Updated: Feb 13
If you notice that your digital habits are impacting your attention and ability to concentrate, these scientifically-backed methods may help restore your attention.
Executive or focused attention is the ability to effectively block outside distractions while focusing on a single object or task. We use it when we need to concentrate, like trying to solve a complicated math problem or when we’re trying to talk to someone over the phone in a crowded, noisy place. We also need it to perform creative work, like writing an essay or playing an instrument.
When you live in an always-connected lifestyle, it’s easy to get ourselves into a mindset where it becomes hard to concentrate and focus on tasks, and the crazy monkey you have inside your head doesn’t seem to help you.
There are two ways to restore your attention: modifying behavior or enhancing the brain. Creating a new routine can be hard, and you need proper motivation and understanding of how to set goals that will make you progress in small but constant steps. The other way is to improve your brain with physical and cognitive exercises.
Improving executive attention also has beneficial effects on memory and productivity. In this article, I will list science-backed methods for restoring this vital ability, followed by some ideas of activities.
It’s essential to understand that there isn’t a one size fits all when it comes to an action plan for restoring attention, and a method that works for me, for example, might not be the right fit for you.
Method One: Gaze at pictures of nature
Looking at pictures of nature - even for a short time - helped improve the executive attention of 26 young university students (18–25 years old) in a Georgetown University study. According to the study, nature exposure offers a quick, inexpensive, and enjoyable means to provide a temporary boost in executive attention.
Watch nature documentaries (from National Geographic or BBC, for example).
Choose a picture of a landscape you love to set as a wallpaper for your device OR
Take the picture yourself. Create an album so you can look at the photos once in a while.
Method Two: Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Research published in 2018 found that short 10-min guided mindfulness meditation improves executive attention even in inexperienced meditators, but it only works if you’re not feeling too anxious or worried. So it might be good to learn how to relax first.
Block some time in your schedule to read a book on how to meditate.
Try out a meditation app that offers guided meditations for beginners.
Method Three: Physical Exercising
Daily exercises that increase heart rate, temperature, and breathing pace have a positive effect on restoring attention.
Remember to talk to your doctor about your intention to start exercising regularly and ask a physical education professional to supervise you.
Go outside to run in a park with lots of trees and good air quality (please don’t run during rush hour on a busy avenue).
Go for an intense and long walk in a nice quiet neighborhood.
Method Four: Daily Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback (HRV-BF) Exercises
Daily heart rate variability biofeedback provides a practical self-help method to improve attention control. With HRV-biofeedback, the goal is to maximize the variability of your heart rate during exercises, by adjusting the breathing pace to approximately six breaths per minute, i.e., the resonance frequency.
You need a specific device and app to practice this. It might be a good idea to find a therapist that can walk you through the process.
Method Five: Single-tasking
Multitasking is not an ability that you should crave to become more productive. Our brain can’t truly multitask, and you’re more likely to become more stressed and tired by constantly shifting tasks.
Instead of multitasking, learn how to achieve deep work.
Manage your time by using a productivity system.
Block distractions by using apps for this purpose or by putting away your phone.
Method Six: Get into Nature
Getting into nature is a scientifically-proven method of restoring your attention. You can boost the benefits even more by also practicing mindfulness meditation while you’re there.
Go for a walk in nature.
Book a cabin in the woods with no internet connection for a weekend getaway.
Method Seven: Listen to happy, cheerful, calm music
Listening to positive music with a slow tempo is effective in restoring your executive attention. You can easily find positive slow tempo playlists on music streaming services like Spotify and Deezer. Just search for “slow tempo.”
Listen to music while doing your work to help you relax and concentrate. Beware that some people might find that listening to music makes concentrating harder. Others will have this problem only when doing specific tasks. So experiment and see how you feel in each situation.
Listen to music in the morning while waking up and preparing your breakfast instead of listening to the news.