We've all had those days where it feels like your head is in the clouds. Being productive is hard when your mind is going in a million different directions, leaving you unable to focus on what's in front of you.
Starting your day on the right foot can make a big difference, though.
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Here, psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker Gary Weidman, LCSW-C, a practitioner with Meritus Behavioral Health, shares how you can do just that, and set yourself up for better focus all day long.
1. Wake Up at the Same Time Every Day
A good night's sleep makes us feel rested and focused for the day ahead. When you wake up in the morning is just as important as when you hit the pillow at night, and consistency is key.
"Practicing good sleep hygiene habits increase the odds that you will wake up refreshed with energy to tackle the day," says Weidman. He suggests consistent sleep and wake times to jumpstart your focus for the day.
According to the Gunderson Health System, waking up at the same time every day keeps circadian rhythms functioning more productively. That's your body's internal 24-hour clock, per the National Institutes of Health. A circadian rhythm that's in sync can help you feel more alert during the day and feeling better overall.
2. Plan Your Day
Instead of playing it by ear, get organized and schedule your day to increase focus on what you'd like to accomplish.
"Think through what are priority tasks for the day and what you will need to do to accomplish them, and write this down if needed," Weidman says. "You will feel less scrambled and better able to focus on the challenges of the day."
3. Take Your Time
Ease into your morning and avoid rushing out the door if you can. "Give yourself plenty of time in the morning to get your mind and body ready for the day," Weidman says. "Being rushed makes that difficult."
A slow morning routine can help you feel grounded for the day and maintain focus and productivity. Set the tone by waking up early enough to eat breakfast, get some movement and have a little quiet time (more on those in a moment) before your responsibilities kick in for the day.
4. Eat a Healthy Breakfast
There's a reason breakfast is often called the most important meal of the day. A healthy breakfast can give your brain nutrients to stay sharp and should include protein, complex carbs, a little fat and a fruit or vegetable.
A few healthy breakfast recipes for better focus include:
- Oatmeal topped with fresh fruit and nuts (or nut butter)
- Whole-wheat toast topped with avocado and smoked salmon
- Scrambled eggs with whole-wheat toast and a side of fruit
"It is harder to stay focused if we do not have balanced, nutritious and long-lasting fuel," Weidman says. "Avoid junk food and lots of simple carbs in the morning that spike blood sugar. That can lead to a blood sugar crash, which in turn affects energy and focus."
In other words: Though they're convenient, you should skip the pastries or sugary cereals.
5. Drink Caffeine in Moderation
Drinking coffee or tea is a popular morning habit, and as long as you aren't prone to anxiety, moderate amounts of caffeine can be beneficial for focus and concentration, per Weidman.
According to a December 2015 report in Practical Neurology, drinking coffee (or any caffeinated drink) can cause a jolt of alertness. In moderate quantities, coffee can help you focus and fight off fatigue.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests drinking no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day — that's about three to five cups of coffee (depending on how strong you make your java).
The best time to drink coffee for better focus is mid-morning, about an hour after you wake up. By this time, your body's cortisol levels (which naturally rise in the morning to help you get going) will have already peaked, so you'll be ready for the energy boost. Plus, this gives your body plenty of time to metabolize the caffeine, so it won't affect your sleep at night.
6. Get Some Sunlight
When you wake up, open those curtains and start your day with lots of light, if possible, to improve your focus naturally, Weidman says.
"It is a mood boost, as sunlight triggers a release of the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter serotonin and causes a release of our 'wake' hormones adrenaline and cortisol to get us going and alert," he says.
7. Get Moving
Wake up your body and increase circulation through movement. Morning exercise can include stretching, yoga or light cardio for focus.
"Some people do not like doing strenuous exercising in the morning, so think of some light or easy movement to do," Weidman says. "If you prefer exercising in the afternoon or evening, that is great also, since any form of exercise not only increases blood flow to the prefrontal area of the brain — which is the part of our brain responsible for focusing — but also improves our sleep quality if finished at least two hours before bed."
Exercise also generally improves physical and mental wellbeing, which has a positive effect on productivity and the ability to focus.
8. Have Quiet Time
A morning routine that includes taking a little time to quiet yourself before starting the day is another great way to be more focused.
Focus and concentration improves when you're calm, but also alert, Weidman says. He suggest a few minutes of morning meditation or breathing exercises to start your day and center yourself.
"Meditation practices help us develop the ability to be present in the moment, which is a key component in being able to stay focused," he says. "These practices also calm the worry circuit in our brain, improving the functioning of the prefrontal cortex."
9. Delay Screen Time
Lastly, consider your relationship with your phone and other technology in the morning. Are you in charge of it, or is it in charge of you?
Weidman suggests finding ways to cut down on using technology in the morning and see what happens to your stress levels and ability to be present and stay focused.
"The more consistently we are able to practice a variety of these routines, the greater the benefits in brain health," he says. "These improvements result from a boost in serotonin, feeling more mentally refreshed from restorative sleep, increased blood flow through our body, reduced distractions and a calm but alert brain."
When to Seek Help for Focus Issues
Trouble concentrating can be a sign of a more serious issue, like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to the Mayo Clinic, other symptoms include:
- Disorganization and problems prioritizing
- Poor time-management skills
- Trouble multitasking
- Excessive activity or restlessness
- Low frustration tolerance
- Mood swings
- Problems following through and completing tasks
- Hot temper
- Trouble coping with stress
If you suspect your struggle to focus could be related to ADD/ADHD, see your doctor for an evaluation and referral for treatment.
- National Institutes of Health: "Tick Tock: Your Body Clocks Understanding Your Daily Rhythms"
- Gunderson Health System: "Start the Morning Off Right with a Routine"
- 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: "Make Every Bite Count with the Dietary Guidelines"
- Mayo Clinic: "Adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.