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How to Stay Attentive

Your attention muscle gets overtaxed during high-stress times.

Are you in a period of high stress? Those rough patches can measurably dent your ability to concentrate. In one study, researchers tested a group of Marine reservists getting ready for Iraq. The test involved clicking a space bar whenever you saw a digit, but ignoring any 3s. Between the beginning of the tough pre-deployment period and the end, the Marines’ scores dropped dramatically. A comparison group of civilians beat them easily.

Maybe you’re not in a rough patch, but your ordinary life is packed with distractions: email, tweets, notifications from your phone, loud noises.

Here’s a few tricks from experts on how to improve concentration:

Five more. Push yourself just a bit past your frustration level. Do five more minutes, suggests Sam Horn, author of ConZentrate: Get Focused and Pay Attention. When people lift weights, they aim to get to the point of exhaustion. This is the same idea. Over time, you’ll be able to focus longer.

Drink Water. Water helps. To test the effect of being dehydrated on mood and concentration, researchers forced 101 volunteers to tolerate a temperature of 85 degrees Fahrenheit for four hours. After 90 minutes, people felt less energetic and more anxious or sad—and drinking water picked them up. After 180 minutes, volunteers allowed to drink water did better on a series of memory and attention tests.

Take a walk, ideally near greenery. In a much-noted study, scientists gave volunteers tests of their attentiveness and mood before and after a 50-minute walk through a leafy area at Stanford. They did better after the walk. But volunteers who walked beside a busy multi-lane highway in Palo Alto didn’t do as well.

Look at photos of nature. If you have to stay inside, try looking at photos or videos of nature.

Meditate. The study with the Marines also showed that soldiers who did mindfulness exercises didn’t see the same dip. In similar work with college students, mindfulness training gave them an edge on staying focused through a tough semester.

The basic instructions: Sit upright and alert and set a timer for at least 10 minutes—eventually you’ll build up to do more. Close your eyes and notice the sensation of your breath—the air flowing in and out of your nostrils or your abdomen moving up and down. Whenever your mind wanders from the sensation—it will--bring it back. Don’t beat yourself yourself up for getting distracted. It’s normal. In fact, human minds wander “off-task” from 30 to 50 percent of the time. The point of this practice is to get better at noticing when you’ve drifted off and developing the habit of bringing yourself back.

Learn your best times. Try to fit your work around your natural rhythm. If you’re an early bird, do your creative or most important projects early. Save simple tasks for your low times.

One thing at a time. Don’t try to do two tasks at once. No, you’re not a great multi-tasker! Often people think they’re being efficient but they end up making mistakes. Other people just feel frazzled.

Prepare for concentrated work. Close down your email and Twitter page and put your phone on silent before focusing on a project.

Take some time for a fun project. If you’re bored, you’ll be even more prone to distraction. Apply your focus not just to the work you have to do—but to satisfying projects you’ve put aside or didn’t start. When you spend time most days doing something you enjoy, your overall performance may very well improve. When you’re in the middle of a dull project, give yourself little breaks for the fun activity—ideally something creative, or a little challenging—rather than eating or just browsing online.

A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.

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