or exercising. Physical movement also reinforces old neuronal connections in the brain and forges new ones.
- Multitask effectively: sing when you’re doing housework, check emails and eat lunch while participating in an informal discussion at work. But focus fully at important times: for a child in distress, when you’re taking a yoga class, and when you’re purposefully relaxing.
- Schedule distractions as rewards, such as checking email or Facebook, having a healthy snack, and listening to music.
- Don’t rush, even under a time crunch. Keep breathing steadily through your nose — don’t hold your breath because you’re in a hurry! Rushing breeds mistakes, increases frustration and adds stress.
- Do everyday tasks with your eyes closed or try using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth or use the mouse on your computer. This retrains your brain, engages your senses and reduces distractions.
Be more focused — not more stressed
When we become more focused, we improve our odds of success at whatever we want to do, and vice versa. Oddly, we usually don’t notice when we are focusing well but are painfully aware when we feel distractible.
I read a quote from the poet and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh that says, “It’s very important that we re-learn the art of resting and relaxing…it allows us to clear our minds, focus, and find creative solutions to problems.” That makes a lot of sense and it applies to most functions in the brain. Yes, we want to be focused and alert, but we’ll be better doing just that if we stay calm and relaxed at the same time.