The brain has a lifelong ability to improve. It’s time to reject the notion that it is “normal” for brain performance to decline with age. Did you know that there are things you can do each day to increase or maintain your brain health and improve your focus? Over the past 3 decades, research has established that the brain is the most adaptable and flexible organ – across the entire lifespan – thanks to neuroplasticity.
40 seconds. That’s the average attention span. Think about how many times a day you get interrupted or distracted. How often do push notifications light up your phone? Or even worse, how many times do you reflexively check your phone even if it didn’t buzz?
Try this challenge:
When you sit down to focus on something, count every time you get distracted from your task. By marking a tally, you are building awareness of just how often you lose focus. This is a first step in eventually improving your ability to maintain focus and redirect your attention to your top priority.
Our culture has built distracted brains, and our constant addiction to technology isn’t helping. All these distractions not only take us off track from completing our most important goals but can also lead to an agitated and stressed brain.
Here’s the good news: if you change your habits, you can change your brain. Meaning, by using strategies, you can re-train your brain to combat distraction and have better focus.
Your attention is a limited resource. We are living in an attention economy, and it is one of your most precious assets. Companies pay big money to have your eyeballs on their product. Because your attention is finite and you can only focus on one thing at a time, it’s important to learn how to protect it. Here are three tips to help you be more strategic with your attention.
Multitasking is toxic to your brain and your health. You read that right. Multitasking is not a badge of honor to brag about. It’s destroying your ability to focus. It also leads to more errors and a longer completion time.
The brain is wired to perform one task at a time. When you believe you are multitasking, your brain is actually switching quickly between tasks, causing frontal lobe fatigue that decreases cognitive efficiency and performance.
One study found if students multitask while completing homework (ex: studying and watching TV at the same time), the new information goes into the striatum – a region that stores new procedures, not facts and ideas. When students did one thing at a time (studying with no tv distraction), the new information was processed by the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for learning and memory formation.
Next time you need to do something that requires focus and deeper level thinking, turn off the distractions and set your brain up for success by SINGLE-tasking.
Focusing is not just selecting what’s critical to tune in – it’s also about blocking out what’s NOT important. Protect your most vital resource – your brainpower – by being selective about what you choose to let in.
In this era of information overload, we risk losing our ability to discern what is important. Change the way you approach and engage with incoming information. For example, be proactive instead of reactive. Set a limit for how much social media and news content you engage with each day. By blocking and saying no to certain streams of information, you can more easily say yes to what you truly want to focus on.
How do you tackle your to-do list each day? Do you fall into the trap of checking all the easiest things off the list first? This approach gives some instant gratification and makes us feel productive because we got to cross things off the list. But in reality, those big, important, hard tasks end up getting pushed off, or we don’t get to them until the end of the day when we have the least cognitive energy to devote to them.
Try this instead: identify the two things that will move you forward toward your goals. If necessary, break a large task into smaller parts you could accomplish in 45-minute chunks of undivided attention. Now, prioritize those two things and do them first. Block all the other things until you get those done.
If you practice these strategies consistently, you will find not only an improved ability to focus but also that you are more productive and less stressed.
Every decade, starting in our 20’s, brain blood flow decreases by about 1.7% (Lu et al., 2011). This is considered part of “normal” aging. Cerebral blood flow is vital because it is the primary energy source brain cells need to function well. But this gradual decline is not inevitable. You can fight this trajectory by engaging your frontal lobe (the brain’s command center) by utilizing strategies like the ones just mentioned. Research has shown that with as little as 12 weeks of cognitive training, cerebral blood flow in adults over 50 can increase by an average of 7.9% (Chapman et al., 2015). How empowering to know that by being strategic with the way you process information and approach your daily tasks, you can also increase brain blood flow – for better brain health and performance.
Being brain healthy is a lifetime endeavor. Keep learning more strategies to strengthen your brain by joining The BrainHealth Project. It’s a research study like no other being led by cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman at the Center for BrainHealth®, part of The University of Texas at Dallas.
What makes this study different from typical research is that it’s a personalized experience. You get your BrainHealth Index (an online assessment that gives you a robust snapshot in time of your brain health and performance) every six months. You get quarterly calls with a BrainHealth Coach to recommend brain-strengthening strategies based on your BrainHealth Index and personal priorities. And you get ongoing access to practical brain strategies like the ones in this article.
Not only will you get to learn ways to improve your brain health and performance – you get to contribute to a landmark study that is going to change the conversation around our brains. The BrainHealth Project will last for the next 10 years and will put to rest the outdated view that cognitive decline is inevitable as we age. People of all ages and circumstances can have access to these tools and support to build a better brain, for a better life, and ultimately, create a better world.
Julie Fratantoni, PhD, CCC-SLP
Cognitive Neuroscientist, Center for BrainHealth® (part of The University of Texas at Dallas)
Dr. Julie Fratantoni is the head of operations for The BrainHealth® Project. She also leads the Center’s Kindness Enterprise, a research and translational program seeking to uncover and harness the brain’s capacity for kindness, empathy, and compassion as critical components of overall brain health and well-being.
Dr. Fratantoni received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience from The University of Texas at Dallas. She is also a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist, board-certified in biofeedback, and trained in mindfulness and meditation techniques. Her great passion is to educate and equip individuals with strategies for building better brains so that they can lead a better life and ultimately create a better world.