Did you ever hear the story about the woman who lost her cell phone and found it, days later, in her freezer?
Or the one about the time that same woman blanked on a dentist appointment that had been on her calendar for months (had only she looked)?
And what about the time someone you know sat through an entire movie but couldn't remember what it was about?
No, it's not always dementia, or memory loss. Sometimes it's a matter of focus.
If you thought only young kids misplaced things or zoned out or daydreamed, you'd be wrong. Wandering minds and a waning attention span are not reserved for youth. They can persist well into adulthood. We all do crazy, silly, strange and head-scratching things when we don't focus. And "that" woman I described above? You've probably already figure it out that is me.
Some of this is entirely normal, when you think how our lives are filled with so many things each day—details and worries of work and family and trying to keep up with tech overload. Keeping so many details straight makes it tough to focus on just one and tougher not to multitask in the interest of time and efficiency.
Problem is that our minds are not meant to multitask. Rather, we do things better and more thoroughly when we complete one task at a time. If you've ever tried to do more than one thing at a time, I can guarantee neither one of those things was done as well as they'd be if they were the one and only thing you were doing.
When we multitask, we tend to lose focus and, in return, lose out on precious productivity. Not only that, but our attention is shattered and scattered—along with our sense of calm. Some call that inability to focus "monkey brain" or a "runaway mind."
Try these to rein in your wandering mind and focus on what matters:
Meditation. It brings your attention to the present and returns your thoughts to the present. Many studies demonstrate that mindfulness meditation can produce changes in the part of the brain responsible for processing information and focusing. Learn some Meditation Tricks for Busy Bodies.
Exercise. It increases dopamine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals that boost focus and attention. Exercise has also been found to help with executive function, skills you need for things like planning and organizing, remembering details and paying attention.
Over and out. Each time you hear a buzz or beep or spy a signal that something has come into your inbox or something new has been posted to a social channel, your brain is wired to instantly respond—and it has a tough time ignoring that impulse. And each time you shift your focus, it takes time for your brain to get back to where it was before you got distracted. When you need to concentrate, don't fight it. Log off from all your social media for at least 30 minutes. You won't miss much, and you catch up on whatever you missed after you've finished the task at hand.
Check the temperature in the room. A Cornell University study found that temperature affects productivity, which suffered from both a too-hot or a too-chilly room. Another study found that people performed best at temperatures around 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Jot it down. When you have a lot to do, it's tough for those things not to randomly pop into your head, which messes with your focus. Keep a notepad handy and jot down those things as they come up. This helps build structure into your time and keeps random thoughts from competing for space in your brain.
Eat right. While food is not a cure-all, certain foods can help keep your brain healthy and improve its function and focus. Caffeine, for some, is energizing and helps with concentration. And foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like cold-water fish such as salmon, sardines and herring and nuts, seeds and plant oils, have been linked to lower rates of dementia and slower rates of mental decline. Keep in mind that it's not just what you eat, but how much you eat: Eating too much or too little can also interfere with your ability to focus, too.
Prep your brain. One study found that the human brain has an attention span of—ready for this?—eight seconds. That's hardly enough to get any work done, now is it? But with some work, you can expand your attention span. That's why it's important to prepare yourself to work. Before you tackle a task, take a moment to sit quietly and take a few deep, cleansing breaths. I defy you to tell me that this doesn't help calm your brain and improve your focus.
Take a break. Many people work better if a long task is broken up with short breaks throughout. This tends to help you regather your thoughts and refocus when you sit back down.
Set goals. A to-do list helps you set goals and prioritize, which is a huge first step toward improved focus. Focus begets focus, in a way: With each strikethrough, you'll gain confidence and satisfaction that you've accomplished another goal, which is incentive enough for pushing onward.
So far, my cell phone has steered clear of a return visit to the freezer (which happened, by the way, when I was talking on it, searching for a buried bag of frozen veggies and listening to a podcast at the same time).
I'm keeping better track of my appointments by reviewing my calendar at the beginning and end of each day.
And when I watch a movie, my hands are totally free. I leave my cell phone behind, put away my reading materials and just watch the movie.
Think you don't have time for mindfulness? You can reap the benefits in less time than it takes for a coffee break. Learn how here.