How to Improve FocusJan 25, 2023
This science-based article reveals five tools that can help you to focus better.
Table of contents
1. What is focus
2. Five strategies to improve focus
4. Non-Sleep Deep Rest
5. Power Naps
How does the brain control focus?
The word "focus" refers to the ability to direct attention, sustain it, and flexibly change it between tasks.
Many systems modulate focus, like the Reticular Activation System, the dopaminergic system, the visual system, and the prefrontal and parietal attentional networks.
This article focuses on supporting the Reticular Activating System (RAS), which is responsible for the nervous system's arousal and energy levels. It’s part of the Autonomic Nervous System, and its activation increases the sympathetic tone. RAS originates from the brain stem and reaches around the cortex. Its primary neurotransmitters are dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine.
The Yerkes-Dodson law (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908) states that cognitive performance requires a certain level of arousal – the activation of RAS, Underarousal in RAS is experienced as drowsiness and can cause attention lapses because of fatigue, boredom, or tiredness. On the contrary, RAS overarousal can disrupt attention due to stress and nervousness.
The optimal arousal depends on the task. It’s noticed that in simple tasks, the person generally requires less RAS activation compared to complex tasks. Too much stimulation is likely to decrease performance in a complex task.
During the activation of RAS (arousal), the person experiences a more subjective feeling of energy (alertness), which is required for the ability to focus on a task (attention). RAS can be activated with behaviors that increase energy.
There are many ways to affect RAS momentarily by increasing stress with caffeine, exercise, sunlight exposure, music, binaural beats, and such. But there is also a more holistic way to maintain and support the RAS functioning and balance and ensure that RAS is not chronically in an under-aroused or over-aroused state. The best way to support its activity is paradoxically sleep and rest.
Here are the five essential ways to support RAS balance in everyday life.
Tool 1: Sleep
Sleep is the most important way to replenish the autonomic nervous system. Sleep is crucial for maintaining energy levels, preventing stress, and modulating the attention-related neurotransmitter balance.
Sleep is essential for selective attention, where you focus on a single thing while suppressing irrelevant things like external distractions or mind wandering.
Sleep loss reduces the ability to maintain optimal arousal in the nervous system, reducing the feeling of alertness. Animal studies show that sleep loss can cause so-called “neural fatigue” in the prefrontal cortex, which means that the prefrontal cortex can produce less and less noradrenaline after prolonged wakefulness. This can lead to attentional lapses and instability in wakefulness and disturb focus.
Focus also requires fine-tuned coordination between different brain regions, especially in the prefrontal and parietal cortices. It’s shown that sleep loss can reduce functional connectivity in the prefrontal cortex and, consequently, impair the ability to handle a big load of sensory information in a controlled and coordinated way.
Sleep is also vital for vigilance, which means sustaining attention to something while reacting fast to some stimuli, like in traffic. Sleep loss has been shown to increase reaction times and errors.
Aim for 7-8 hours a night and prioritize sleep if you have something important the next day that requires attention.
Tool 2: Non-Sleep Deep Rest
You can also replenish cognitive fatigue by doing activities that are called non-sleep deep rest (NSDR, a term coined by neuroscientist Andrew Huberman).
It refers to day-time practices that allow your body and mind to drift into deep relaxation without falling asleep for a short time (10-20 minutes). This activates your parasympathetic nervous system and takes your brain into states that resemble sleep. You can do this during the day if you have sleep loss for one reason or another.
Some examples are Yoga Nidra, progressive muscle relaxation, and hypnosis.
Tool 3: Power Naps
Another way to replenish nervous system alertness when fatigued is a 5 to 15-minute nap. 10-minute naps have been shown to reduce sleepiness and improve cognitive performance almost immediately after the nap, and this performance enhancement can last for 1-3 hours.
Studies show that napping is the most efficient in the early afternoon and when nap time is comparable to the time spent awake. So with more extended sleep loss or wakefulness, you should take a longer nap (e.g., 15 minutes). If you don’t have sleep loss and want to replenish energy and attention, a 5-minute nap could already do the trick.
Then again, a long nap may impair attention. Sleeping for more than 2 hours has been shown to cause sleep inertia, a feeling of waking up after a long night's sleep. It causes grogginess that can decline immediate performance, especially if you enter into slow-wave sleep. But if you accidentally sleep a bit longer, caffeine can help you recover from this sleep inertia.
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Tool 4: Caffeine
Low doses of caffeine can also be used to increase RAS arousal and focus.
Caffeine belongs to the class of stimulants, which enhance or mimic the effect of noradrenaline or acetylcholine.
Caffeine works by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain and increasing dopamine's efficacy and the sense of wakefulness. Caffeine also increases other neurotransmitters of alertness, like noradrenalin and glutamate.
Studies show that doses between 100-400 mg of caffeine can enhance focus and attention in simple vigilance tasks. However, high doses above 400 mg can impair focus and performance because of overarousal and anxiety. So caffeine has both alertness-increasing and anxiety-producing effects.
People who are sensitive to caffeine may do better without it. It’s also possible to balance caffeine's stimulating effects with 50-200 mg of the amino acid supplement L-theanine. L-theanine leads to the production of alpha waves in the brain that can help relax the mind. Studies show that combining caffeine and theanine has nootropic benefits and can together improve attention and calm focus.
The effects of caffeine peak on average in about an hour of ingestion, depending on the person’s ability to metabolize caffeine and other diet L-theanine peaks in about 50 minutes, but the mental effects continue at least up to 1.5 hours, according to an EEG study.
Tool 5: Breaks
The human brain or body, for that matter, is not designed or optimized to employ intense focus for extended periods of time. Or do anything demanding for extended periods of time. The brain gets fatigued when exerting effort and needs intermittent rest periods.
Cognitive fatigue happens over time after sustained cognitive demands, irrespective of task complexity or sleepiness. This translates to the notion that focus will eventually lapse if you use it for a long time.
Some people talk about ultradian rhythms, referring to 90-minute rhythmicity in cognitive performance, whereas other studies debunk this specific minute limit for cognitive performance. Depending on their nervous system qualities and age, people may differ significantly in their ability to sustain focus.
But the main point is that the brain gets fatigued after sustained focus. Therefore regular breaks, whether every 20, 60 or 90 minutes, will help to sustain focus and prevent stress.
A good way to take a break is to do some mind-relaxing activity like a brief non-sleep deep relaxation, a short walk, or a mindfulness meditation.
Focus requires nervous system alertness, which is paradoxically enhanced with rest. Sleep is the most critical activity for replenishing nervous system balance, followed by non-sleep deep rest and power naps. If you have sleep loss, you can use caffeine, combined with L-theanine, to replenish alertness in your nervous system.
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