Two Ways to Help Focus the Mind

Jun 18, 2023 | Change, Stress

Has it been hard to focus lately?

Maybe you’ve been so busy that your mind is often racing, or you’ve been feeling sluggish and less sharp in your thinking.

Either way, when the mind isn’t able to focus, it’s hard to feel productive. Plus creating change becomes almost impossible because we need focus and attention to build new neural pathways.

Here are two ways to improve your focus and your brain.

#1 – Sleep

If your thoughts feel cloudy and slow, or you’re having trouble with memory and cognitive control, it could be that you aren’t getting enough sleep.

Sleep is like the spin cycle for brain.

During sleep, the brain sifts through information and cleans out what’s not needed in the memory banks (helping declutter the hippocampus). It also washes out metabolic waste.

Lack of sleep disrupts the brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other. It also affects our memory and processing of information, so we can’t interpret what we are seeing with as quickly and accurately as normal.

Research from UCLA and Tel Aviv University found that lack of sleep had a similar effect on the brain as drinking too much alcohol.

Also, do you ever notice that when you’re tired, it’s harder to control your behavior? You might be more reactive and less thoughtful. You might make quick but not smart decisions.

Self-regulation and decision-making require cognitive control and energy. So if we haven’t had enough sleep, the brain, which is in charge of how to use our energy, is going to be less likely to deplete our energy with cognitive control.

Sleep tips

Experts say we need 7-9 hours of sleep a night. If you’re having trouble sleeping, here are some tips:

  • Set a schedule. Experts say we can support better sleep by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
  • Exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day but no later than a few hours before going to bed.
  • Avoid caffeine and nicotine late in the day and alcoholic drinks before bed.
  • Avoid screen time before bed. The light that emits from our devices keeps the brain alert, so it’s harder to fall asleep. Don’t keep a device near your bed.
  • Try a mindful body scan when you go to bed, or if you wake up and can’t fall back asleep. This relax physical tension and calm the mind. Here’s a link to a 10-minute body scan I made at the beginning of the pandemic.

#2 – Mindful breaks

When we spend our days running from one activity or task to the next, it can become a habit to be rushing and and juggling. The thoughts can start to feel chaotic or cloudy – like snow in a snow globe that’s perpetually being shaken.

What the brain needs is time and space to pause, slow down, and be present. If we can just be present, pay attention to what we’re thinking and feeling, it can be like putting the snow globe down.

The thoughts can get sorted, and the mind becomes clearer.

This is not just woo-woo, it’s neuroscience.

Research has shown that mindfulness practices, which focus on present-moment awareness, have the power to change the brain. Specifically, mindfulness can increase the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, which is like our brain’s CEO and helps with focus and attention. It also improves connections to the prefrontal cortex, helping us to regulate stress and emotional reactivity.

Mindful break tips

Some simple ways to take a mindful break are:

  • walk outside in nature (not talking or listening to anything);
  • pause and focus on your breathing for a few minutes (deepening the breath is even better);
  • pause and observe the thoughts or feelings – not follow but observe them;
  • pause and focus on what’s present in the body; and
  • feel your feet on the floor, inviting a sense of grounding in the body.

Typically when we’re racing around, we’re carrying hidden physical tension that we can relax when we bring awareness to it.

If you’d like a guided 6-minute mindfulness break, shoot me a message or put a comment below to let me know – I’ll send it your way!

Rest and reset

Whatever your mind’s tendencies, remember that you can change them because your brain is plastic, not static.

Most of us would benefit from slowing down, taking short mindful breaks, and getting enough sleep.

Of course changing a habit takes time and effort, but if you give it a couple of weeks, I’m betting you’ll notice a difference.

Set reminders for the breaks and when to wind down for bed. Give it a try – your brain will thank you!

Photo by N. on Unsplash

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Jen Riggs Blog

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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