10 Things I Do Everyday to Improve Focus11 min read

Published by Zach on

Oh, I need to wake up, oh there are 27 emails in the inbox, oh I need to return this voicemail, oh I need to set up breakfast, oh I need to clean this up, oh I need to go to work, oh I need to run this errand, oh I need to eat dinner, oh I need to watch this new episode on TV, oh I need to go to bed, oh but wait let me check my phone one more time, oh now I guess I need to go to bed. I felt stressed just writing that.

Does this sound familiar?

In between all of these things, how is it possible to find true focus?

Real focus is hard to come by. Generally thinking, “oh, I have to be more focused,” will likely accomplish nothing. It is what you do every day, your habits, that matter. And it is especially important to find this focus on the busy days. If you can achieve focus on a busy day you can achieve focus on an easy day.

Here are ten things I do every day to improve my focus.

1. Wake up at the lightest stage of sleep (after a full night’s sleep)

Being sluggish in the morning is one of the most classic reasons I can’t focus. Every night you sleep in 90-minute cycles, alternating between stages of light sleep and stages of deeper sleep. Deeper sleep is usually during the middle of these cycles. Lighter sleep is near the beginning and end of these cycles.

It is much easier to wake up during a light stage of sleep. When I wake up during a deep stage of sleep, I feel that tired feeling, and it’s hard to get out of bed. I want to get back under the covers and comatose. However, if I need to get out of bed because I have to be somewhere, it is miserable. I reach for the coffee and am a zombie for the first hour after waking up.

I discovered this app that changed my relationship with waking up. It is called the sleep timer, and it sits right next to your bed, monitoring your motion by sound as you sleep. It then figures out, amazingly, what cycle of sleep you are in and wakes you up when you are at the lightest stage of sleep.

Finally, importantly, make sure you get a sufficient amount of total sleep. Poor sleep quality has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancer.1

2. Immediately See Sunlight

Early light exposure, within 30 minutes of waking up, hits the back of our retina, which sends a signal to our brain, putting in motion a process that causes our body to release cortisol in a timely fashion. Cortisol is the “stress” hormone, and we want this high early in the morning because cortisol wakes us up.

Also, importantly, this spike of cortisol sets in motion the countering hormone melatonin. The early release of cortisol tells our body to start releasing melatonin later at night and regulating our sleep and wake cycle.

In order to get the benefits of sunlight you need to do a minimum of:

  • 5-10 minutes outside if it is bright with no clouds
  • 10-20 minutes if it is slightly cloudy
  • 30 minutes if it is densely cloudy
  • Six hours if you stay indoors, so indoor light doesn’t work!

The best way to do this is to walk outside as soon as you wake up. I usually wake up, have two glasses of water, then go outside and walk for differing amounts depending on the weather. Some people also exercise out for the combo of sunlight and exercise.

3. No Caffeine within two hours of waking up

As we just learned, cortisol is the most powerful hormone in our body that wakes us up. Caffeine is nothing in comparison to cortisol.

The buildup of adenosine induces a sense of sleepiness. Caffeine blocks adenosine, blocking the feeling of sleepiness. So when we first wake up in the morning, our adenosine levels are very low because we just had a whole night’s sleep. As the day goes on, adenosine builds up and makes you feel more sleepy. Caffeine blocks adenosine, and that’s why you feel more awake when you drink caffeine.

I had the habit of the longest time of just waking up and then immediately drinking coffee. Andrew Huberman again explains that this is wrong. Because if we drink caffeine right away, we block our adenosine receptors, and as the day goes on, that caffeine is released from the adenosine receptors. But, because we had been previously blocking these receptors, adenosine now has a more powerful effect than usual on us. It is making us feel more sleepy in the afternoon than usual because of our early intake of caffeine.

Let your cortisol naturally come up in the morning, avoid caffeine until two hours after waking, and optimize your body’s relationship with adenosine and sleep and focus.3

4. Plan nothing for the first two hours of the day

The best and most time-efficient work I ever do is first thing in the morning. Usually, I wake up at around 5 or 6; this means I have about two hours before doing anything meaningful, like going to the hospital or a class. This is when great work gets done, I am alone, it’s quiet, I haven’t eaten anything at all yet, and there are no distractions.

Usually, the work I do is writing, but sometimes, I do other things. Whatever I am doing, I make sure it is a big important task, something that is worthy of this golden “deep work” time.

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, argues that even longer time should be dedicated to deep work.

I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out, can produce a lot of valuable output.

Cal Newport

Now, this is one of the best ways I’ve improved my focus daily. But, depending on your life, this work doesn’t have to be in the first hours of the day. It can be in the afternoon or night, but do everything you can to find a couple of hours a day where you can do deep work.

5. Know your goals

How can you finish tasks and stay focused if you don’t know what the tasks are you need to complete? You can’t.

I make sure I record, in some way, everything I need to get done. And then, I codify the tasks into important things I need to do, busy work, or things I can eliminate immediately.

  • Important things: I write down the big tasks in my notebook
  • Busy Work: Checklist on Things app
  • Eliminate right away: I eliminate them right away

These goals are applied to everything I do, so school, work, YouTube, and health.

Usually, as the day goes on, things pop up. I then codify those things that pop up into one of the above three things. Later that week, or on the weekend, I will actually schedule when I complete those things.

I talk about in-depth how I manage my time in a post here.

6. Exercising

Exercising lowers your risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, dementia, and several cancers. Exercise improves sleep, cognition, memory, and bone health. Exercise can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve quality of life.

According to the American Heart Association, we should all be doing 150 minutes or more of exercise per week.4

I’ve also found exercise to be a great break from my heavy study days. Exercise even helps us learn more after exercise, priming our brain for learning.

Molecules such as IGF-1 are released during exercise, which may be responsible for maintaining brain cells and are directly related to spatial learning and memory.5,6 Another molecule, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a major modulator of brain plasticity, is also released more during exercise than non-exercise.7 Evidence shows that activity in humans and mice increased hippocampal neurogenesis (the part of our brain responsible for memory), cell proliferation, and dendritic branching.7-9

Exercise is priming our brain to focus, to learn; isn’t that cool? Get some exercise and concentrate better. I try to exercise at least once a day.

7. Having an “end time”

Every time you sit down to do work, it is important to have an end time in your head. Without an end time, it seems you are working endlessly; there is no finish line.

I like to stop all work, no matter what, at 7 pm.

The idea of constant focus is too abstract to me; if I know there is a certain time that I will stop working, it makes it easier for me to maintain my focus for that period, work time.

8. Non-sleep-deep rest protocol (NSDR)

Another Dr. Huberman discovery, but not really, non-sleep-deep-rest (NSDR) is one of the best ways I revitalize my focus. It’s really just a guided meditation.

The idea behind it is to let your brain rest without falling asleep. This gives your brain the benefit of a break, like sleep, without setting in motion the various hormones and chemical signals that come with sleeping. Then, when you finish your NSDR, you can get back to work focused and refreshed.

Ok, so how do we actually do this? I like to just plan a 20-minute guided meditation about two hours after lunch. Usually, after lunch, I feel a little more sleepy and tired from the food, which lends nicely to this 20-minute session. Notably, the guided part helps me stay awake. Otherwise, I may just fall into a deep sleep, which I don’t want to do. You can simply google an NSDR video and find a 10/20/30 minute video on YouTube, which should help you relax your brain for some awesome focus.

Importantly, I am not replacing my morning meditation sessions with this as I feel they are slightly different. In the morning, I just meditate without a guide.

9. Read

Reading, especially dense non-fiction, is not easy. It requires intensity and careful attention to what you are looking at. What does that sound like? Focus!

When you read, you are training your focus muscle. The more you read, the more your focus muscle grows.

Books are magical with no advertisements, other screens, or other distractions. They are the best trainers for focus.

I try to read for at least 30 minutes a day.

Other benefits to reading:

  • Improved writing
  • Vocabulary
  • Communication Skills

10. Plan for the next day

Remember how earlier, one of the ways I stay focused during the day is to know what my goals are? Well, usually, I plan out these goals the day before.

Before I go to bed, I write a list of everything I want to accomplish the next day. Usually, this list is way too bold. There is no chance I’m going to complete everything I write down; however, this is purposeful.

I don’t want to get two hours into my day and have no work left to do (unless I’ve planned a vacation or something else after that time). I stick this little post-it note at the top of my journal and cross out those things as the day goes on. When the day is done, I look at my list and see what I completed and what I did not complete. Then, I factor in whatever new tasks I discovered I need to do that day, and, finally, I create the master “task” list for the next day.

Then, when I wake up, I look at my list on my post-it note and get to work on the first thing on that list.

Sources:

  1. Faith S. Luyster, PhD, Patrick J. Strollo, Jr., MD, Phyllis C. Zee, MD, PhD, James K. Walsh, PhD, Sleep: A Health Imperative, Sleep, Volume 35, Issue 6, 1 June 2012, Pages 727–734, https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.1846
  2. https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2020/06/03/setting-your-biological-clock-reducing-stress-while-sheltering-in-place/
  3. https://podclips.com/c/qJArWe
  4. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults\Cassilhas RC, Tufik S, de Mello MT. Physical exercise, neuroplasticity, spatial learning and memory. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2016 Mar;73(5):975-83. doi: 10.1007/s00018-015-2102-0. Epub 2015 Dec 8. PMID: 26646070.
  5. Gomez-Pinilla F, Ying Z, Opazo P, Roy RR, Edgerton VR (2001) Differential regulation by exercise of BDNF and NT-3 in rat spinal cord and skeletal muscle. Eur J Neurosci 13:1078–1084
  6. Máderová D, Krumpolec P, Slobodová L, Schön M, Tirpáková V, Kovaničová Z, Klepochová R, Vajda M, Šutovský S, Cvečka J, Valkovič L, Turčáni P, Krššák M, Sedliak M, Tsai CL, Ukropcová B, Ukropec J. Acute and regular exercise distinctly modulate serum, plasma and skeletal muscle BDNF in the elderly. Neuropeptides. 2019 Dec;78:101961. doi: 10.1016/j.npep.2019.101961. Epub 2019 Aug 29. PMID: 31506171.
  7. Stranahan AM, Khalil D, Gould E (2006) Social isolation delays the positive effects of running on adult neurogenesis. Nat Neurosci 9:526–533
  8. van Praag H, Christie BR, Sejnowski TJ, Gage FH (1999) Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci 96:13427–13431
  9. van Praag H, Shubert T, Zhao C, Gage FH (2005) Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice. J Neurosci 25:8680–8685

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