How to Meditate for Concentration

How to Meditate for Concentration

Let me ask you an important question.

Do you ever find yourself getting distracted?

Maybe you’re in a conversation and you can’t help but give in to the urge to check your phone. Or maybe you’ve got an important piece of work to do and every fifteen minutes you’ve somehow managed to take a break to check your Facebook feed.

Whatever it is, you know that you’d enjoy things more, and have a lot more free time, if only you could find it in you to truly concentrate.

In the last decade, we’ve seen a huge cultural trend towards secular (non-religious) meditation in the West. Whilst interest in meditation was typically reserved for spiritual seekers throughout most of the 20th century, it has now penetrated mainstream culture and is being widely used by everyone from Fortune 500 companies to professional athletes in an attempt to reduce stress and anxiety, and improve performance.

When people ask me “can meditation help me concentrate?” the answer is a resounding yes, but I’m often reminded of a quote from Bill Gates:

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

Many of us are shocked when we hear of studies that suggest that just 8 weeks of meditation can change the physical structure of our brain. These claims are true, but to see a dramatic increase in your ability to focus, you would have to spend a significantly longer period of time practicing.

With one year of a consistent meditation practice, you will likely see a moderate (but potentially underwhelming) increase in your ability to focus. This isn’t really what people want to hear, and seems to be why the majority of people who practice meditation in some form don’t become long-term practitioners.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should be disheartened. As Bill Gates said, we drastically underestimate what we can achieve in ten years. In fact, the benefits you would see after just three years of consistent meditation can be more dramatic than you could imagine.

Studies of long-term practitioners have found that the benefits of meditation continue to increase over time. And as far as we know, there is no ceiling to this improvement.

For example, long-term meditators with around 5000 hours of experience will see superhuman increases in attention-regulation when compared to non-meditators.

When we look at the brains of expert meditators, those with around 19000 hours of practice, we see that distracting sounds and disruptive thoughts are virtually eliminated when concentrating on an object.

To take this further, those with even more experience (an average of 44000 hours) have less activation in the regions of the brain associated with attention – meaning they were able to concentrate deeply with virtually no effort on behalf of the brain.

It’s not expected that anyone reading this will meditate 44000 hours in their life, as this is equivalent to about 4 hours of practice a day for thirty years. However, a sustained daily practice can still see you reach levels of concentration that you have never before experienced or expected.

What is concentration meditation?

In the long-term, it is likely that any and all types of meditation will improve your concentration when compared to doing nothing, just like any type of exercise in the gym will help you lose weight.

However, as with the gym, there are specific techniques that are going to be much more effective for improving a certain skillset. Finding the right type of meditation for you, and the right technique within that type is the key to you seeing an improvement in your ability to sustain attention.

When meditation is studied, it is usually placed into two categories; focused-attention and open-monitoring.

In open monitoring meditation, the practitioner holds an ongoing, non-judgemental awareness of the contents of their experience. This means that they step back and watch the experience unfold, as opposed to directing their attention towards something. The intention of this practice is to gain an increased awareness of the sensations and thoughts that occur within one’s body and mind.

Studies of some open-monitoring meditations, such as mindfulness, showed that attentional-control (another term for concentration) did not improve in the short term. This means that despite its popularity, mindfulness is probably not actually the most effective meditative technique for a lot of people who want to see change. Though mindfulness is often used as a technique to stop overthinking, it actually doesn’t directly change the degree to which initial thoughts pop up.

In fact, the mindfulness we see in the mainstream now is often a misuse of ancient Buddhist precepts, which saw it as an attitude to hold in conjunction with a variety of other methods, as opposed to a stand-alone technique.

On the other hand, concentration meditation is used to train the mind for sustained attention. During focused attention meditation, the practitioner directs their attention wholeheartedly towards a single object. When the mind wanders away from the chosen object, such as the physical sensations of one’s breath, the meditator directs the attention back to the sensation.

In this practice, the brain is found to produce Gamma and Beta waves. This suggests that there is increased voluntary control of attention and cognitive processes, which you don’t find in open monitoring meditation in which Theta waves are produced.

Concentration meditation has been shown to improve performance on a number of aspects of attention, such as improving the ability to control perceptual rivalry (distracting thoughts). Studies have found it to be far more effective than mindfulness meditation when it comes to training our ability to consciously regulate attention.

Concentration Meditation 101

Find a private and quiet spot

When meditating you want to eliminate as many disturbances as you can. Find a place that you could use to meditate regularly, and preferably where you’ll be by yourself. It’s great if you can turn your phone on aeroplane mode, so you’re not anticipating texts or calls.

It’s important when you practice concentration meditation that you have either as much quiet as possible or a consistency in the nature of the sounds that you hear. If you are not an advanced meditator then traffic, yelling, or other disturbances will constantly take your attention away from the object and it will be hard to gather the momentum needed to cultivate focus.

If you live in a big city and it’s hard to get away from the noise pollution then I recommend you try listening to music or binaural beats. A lot of people find that calm classical music and nature sounds are helpful.

Remember however that your mind is drawn to what it believes to be the most interesting or pressing stimuli in your field of experience. So in some cases, even these sounds can make it tough to focus on your object of meditation.

Another solution that I find effective is to use earplugs, noise cancelling headphones, or listen to white noise. Nature is another great option, as it has a calming effect on the nervous system – as long as you feel safe and comfortable and the weather allows it!

Pick a meditation object

There are effectively an unlimited number of objects you can choose from, all of which will have a slightly different effect on your meditation. The ones I mention below are the most common and are the best place to start for someone new to the practice.

The breath

Focusing on the sensations of the breath is the most common object given to beginner meditators. It’s difficult at first but is a tried and tested technique that’s been used for thousands of years. 

The physical sensations on the nostrils are often recommended as a focus point because if we listen to or visualize the breath it’s easy to start meditating on an idea of it and not the real thing. Some teachers also recommend focusing on the rising and falling sensations of the stomach if the nostrils are too subtle.

A mantra

Mantra meditation can be an incredibly effective way to cultivate focus. The specific mantra that you use to begin with isn’t actually that important, but it can help to choose a Sanskrit mantra such as ‘Om’ as there are fewer mental associations than with English words. Simply say the word as you exhale, or if you’re using a mantra with multiple words, find a rhythm that works with your breath.

Saying the mantra out loud is typically easier for beginners, but as you progress you can try repeating it in your head. If you don’t have a teacher to guide you, for pronunciation simply try to mimic what you can find on YouTube.

To learn more about mantra and chanting I highly recommend Russill Paul’s book The Yoga of Sound.

A sensation of the body

This is another great way to practice concentration meditation, all you need to do here is pick a sensation in the body and focus on it in the same way I explained with the breath meditation.

This can be anything from the feeling of the sun on your face, the feeling of your back against the chair or the feeling of your feet on the floor. If you’re really struggling to stick with just one you can start with two sensations and alternate between them.

Counting

Counting meditation is tough but incredibly effective if you’re meditating at home and are concerned with getting the technique wrong. It’s very simple, but it’s not necessarily easy.

Simply count to ten in your head, and every time you notice a thought come up and interrupt your counting, you start again. Once you can consistently get to ten, you can extend it to twenty, thirty, forty etc. One benefit of this practice is that you can see a tangible improvement in your ability to focus, and this can be very motivating.



A visualization or external object

To meditate on an external object is simple. All you need to do is look directly at it with absolute attention and soft but diligent focus. This traditionally done with something like a candle or an image of the Buddha.

You can also visualize an object, which is good for imagination, but with many beginner practitioners will likely lead to too much mind-wandering.

Set an intention

This is often one of the most forgotten aspects of meditation. People get so caught up with what not to do that they forget to make a clear conscious intention of what they want to do.

As cognitive neuroscientist Andrew Newberg explains in his book How Enlightenment Changes the Brain even just anticipating a peak experience leads to dopamine release, so anticipating a meditation session to go well will facilitate the process. He also suggests that the thoughts and feelings that are sparked from conscious intentionality can have a ripple effect that impacts the entire brain.

In fact, Newberg even believes that the brain states caused by ritual dance and running could lead to enlightenment experiences if there was a strong intention for spiritual change before and during the practice.

In addition to this, John Yates (Culadasa), a Buddhist teacher and neuroscientist, in his book The Mind Illuminated, emphasises the importance of setting and holding a consciousness intention in practice:

“Willpower can’t prevent the mind from forgetting the breath. Nor can you force yourself to become aware that the mind is wandering. Instead, just hold the intention to appreciate the “aha” moment that recognizes mind-wandering, while gently but firmly redirecting attention back to the breath. Then, intend to engage with the breath as fully as possible without losing peripheral awareness. In time, the simple actions flowing from these three intentions will become mental habits. Periods of mind-wandering will become shorter, periods of attention to the breath will grow longer, and you’ll have achieved your goal.”

To set an intention, simply state out loud or write down, as clearly as possible, the state of mind you would like to experience during your meditation such as clarity, quiet, peace, focus etc.

Sit in a comfortable, upright position

There are a number of postures you can choose to use for meditation, but again, this is not something you should get hung up on.

Simply sit down comfortably, either with your legs crossed or in a chair with your feet firmly on the floor. The most important aspect of posture is that you keep your spine erect, with your shoulders back and your head pointed forward, directly above your spine.

Your tongue should rest on the top of your mouth, the tip pressing softly against your front two teeth. Your eyes may be open or closed but always relaxed. Having them closed makes it easier to achieve deep meditative states but having them open will help keep you more alert and awake.

It’s up to you how you’d like to place your hands. No complicated mudras are absolutely necessary to start with, but they can help in the later stages of practice. For beginners either rest your palms in your lap, face up, or bring your index fingers to your thumbs in the traditional ‘gian mudra.’

Set a timer

If you don’t set a timer then you’ll often find that your mind starts to wonder how long you’ve been meditating, and how long you have to go. To eliminate this problem, simply set a timer for the length you want to meditate.

Insight timer is my favourite app for this, I use it daily. It allows you to customise the length of your sessions with meditation bells and symbols and can help bring you out of your meditation without shocking you with an alarm.

Focus on your meditation object

As you start your practice, take a couple of deep breaths to calm your mind and center your attention. When you start to relax, point your attention towards the object that you’ve chosen.

When mind-wandering occurs, which it inevitably will, use an anchor to bring yourself back to the focus. This anchor may be a motivational mantra or just a couple of words to remind you to redirect your attention. Some sayings that can be used are “back to the breath,” “focus” “come back.” Experiment with a couple and see what works best for you.

Remember that the attitude that you want to have is one of firmness but not aggression. Be peripherally aware of the intention you set at the start of your meditation and allow it to redirect you back to the object.

If you’ve never meditated before, start with 5-10 minutes of absolute concentration. You can then add 2 minutes every week until you’re able to do 30-minute sessions or longer.

Leave the meditation gently

When you finish meditating sometimes the monkey mind will instinctively want to ramp back up again. You may feel a pull to complete whatever you were doing before the meditation or to start frantically planning what you’re going to do next.

It’s best that you resist this urge, and take a while to bathe in the feeling that you have after the practice. Try and move slowly for a short while and stretch out the feeling of relaxation and calm as long as you can. Over time you’ll see that the longer you do this, the more you’ll be able to take this feeling off the meditation mat and into the real world.

Other useful tips

Don’t flick back and forth between objects. Though it can be tempting when you’re struggling to focus on one object, to concentrate on another, and another, and another, this defeats the point of the practice. The meditation itself is not chiefly concerned with focusing, which your brain is naturally good at, but with redirecting attention once it has wandered, which we aren’t generally very good at.

Don’t aggressively bring your attention back. When you first start concentration meditation it can be frustrating to realise how little control you truly have. This can cause some of us to take an aggressive attitude towards our mind. However, what you’re looking for is a mindstate that is like a calm lake, and this aggression will only create more waves, so to speak. Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says that treating the mind as you would a new puppy, gently but firmly ushering it back to the object of focus, is the right attitude to hold.

Journal afterwards. Finishing your meditation by consolidating your insights with a journal is a fast track to improvement. Simply ask yourself “What is the one thing I can take away from this meditation session?” Don’t worry about the individual answers, just write whatever comes to mind and in time you’ll start to see patterns emerge that give you valuable advice for your concentration practice.

Choose the time you are most alert to meditate. This can be tough when you first start to meditate because you naturally get tired and may only have a limited amount of time in the day. However, there are a number of ways you can prevent sleepiness when meditating. Stretch or walk before your session to make sure the blood is flowing, change your diet to something that is light on carbs and high in nutrition, open your eyes during your meditations, or simply meditate when you know you have the most energy.

Conclusion

Concentration meditation is not an easy practice, which is why not very many people stick with it in the long term. But you need to put in the work to get the rewards. And the rewards here are huge for anyone who’s willing to stick to the practice long term.

Once you have a strong foundational practice of concentration meditation, you’ll see exponential growth in all areas of your life as you save energy that would’ve been spent on procrastination and you’re able to do what you want, when you want, pretty much at will.

What experience have you had with concentration meditation? Let me know in the comments!

 

How to Concentrate on Studies for Long Hours (Like a Zen Master)

How to Concentrate on Studies for Long Hours

Have you ever wished you could control your mind better?

I’ve definitely felt that way before. Heck, there’s a reason this blog is called Project Monkey Mind.

It’s frustrating, because you know that you really need to concentrate on something, and you’re trying your best, but you just keep on getting distracted.

To be fair, you’re not alone. Focus has become a huge topic in recent years, largely because technology related interruptions have been making it harder for us to sustain concentration for long periods of time.

But this doesn’t mean that we can’t see significant improvements to our attentional-control. Our ability to do so is a puzzle. We don’t need to solve all of it at once, we simply need to figure out which pieces will make the difference for us.

One primary issue we have is that we come across advice about concentration, most people fail to take into consideration the scope of factors that impact our ability to focus, instead opting for a one-dimensional approach. Maybe they say it’s your diet, or your willpower, that you need to be more organised with study materials, or that you should “try meditation.”

This is why in this article I’m attempting to cover everything!

To maximise our ability to concentrate on our studies for longer hours, we need to consider how we can:

  • Improve our baseline ability to concentrate
  • Decide on the best time of day for us to study
  • Eat the right foods before studying
  • Create the best environment for us to study in
  • Clear brain fog
  • Approach work with the right mindset
  • Create an effective study plan and set goals
  • Avoid distractions while studying
  • Remember what we study
  • Safely take supplements or nootropics that optimize our brain for study

But first, we need to ask an important question.

What is concentration?

Put simply, concentration is the ability of an individual to direct their attention towards a desired object of focus. In psychological research, this is also referred to as attentional control. The ability to concentrate is an executive function, mediated by the frontal areas of the brain. There are a number of reasons why your attentional control may be limited, many of which we’ll cover here. From a clinical perspective, autism, ADHD and anxiety are some disorders that may limit our attentional control.

It’s often said that modern society has eroded our ability to focus on a single object at a time. This is because of an overwhelming amount of stimulus, typically in the form of marketing, implicitly conditions us to jump from one thing to another. Fortunately, the brain is largely a creature of habit, so by retraining it, we can mitigate some of these maladaptive patterns of attention.

How can I improve my concentration?

Here are a few effective practices for improving your concentration. Remember that your brain is like a muscle, you want to train it, then allow it to rest, and you can see significant gains, but they will generally take persistence and time.

Meditation

The most effective way to improve your concentration is undoubtedly through meditation. However, not all types of meditation will serve this purpose in the same way or to the same degree, you need to make sure you’re doing the correct meditation. When studying meditation, scientists generally place practices under two broad categories. These are open-monitoring and focused-attention, the second of which is most effective at improving your ability to concentrate.

In open-monitoring meditation, the practitioner is instructed to place their attention on the thoughts and feelings that arise, and simply observe them as they pass, without judgement. The most well-known form of this meditation is mindfulness, which has not been shown to directly improve our ability to concentrate.

The second form of meditation, focused-attention, has us direct our awareness toward a single object, be that a sensation, mantra, or the feeling of the breath. While this meditation is incredibly effective, and long-term meditators have been shown to have superhuman levels of focus, it can sometimes take hundreds of hours of sustained practice before you will notice significant changes in yourself.

Further Reading: The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind – B. Alan Wallace

Read out of your comfort zone

There are a huge number of benefits to reading. Not only will it improve your vocabulary and general knowledge, but it can also sharpen your memory, imagination and communication skills. What is most relevant, however, is that reading dense content that you can’t completely comprehend can condition your mind to become used to focusing on study topics.

The longer you are able to read through this content without getting distracted, the easier it is going to be to study for long periods of time. You don’t need to constantly be knee deep in abstract philosophical texts, but if you can spend fifteen minutes every day reading something that you have to pay close attention to, this will be a huge help when it’s time to study for exams.

Work in chunks

Both the body and brain work best when they are required to exert high amounts of energy and then given rest periods to recover. We see this in athletes who train in short bursts with intervals in between. Known as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) it helps with mental focus and dopamine production. The same approach can be taken when we are trying to train the mind.

If we follow a regime whereby we give 100% of our concentration for a specific period, with rest intervals in between, we avoid burn out and maximise productivity. One of these methods is called the Pomodoro technique which is 25 minutes of deep work followed by 5 minutes of rest.

Strengthen your willpower

By now you’ve probably heard the cliche, willpower is like a muscle. Well, fortunately, this cliche is actually quite useful. While focused-attention will help you become immersed in the study, it is willpower that will help you to not fall into the temptation of distractions when they inevitably come up.

There are any number of ways willpower can be strengthened, but typically, repetitively engaging in any activity where there is a degree of psychological resistance will do the trick.

Some examples include:

  • Setting your alarm earlier than you want to wake up (when there is no external pressure)
  • Taking a freezing cold shower 5 minutes a day.
  • Pushing your comfort zone with physical exercise
  • Doing things that make you feel socially uncomfortable e.g. public speaking

Further Reading: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Roy F. Baumeister

Choosing the best time of day to study

This is potentially the most important factor when it comes to concentrating on your studies. We all run on a circadian rhythm, which means that your energy goes through peaks and valleys throughout the day. This will vary person to person. As a general example, while to a certain extent we can change when we get up and go to sleep, the reality is that some of us are wired to be morning people, and others night owls.

What’s important is that we find the most effective time for us to use our mental energy.

Here’s a simple experiment that I have used to increase my work output. Set an alarm on your watch and phone that goes off on the hour every hour that you are studying. When the alarm goes off, note the time and give yourself a score out of ten in terms of how much energy you have and how productive you’ve been.

Do this for two weeks and you will start to see when you peak concentration times are. For me, my energy is highest from 9am to  2pm, however before 10am and after about 12.30pm my productivity is lower. This means that 10am to 12pm is the best time for me to put the most important tasks of the day.

Further Reading: The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy

 

Eating the right food before studying

Food and nutrition is such a fundamental need that when we are too hungry, or our blood sugar is low, it becomes incredibly difficult to focus.

Eating the right foods before you start to study is as important as choosing the right time of day. Make sure that you eat natural foods that aren’t difficult to digest, such as a lot of fat or protein. You also want to avoid anything that spikes your blood sugar, such as gluten, and potentially dairy (even if you don’t have an intolerance).

Snacks are better than large meals, as the latter can take a lot of your body’s energy and leave you sleepy.

Grains, seeds, nuts, and dried fruits are all good snacks to keep you focused while you’ll study.

Another important point is to stay hydrated, so if you have been drinking caffeine, make sure you are drinking more water than you usually would.

Creating the right environment

Having a clear and distraction-free work environment will aid in creating a clear and distraction-free mind.

The human brain is a pattern making machine, so rituals and symbols can be incredibly powerful in guiding us towards specific psychological states. When you have a study environment that is conducive to deep work, it will become easier and easier to concentrate as time goes on, because your mind will start to associate that space with deep focus.

Try and make sure you have a place that is:

  • Well lit, preferably with natural light
  • Has fresh air (you may want to invest in some plants)
  • Has a comfortable chair or standing desk
  • Is free of noise
  • Is clear and clutter-free

Further Reading: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – Marie Kondo

Clear brain fog

Brain fog is a state whereby you commonly feel mental confusion, and you rarely feel mental clarity. It is also described as having a cloudy mind, and can occur as a result of overworking, overstimulation, poor diet, and substance abuse such as marijuana or alcohol.

To clear brain fog you should:

  • Get adequate exercise
  • Get adequate and regular sleep
  • Avoid alcohol and cigarettes
  • Go to a sauna
  • Reduce or eliminate alcohol intake
  • Stop eating any foods to which you may have allergies
  • Stop consuming processed sugar
  • Take supplements such as a multivitamin

Further Reading: The Brain Fog Fix: Reclaim Your Focus, Memory, and Joy in Just 3 Weeks

Studying with the right mindset

The attitude with which you approach your studies is the next important piece of the concentration puzzle. Many people find it hard to get motivated, and while the other topics I’ve touched on in the post will help you be more able to study for longer periods of time, it is your mindset that will inevitably determine your willingness to do so.

To approach your work with the right mindset, you need to get in touch with why you are doing what you are doing.

Keep a motivation list. It can be effective to use both positive and negative motivation. Write down five good things that you’ll get out of doing this work, and five potential repercussions for not doing the work. Make sure the list is close by so you can glance over it whenever you’re getting distracted. This exercise won’t be effective, however, if the negative motivation makes you too anxious to focus on the tasks at hand.

Surround yourself with the right voices. You’ve probably heard the cliche, surround yourself with the right people. The problem with this is that not everyone has access to a social circle that is hard working, driven, and compassionate. Maybe your fellow students are overly competitive, or you’re completing a distance learning degree. You can counteract this by listening to podcasts and watching youtube videos that are motivating you to do the work.

Celebrate small wins. Being mindful of little victories can help give you the momentum to get through long study sessions. This is another reason setting goals is so effective. We need a reward system, no matter how trivial, in order to keep the dopamine flowing and ensure our engagement in the task at hand.

Take it seriously, but try to see the humour. Humour is very effective when it comes to any difficult activity. This is because it keeps us relaxed, and prevents us from being overwhelmed by worries and anxieties. When we’re studying, our brains get tired, which means two things. Firstly, we can take what we’re doing far too seriously, and secondly, we can make mistakes. So if you make a mistake, try not to get frustrated, take a moment to put things in perspective and see that whatever you’re doing is not the be all end all.

Be as curious as a child. Children approach new stimuli with curiosity and focus because their brains are wired to take in new information. We can see this clearly with movies, while adults will often want to wait months or even years between watching the same film again, children will often be happy to immediately rewatch a movie because they can absorb new details every time. Make sure that you’re focused on what you’re going to enjoy about learning this material, as opposed to thinking about where you’d rather be.

Enjoy some of your failures. Failure doesn’t need to be a bad thing. In fact, although we don’t talk about it, it’s a very natural part of being human. It’s only a problem if you’re coming from a place of hyper-competitiveness whereby anything less than absolute success isn’t good enough. Getting something wrong means that there is an opportunity for learning and growth. This is obviously hard to keep in mind when you’re emotionally invested in something that doesn’t seem to be paying off, but try anyway, and see how the perspective shift improves your ability to study.



Creating a plan and setting goals

When doing any study, it’s vital that you have a clear plan in mind if you want to make the most of your time. Sitting down without goals and objectives is the quickest way to spend your study time distracted and confused.

  1. Figure out what you need to study. This means you are completely sure about all the textbooks you’ll need and that you have everything ready and within reach beforehand. You don’t want to be constantly disrupting your concentration by looking for other study materials or trying to decide one what snack you want.
  2. List topics in order of importance. By creating priorities beforehand, you minimise the likelihood that you’ll get stuck trying to figure out what to focus on. If you’d like you can use a matrix and rank tasks in terms of importance (1-4) and urgency (A-D). This gives you a visual perspective on what needs to be done. This will help you make quick decisions and prevent you from ruminating while you study.
  3. Divide your time effectively. You can divide your time however you’d like, but make sure you’re placing the most important material in the space where you believe you’ll be the most productive. Another strategy to consider is doing what you like least, first. This way you’ve got something to look forward to in the second half of the study session, and you’re not wasting any mental energy thinking about how you’ll soon need to do what you don’t like.
  4. Set micro-goals and rewards. Using carrots and sticks is the most simple way to motivate yourself during long study sessions. Make sure your goals are realistically attainable, which is why the smaller the better. The dopamine hit we get from achieving our aims can keep us alert and positive. Likewise, make sure the reward is conducive to studying, such as a coffee, a walk or a healthy snack. Things such as sugary treats or social media may not be the best way to go.

Further Reading: First Things First – Stephen Covey

Avoiding distractions while studying

When we stop what we’re doing to take a look at Facebook, we never think we’re going to waste time. But we always do. In fact, one study out of the University of California Irvine found that following an interruption at work by an irrelevant topic, it took people an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task at hand.

Now imagine you’re being interrupted just once an hour.

That’s 39% of your time going straight down the drain from a single Facebook check!

Here are four quick ways to avoid distractions while studying.

Keep a distraction journal. This is the most effective technique for someone who is prone to getting a thousand ideas. Keep a blank journal next to you, and when an idea or distracting thought comes up, even if it appears to be somewhat related to the topic at hand, simply write it down and come back to it in your break. Surprisingly, you’ll find that as you revisit this list later in the day, the ideas that seemed to so persistently occupy your mind’s eye when you were trying to study, don’t feel that important anymore.

Turn your electronics on airplane mode. Electronics are by far the biggest distraction when it comes to studying. Though you may need them for research, is best that you organise all that is required beforehand, so you’re not tempted to take a quick Facebook break. The best option is to switch off all wifi access until you’ve finished studying unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Choose the right music. Experiment with different types of study music to see which helps you concentrate the best. Usually, lyrics will be distracting, so anything with white noise or ambient sounds can help you to stay calm and alert.

Study with the right people. Studying with other people can be motivating and drastically improve your focus, however only if they’re the right people. If you’re with someone who gets distracted easily themselves, it’s likely that you too will become distracted.

Remembering what you study

Remembering what you study is obviously a huge part of concentration. It not only has the practical application of allowing you to the most benefit from your study time, but it also gives you the confidence and motivation to know that the hours you’re putting in are worth it.

Generally, improving your memory is a matter of using techniques that complement your learning style, and ensuring your brain is healthy. However, while the way we retain information may be different from person to person – some of us are more hands-on, while others visual or auditory – at the end of the day everyone can benefit from an approach that uses more of their senses.

Memory Palaces

Memory Palaces, also known as the Method of loci, are a way by which we store information using visualization and our spatial memory. This technique is relatively easy to learn, though it takes diligence, and it is how some people are able to store seemingly superhuman amounts of information. My buddy Anthony Metiever teaches memory palaces and has found that these techniques can take you as far as remembering a whole textbook.

Mind Maps

Mind Mapping is a technique whereby you use colours and shapes to create a visual representation of the connection between complex themes. Again, this is a way by which you can condense information and cross-train your mind with visual (colour, shapes) and auditory (words) prompts, in order to better remember what you’re studying. Tony Buzan is one of the more well-known mind map teachers, check out this video to see you how you can use them for yourself.

Teach what you’ve learned

This allows you to embody the content, using language and physical gestures to encode it in your long-term memory. If you can find a study partner and practice teaching each other different concepts, this will be beneficial for the memory recall of both of you.

Walk before you study

Doing light exercise before you engage in mental activity is a prime way to warm up the brain. In fact, one study found that students who spent 20 minutes walking on a treadmill at 60% of maximum heart rate, showed a marked improvement on response accuracy and better performance on an academic achievement test.  

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Speak out loud

You can do this by teaching others, or simply by talking out loud to yourself. Take this a step further by recording what you say and listening back to it again, or trying to explain what you’ve said using different words.

Should I use nootropics and supplements for concentration?

It’s fair to say that many of us are attracted to the idea of being able to concentrate like Bradley Cooper in the movie limitless. Unfortunately in the real world there are always trade-offs for taking these kinds of drugs. There are however a number of supplements and nootropics that can boost our concentration, and if we do research and experiment safely, we can see some great benefits from their use.

Multivitamins

A balanced diet will ensure that we stay mentally sharp and are able to concentrate for long periods of time. However, with busy lives and high organic food prices, it can be difficult for most of us to find that equilibrium. If you have the luxury of doing blood tests to see which supplements you may see the most benefit from, which is great. However, for most of us, a multivitamin is the most straightforward way to cover all ground.

Omega-3

Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important for mental function, particularly if you’re not getting it in your diet through foods such as salmon, avocados and olive oil. Taking a daily supplement, such as fish oil, promotes mental clarity and focus, and may be able to prevent the onset of age-related neurological disorders.

Caffeine

Most people take caffeine to study, many do so daily. Simply be aware that the effectiveness of caffeine works on a bell curve, so in this case, you can have too much of it and it can impede your ability to concentrate.

L-Theanine

L-theanine (found in green tea) has been shown to counteract the jitters that you can sometimes get from too much caffeine. In doing so it can improve cognitive performance, so it’s recommended that you take both together. It’s recommended that you take it at a ratio of 2:1, so 80 milligrams of caffeine should be combined with 160 milligrams of L-theanine.

Smart Drugs
These are cognitive enhancers also know as smart drugs that vary in legality, price, and side-effects. Below I listed some of the most commonly used cognitive enhancers. Make sure you do your research and consult a doctor before deciding to use any of these.

Conclusion

And there you have it, that’s how to concentrate on your studies like a Zen master!

As you can see there are a huge number of things that go into your attentional control.

Challenges are going to arise depending on your baseline motivation, focus ability, organization skills, mental clarity and physical health. If you take a holistic approach, you’ll see a much more drastic improvement than if you simply attack one area.

If you liked this post, share it with your friends and anyone else you feel may need it!

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What is Spiritual Meditation?

I bet you’ve heard it somewhere.

Maybe you’ve even said it before.

The dismissive tone that comes straight from the inner skeptic.

“Isn’t meditation just, you know, a bunch of ‘woo woo’.”

Anyone who has meditated consistently for longer periods of time knows how silly the statement is. But we get it. Meditation is tough. And simply trusting the practice of meditation, let alone getting started, can be difficult for anyone, particularly if you’re scientifically minded.

With a culture that commercialises anything exotic, and one in which there is a strong rift in the public dialogue between science and religion, taking the side of meditation can seem a little, well, irrational.

But that begs a couple of important questions.

Do we need to be spiritual or religious to meditate? Can we be both scientifically minded and spiritual? What is spiritual meditation?

To some of us they may seem a little redundant; isn’t meditation an inherently spiritual exercise?

Is meditation a spiritual practice?

The word meditation, at least in English, is derived from the Latin verb meditari, which roughly means to think, contemplate, or ponder.

However, in spiritual circles, it has been translated from the word dhyāna in Buddhism and Hinduism. In this setting, the root of the word was a little more complex. It is more akin to a sustained focused attention on a chosen object.

More broadly in a modern context, it refers to a number of practices that are designed to achieve any number of aims. This may include relaxation, improving focus, developing love, building internal energy, and character building.

To this end, the answer to the question ‘what is meditation’, is almost as broad as the number of reasons one may choose to meditate.

So while the roots of meditation are clearly for spiritual development, this doesn’t make the act of meditating an exclusively spiritual practice.

Western meditators often equate the spiritual aspects of meditation, such as devotion, to religious fanaticism. While it’s fair to say that in some cases there is a correlation, this doesn’t mean that engaging in worship based practice is a surefire cause for destructive fanatic behaviour.

As Swami Vivekananda describes in his book on Bhakti (devotional) Yoga:

“The one great advantage of Bhakti is that it is the easiest and the most natural way to reach the great divine end in view; its great disadvantage is that in its lower form its oftentimes degenerates into hideous fanaticism. The fanatical crew in Hinduism, or Mohammedanism, or Christianity, have always been almost exclusively recruited from these worshippers on the lower planes of Bhakti…..All the weak and undeveloped minds in every religion or country have only one way of loving their own ideal, i.e. by hating every other ideal.”

When are we doing ‘spiritual meditation?’

The term spiritual meditation is actually not often used, but we’ll use it here for simplicities sake.

With regards to the large number of practices that meditation encompasses, we could separate them into secular, i.e. those without any religious context, and spiritual, those with a religious or spiritual context.

Spiritual meditation is anything where the context of practice is based on spirit i.e. non-material objects or abstractions.

Secular meditation is anything where beliefs about non-material realities (i.e. god, qi, prana etc.) are not involved in the practice.

Examples of spiritual meditation

Examples of secular meditation

Note: It’s also important to say that you can still engage in spiritual meditation, such as meditating on the idea of god, without necessarily accepting the scientific validity of the reality of god.


 



What are the benefits of spiritual meditation?

There are a number of benefits to a spiritually focused meditation practice.

Firstly, the spiritual aspect of meditation, particularly with regards to areas like devotion, are key to opening up your mind to new possibilities. We could say that psychological development as a result of meditation is a combination of both structural changes in the brain and the introduction of new experiences to the mind. 

While the changes that happen within the brain will generally come with practice, the new perceptions as experienced in the mind are largely dependent on the psychology of the individual. For example, they may be mediated through attitudes such as openness to new experiences and surrender to the infinite.

This is why the spiritual aspect of meditation is so important. It is necessary, maybe even vital, to unlock the true potential of meditation for the individual.

While secular meditations may be very effective, certain spiritual precepts have to be accepted on some level for the individual to transcend their monkey mind in any long-term sustainable way. This is why devotion, surrender, and humility have played such an important part in spiritual traditions over the years – they have a significant pragmatic benefit from the perspective of the seeker.

For the average skeptic or scientific thinker, who is unable to engage in spiritual meditation, there are a lot of benefits that are being left out.

If you’d like a more in depth look at a secular approach to meditation, I highly recommend you check out the following books:

Happiness Beyond Thought: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Gary Weber

Waking Up: Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

 

What’s your experience with different types of meditation? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

How to Achieve Laser-Sharp Focus (Interview with Best-selling author Joanna Jast)

Joanna Jast knows a little bit about Focus.

So much so that her first book Laser-Sharp Focus: A No-Fluff Guide to Improved Concentration, Maximised Productivity and Fast-Track to Success, quickly became an Amazon bestseller.

But as with a lot of success stories, the effort behind them is often born out of a frustration. Joanna wasn’t satisfied with the way she was working, and she was becoming increasingly tired of the same old productivity advice.

This led her on a journey that took her down the path of books, courses, and scientific journals, and really revolutionized the way she understood focus.

I thought for a change of pace I’d reach out to her and try to delve into the psychology of attention, and get some actionable tips and advice on eliminating distractions and improving productivity.

 

Side Note: Joanna has created a Free Laser-Sharp Focus Quick Action Guide for Project Monkey Mind readers that you can get here.

 

What prompted you to write this book?

I was going through a period in my life when I needed to really ‘up the game’ with my focus and productivity. I realised that ‘what got me here wasn’t going to get me there’ – I needed a new system to shape up. I started searching for strategies but all I could find was a lot of superficial, generic advice, a lot of what I call ‘inspirational-motivational fluff , praise for meditation (which has never worked for me), and other advice I doubted would be useful in my case.

I knew I didn’t have a problem with my motivation- I was motivated to improve my focus. I was also quite aware what had worked for me and what hadn’t. Little point in telling me ‘you need to motivate yourself to fight your procrastination’ or ‘try meditation and your productivity will soar’. I didn’t want to waste my time, effort or money on something I knew had little chance of making a difference.

So I started going deeper in my research. I started reading academic papers and science-based books on focus, concentration, attention and brain functioning in general. At the same time, I started running my own little experiments, putting the scientifically-verified strategies in practice.

And while searching for answers, I quickly realised I wasn’t the only one struggling with poor focus and poor quality focus advice. The problems people reported on Quora or in response to my questions were quite similar to mine, so I decided to create a free email course. The course was quite successful, so I decided to expand it into a book. And that’s how Laser-Sharp Focus book was born.

Do you have any advice for conquering social media? Do you think it’s useful to use as a reward, or do you have a never during work hours policy?

I’ve been through stages with social media. In general, I agree that social media can damage our productivity on multiple levels – notifications can be really disruptive to our focus, but the emotional effect of some posts can linger on for hours, making it difficult to fully refocus on your task.

On the other hand, in times of struggle, when you’re working on a really long and monotonous task, and you’re craving some positive (or any) emotions to fight off the boredom, social media can provide oh-so-needed distraction and a bit of a booster to your motivation or creativity. So yes, I can see social media/email checks can be useful in keeping us going – particularly as an extrinsic reward, but only as long as the payoff is bigger than the cost.

I generally don’t allow myself to check social media or other distractions while I’m working. I do it during breaks and also sometimes when I’m really stuck and particularly struggling with boredom or a mental block. I do have a strict policy to only engage with a post, email, message etc, if it takes less than 2 minutes and is unlikely to negatively affect my emotional state. If I suspect otherwise, I don’t touch it or just tag it for a follow-up later. I also allow myself to access only certain sites while I’m working.

In your book, you talk about how “getting motivated” is unreliable and overrated. How do you feel your attitude towards motivation differs from most of the advice out there on the subject?

There are two main aspects in which my approach to motivation differs:

1. First of all, I assume that since you are reading this post, you understand you have a problem with focus/procrastination etc., you want to fix it, and you are looking for answers – to me it means that you are motivated. You don’t need to ‘motivate yourself’, you just need to find the right way of using your motivation to help you solve your problem, for example – your focus. And it is NOT through using the motivation to focus on your work, but using your motivation to build a system that will get you to focus every time you need. This way you eliminate all those endless and exhausting cycles of having to motivate yourself every time you need to work. Set it and forget it!

2. The second thing I do differently when it comes to motivation, is the insistence on understanding what truly drives you in life and embrace it. And by that, I mean not what you think, or what you would like to be driven by, but what really lights your fire.

The more I work with people, the more I talk to my readers and clients, the more I can see that many of us (I was there as well, until quite recently), live believing that we are motivated by something we really don’t care about. Because we have been told to be motivated by it, or because we want to aspire to something bigger, or because we want to please other people… for all sorts of reasons. But sadly, even if you are working towards your own dreams, but for the wrong reasons (the reasons that don’t light your fire), your motivation is bound to run out. And when your motivation runs out, what’s the first thing you think you need to do? ‘I need to get motivated again’. And you start the never-ending, exhausting cycle of getting motivated and burning out. And that’s how you end up being unmotivated, disillusioned, with a starved soul and even a burnout.

But if you can discover what really lights your fire, however unworthy this may sound to other people, and plug right into it, you can say bye-bye to motivation problems forever and skyrocket towards your goals.

You emphasize how important it is to have a distraction-free workspace. What are some things that are often overlooked when it comes to creating an environment that promotes focus?

Noise. I can’t stress enough how distracting and destructing noise can be.

Noise not only acts as a distraction but also it causes tiredness, headaches, irritability and other health problems.

Many people swear by focus or productivity boosting music. The research into that matter I have done tends to say that music, particularly music with lyrics has negative impact on focus and productivity. It’s definitely my case. I know there are people who disagree with it. So I’d say test what works for you better.

I’m a huge fan of the web app Pocket for stopping us from getting distracted during the day with articles. Do you have any apps that you recommend for getting stuff done or stopping us from getting distracted?

I don’t really use productivity apps. I use Evernote for documents and books I want to read on the go. I have a system (it’s a pen and paper system) to capture any thoughts and ideas that pop into my mind while I’m working. I just jot it down and put it on my calendar to look at when I review my to-do things (morning and evening). The 2-minute rule I mentioned before is part of it. This is something I adopted from David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done) system. It’s very effective. I know my thought is safe and I stop thinking about it.

As for other things that can potentially distract me during work, as I said before I have developed a system where I only allow myself access some sites. I don’t even use site-blocking software – I just rely on my laziness and poor memory. A while ago, I purged my favourites and history and my FB feed of any sites with stuff that took longer than 2 minutes to read. I can still go there and read if I want, but I’d have to type the name into the browser. And because more often than not I don’t remember the address, I have to do a search and that takes time, and I’m too lazy to do that, so I don’t do it unless I really want to and have more than 2 minutes.

I’ve found that with procrastination there isn’t a one size fits all approach. For example, I’ve noticed I’m very driven by things I believe are taking from my time and my life – I don’t like excess fat. I realised that when I highlighted exactly what procrastination was taking from me, it greatly reduced the amount of time I was wasting. In your book, you underline the importance of finding out why you procrastinate – what are some of the most common reasons people procrastinate that our readers might see in themselves?

I agree with you – it’s very important to understand why you procrastinate in the first place. Otherwise, you’ll be just shooting in the dark, wasting your time and energy on strategies or tactics that are unlikely to work for you.

The most common reasons why people procrastinate, in my experience, are:
– boredom, lack of interest or lack of motivation to do the task – it’s usually when the person feels she/he can’t be bothered to do the job
– feeling overwhelmed by the size of the task – this is quite common among people with difficulty in delaying gratification and short attention span (and this is the main reason why I procrastinate)
– skill or knowledge gap – it’s similar to the previous one, but the reason why the person is struggling to get going is because the task is too difficult for them
– not knowing where to start, what to do first, lack of direction – this is similar to feeling overwhelmed by the size of the task, and similar strategies can help
– the fear of success of failure – this is deeper and often paired up with perfectionism – those people may start a task, but they never finish it because it’s never good enough for them, they keep improving and improving, and some even give up completely – ‘If I can’t produce an absolute masterpiece, what’s the point?’

Each of those root causes would require a different approach to really address the problem. So if any of you, dear readers, are struggling with procrastination, I encourage you to explore what it really is that’s driving it and address it with bull’s eye precision.

You touched briefly on attending to your spiritual needs when it comes to managing your energy. For those that don’t have an organised practice or religion, this may come in the form of some higher goal. How have you found this to be helpful to the cultivation of energy and focus in your own life and work?

To be honest, I am still in the process of figuring it out for myself. This is one of my goals for this year. The thing that I really want to stress is that spiritual energy comes from the soul and it is about feeding your soul. What is really, really important is to understand what feeds your soul. Because if you try to feed your soul with something your soul doesn’t care about, you’ll starve it to death.

We all are different and different things ‘light our fire’. For some people, this will be about having a higher goal, for other – pursuing freedom, autonomy. And for some – it’ll be about mastery or achievement, or some other thing. And while it’s true that having a higher goal will fulfil spiritual needs of some people, it doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Please don’t assume that pursuing a higher goal will solve your spiritual problems. Misalignment of motivational drivers, just as misalignment of values leads to burnout. So what I have found helpful is in keeping my spiritual energy up is to discover what really drives me in life, what’s really important to me, what feeds my soul, admit it to myself and then make sure that I do it.

What was your own biggest issue with focus, and how have you overcome it?

Actually, I’ve had quite a few struggles and I have been addressing them one by one over the years. The biggest issue, I think, is my low threshold for boredom, which coupled with difficulty in delaying gratification causes me to constantly fight off distractions, need for instant gratification, wandering mind and short attention span.

I have created a number of systems that are built on solid foundations of knowing myself and relying on my environment for execution. There are certain principles I rely on, for example I never trust my future self and I assume that faced with temptation I will be likely to give in. So I create heavy-duty systems that can get me to do what I need to do in worst-case scenarios.

If someone only had 15 minutes a day to improve their Focus, what would you recommend they do?

15 minutes? That’s a lot of time to waste… But let’s see…
Since I have just criticised giving blanket advice, let me start with my favourite focus advice: Before you jump to any solutions, find out what’s wrong with your focus. So here is my suggestion:

Track your distractions for a couple of days. How? Every time you get distracted – write down: time of day, place, reason and cause of distraction – it takes about 10-20 minutes per day depending on how distracted you are and how good you are with logging, but this simple exercise can provide you with a better understanding of your focus problems. And once you know what affects your focus – apply a targeted solution. Additionally, just by paying attention to your focus problems, you become more focused!

But if you really want a quick fix, here is something super quick you can try to see if it works for you:
#1 Turn off all notifications. Enjoy the freedom!
#2 Minimise noise. Put a noise cancelling headphones or close the door/window etc.

 

Where can readers learn more about you?

My website is: www.theshapeshiftersclub.com

You can also find me on Quora: https://www.quora.com/profile/Joanna-Jast-1

and on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ShapeShift_Club

For all of you who are serious about improving your focus, I have a free Laser-Sharp Focus Quick Action Guide, full of useful tools to help you identify your focus problem, Laser-Sharp Focus Roadmap with tips on what strategies may work for you, and a lot of other useful things.

 

Feeling Sleepy All The Time? Here’s How You SUPERCHARGE Your Energy!

Feeling Sleepy All The Time?

Tell me you haven’t had this feeling.

It’s the end of the day, and you’re sitting on the couch at home, exhausted. Your back feels stiff, and your brain is tired and fuzzy.

You’re trying to take a break, but even in your moment of rest, the idea that tomorrow you’ve got to get up and continue to work on a million and one things is still floating around in the back of your mind.

And the worst part about this?

It’s that throughout all the tiredness and exhaustion you’re still sitting there and thinking: “I could’ve done more today.”

Somehow your brain still has the energy to ruminate, and you can’t seem to stop it.

I know that feeling all too well.

Whereas once upon a time I would have had this experience almost every single day without exception (weekends included), fortunately now it’s far less often.

So how can you avoid feeling sleep all the time once and for all!?

Fighting against the fatigue trap

 

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It’s a relieving feeling when you’ve learned how to manage your energy and productivity, and you can finish the day spent and satisfied, not stressed and exhausted.

It’s similar to the feeling you get when you take a slow, deep breath and exhale. It’s liberating.

So how do you get more done? How do you have more real productivity at work, so you finish the day feeling content and not completely depleted?

 

How do you have more energy during the day?

The realization I had that led me to make such a powerful change was this:

Most people are looking for what to do, but understanding what NOT to do is just as important. And in this case, what not to do is accept a life that fosters fatigue.

Look, you could be the best in the world at your job, you could use the strategies that productivity experts use, you could even have the willpower of an Olympic-level athlete, but if you’re tired and fatigued, it’s all pretty useless.

Developing limitless energy throughout the day is a matter of knowing four things.

  1. How to naturally have enough energy
  2. What tasks to use your energy on
  3. What times of the day to use your energy
  4. How to get the most out of the energy you have

 

Mastering your energy management

 

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Supercharge your natural battery

The obvious place to start is to consider your natural reserves.

This is what most people think about first when they want to increase their energy levels.

There may be a number of reasons why you’re feeling tired; it could be down to sleep, nutrition, or even just hydration. Whatever it is, a holistic lifestyle approach is needed to make the most out of your days.

What you want to do first is improve your personal standards of what it means to have lots of energy.

Most people follow the lowest common denominator. If they have more vigour than their coworkers or their family members, they’re happy enough with that.

Unfortunately following the crowd is simply not good enough. The vast majority of people experience unnecessary fatigue and stress at work, so if you want to feel good, you need to set your own pace.

Luckily, you can make huge lifestyle changes with very small choices. There are dozens of books that will help you get started, but to save you hours and hours of reading; here are 10 actionable ways to improve your natural energy levels.

1. Wake up to natural light

There are a series of light-sensitive eye cells, known as ipRGCs, which help your body absorb light and set your circadian rhythm.

When you wake up to natural light, you’re going to get up with more energy because while you were sleeping these cells have been gradually making your body aware that it’s go time.

Artificial lights aren’t able to do the same thing to your brain, which is why you may notice that waking up in a dark room and turning the light on will leave you a lot more sluggish for the first couple of hours of the day.

2. Drink an extra liter of water a day

They say food is fuel, but if we take this analogy one step further, water is our oil.

Dehydration causes your body to work harder to circulate blood, which leads to fatigue. Some medical professionals believe that up to 75% of Americans could be chronically dehydrated, partially due to the nature of other beverages they are consuming.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see how adding an extra litre of water to your day could make a big difference to energy levels.

Tip: add sugar-free electrolyte powder to your water to improve your water-retention capabilities.

3. Don’t have caffeine after 3pm

It’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t drink caffeine at night.

However, what a lot of people don’t know is that studies have shown that caffeine can negatively impact your sleep quality if taken up to 6 hours (or potentially longer) before bedtime.

In fact, a moderate dose of caffeine has a significant effect on the amount of time you spend awake or in the light stage of sleep during the night.

Also, remember that many of us don’t have moderate doses of caffeine in our system (double shot anyone?) and that we may have already had caffeine earlier in the day.

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For many people, drinking a lot of coffee (or other caffeinated drinks) is a lifestyle, so their sleep quality has been suffering every single night for months or even years.

The conclusion is simple – drink less caffeine if possible and don’t consume any at all after 3pm.

Tip: For an energy boost in the afternoon, consider replacing your coffee with a vegetable juice.

4. Avoid carbs, sugar and cooked food before work

When it comes to maintaining alertness, you want to avoid things that are hard to digest.

Your body uses a lot of energy for digestion, so it makes sense to look to healthy, light meals that are easy on your stomach.

Raw foods are usually better than cooked foods, as cooking foods can destroy the enzymes that assist with digestion.

Simple carbs are foods that are digested quickly, meaning they give you a quick boost of energy before making you crash. While good for physical exercise, they’re pretty useless for long, sustained and focused work.

Complex carbs such as bread, pasta, baked goods and cereals will likewise spike your glucose and counter-intuitively take up a lot of the energy in their digestion instead of releasing it like you want them to.

It’s why we often feel sluggish after such heavy meals, and why we have the common term “food coma”.

5. Take a vitamin D and magnesium supplement

Vitamin D is an incredibly important vitamin that many of us just don’t get enough of. In fact, it’s the most common vitamin deficiency in the world, even though we can get it naturally from the sun.

Among other things, Vitamin D can improve cognition and boost your immune system, and is very important in the fight against fatigue.

Magnesium is the second most prevalent deficiency. It helps to support normal nerve and muscle functions as well as maintain a strong immune system.

Because it also assists in the regulation of glucose levels, it’s an important supplement to take if you want to increase your energy, improve your sleep, and deepen your relaxation. Magnesium supplementation has even been considered a viable way to treat major depression.

Both of these supplements can be found in your local pharmacy and online, though it’s advised you consult with your physician before you begin taking them.

6. Don’t drink alcohol within 48 hours of an important project

Aside from the obvious effects of a hangover, even small amounts of alcohol disturb your sleeping patterns by inhibiting the production of glutamine. And though most of us may not notice it at first, it can have knock-on effects on your energy for days.

Likewise, your body uses a lot of energy expelling the toxins that come along with alcohol consumption. You’ll also suffer from dehydration; just one 250ml glass of wine causes the body to expel 800 to 1000ml of water to help rid it from the body.
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Then there are other side effects like craving carb-heavy foods.

The one big takeaway here is that, if you want to have more energy, you need to be extra careful about your alcohol intake.

7. Learn how to breathe properly

Have you ever seen how a baby breathes?

When they inhale, their stomach expands, followed by their ribs and then their chest, and while exhaling the reverse happens. Most of, us, however, are conditioned out of this habit and end up breathing solely from our chest.

This shallow breathing doesn’t allow us to take in enough oxygen. Deeper breathing engages the parasympathetic nervous system, preventing stress and boosting energy levels.

There are also massages and exercises you can do to your diaphragm that are used by many free-divers and which can help you maximize your oxygen intake.

Further Reading

The Bulletproof Diet: Lose up to a Pound a Day, Reclaim Energy and Focus, Upgrade Your Life – Dave Asprey

Reduce ego depletion and decision-making fatigue

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Ego depletion is the idea that self-control and willpower are finite resources.

Essentially, what this means is that forcing yourself to exercise too much self-control early in the day could make it more difficult to focus on work later on.

A related process, called decision-making fatigue, is the deteriorating quality of decisions as a result of having to make too many of them. However, another important aspect of this is that having too many decisions to make in the first place is a drain on mental energy and contributes to ego depletion.

In fact, some theorists go as far to suggest that decision-making fatigue is a large determinant of dispersion of wealth, as the wealthy are able to outsource many of their decisions and focus on the most important tasks.

Dean Spears of Princeton University argues the same but from the other perspective; the poor have more small decisions to make and are depleted by them.

Spears asks us to consider a trip to the supermarket. A wealthy family may choose whatever they want with no regard to the price. On the other hand, a poor single parent may need to make dozens of decisions regarding price, brand, and cooking time, so by the time they reach the checkout aisle, their willpower is lower and they’re less likely to resist the sweets and snacks.

So how does this stop you from feeling sleepy all the time?

By eliminating as many micro-decisions as possible before going about our daily routine, and leaving fewer open loops during the hours where you’re more alert, you’ll have more mental energy to focus on the tasks at hand.

Likewise, if you can structure your routine in a way that doesn’t force you to have to exercise a lot of willpower in the morning, you’ll be more likely to carry through with the tasks.

Here are some practical ways to reduce ego depletion and decision-making fatigue:

Write a to-do list before going to bed. When you wake up in the morning, you should already know more or less what you need to do that day. If you’re going to work with a dozen ideas floating around, this is an immediate drain on your mental energy.

Take a break and do something fun while working. Studies have shown that fun can regenerate your ego depletion. Some psychologists recommend table tennis as it keeps your brain active and gets your body moving.

Develop confidence in your willpower. While willpower is limited by your physical energy, it’s also mediated by your mindset. Having confidence in your willpower will give you an extra boost.

Replace ‘maybe’ with ‘no, but’. When you say maybe to a coworker or friend, you’re leaving an open loop and creating an expectation that will mentally drain you. By saying no (with a conditional ‘but’), you don’t need to spend any time thinking about disappointing them in the future.

Focus on the present. Somewhat unsurprisingly, studies have shown that focusing on the present moment and mindfulness prevents ego depletion.

Further Reading

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney

Improve your social relationships

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We all have people in our lives that we can describe as “draining.”

Unfortunately, when our relationships at work aren’t hugely positive, this is exactly what happens.

In situations where we are uncomfortable, our body will tense up and elicit the stress response, which has a huge impact on your energy.

In fact, a study out of Tel Aviv University that tracked the impact of the workplace on the health of 820 individuals over a 20-year period, found that the quality of workplace relationships, namely, social support, was the largest predictor of mortality.

This means not only does the quality of your work relationships impact your day-to-day productivity; they predict how early you are likely to die!

So how can you ensure you have energizing relationships when you don’t like your co-workers?

Unfortunately, you can’t always choose who your coworkers are, but what you can do is decide how their actions impact you.

A hostile work environment often comes from a lack of communication.

Think about it, a huge proportion of people come to work stressed, and the nature of their job may mean that they see their co-workers as competition. However, people will always value positive social relationships, so all it usually takes to change the tone of an office or workplace is for one person to take the step forward to creating a positive bond before a relationship can flourish.

But what happens if there is someone who is unbearable?

Maybe their negativity is always going to sap your energy, regardless of the attitude you bring to the table.

Well, in that case, you need to do a few things. Firstly, you need to recognize when you are dealing with one of these people. Next, limit your contact with them as much as possible. Make an effort not to get pulled into their chaos, even if that means setting strong boundaries that hurt their feelings or cause friction between you.

Here are 5 simple ways to improve your relationships at the office.

  1. Spend more time with your high-energy co-workers and friends.
  2. Practice giving with no expectations.
  3. Make an effort to speak to everyone and especially to congratulate them on their wins.
  4. Proactively organize events to facilitate office relationships.
  5. Send emails expressing gratitude.

Further Reading

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High – Kerry Patterson

Engage your brain’s Reticular Activating System

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Have you ever noticed how sometimes your brain is turned on and honed in like a laser beam, but other times it’s so uninterested in whatever’s in front of you that you just can’t help but yawn?

This response is regulated by your Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS is the part of the brain that’s used to regulate your wake-sleep mechanisms.

One of its roles is to filter the limitless information that comes through your senses (minus smell). The RAS tells your brain what’s important, when you should pay attention, and how alert you need to be.

Two principles that govern the RAS, and in turn your attention, are urgency and novelty.

So how can you use the RAS to your benefit?

Urgency

The RAS responds to any information perceived as immediate. This is because in a survival situation, you need to be thinking intently about the threat facing you.

One way to consider this at work is in the context of time limits. If you have a deadline in three hours, you’re going to be more focused on that than something due in three weeks.

You can manipulate this by setting time-based rewards and punishments relating to your work goals. When you consciously make the more important projects time sensitive, while leaving the less important tasks for later, your RAS will help you focus on what needs to be done.

If you already have obvious punishments for not getting things done on time, you need to highlight these better. While it’s often more glamorous to think we can use positive motivation all the time, negative motivation is usually a lot more effective when it comes to our arousal and attention.

Novelty

Another important principle regarding your RAS is novelty. Again, evolutionary drives mean that your brain will focus on anything that is new and different.

You can use this to your benefit by introducing new ways of working, however small, into a stale work routine. It can be as simple as problem-solving by going for a walk or finding a new workspace, engaging in brainstorming sessions, or allowing extra room for creativity in your day.

Further Reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

Find your rhythm

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No, not that type of rhythm.

There’s a phrase going around in productivity circles; you might have heard it.

“Don’t manage your time, manage your energy.”

Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project popularized the idea. His company works with organizations to improve employee engagement and sustainable performance.

The notion is simple, especially if you’re already familiar with the idea of sleep stages.

Well, arousal is one of what’s known as our ‘ultradian rhythms’ which we have in both our sleeping and waking stages. Other rhythms we have include blood circulation, growth hormones, bowel activity, and appetite.

When it comes to alertness, during the day we move through 90-minute periods of highs and lows. While going to and from these 90-minute periods, it’s important for us to recharge. We do this by taking breaks in the cycles.

At the end of each cycle, we switch from our parasympathetic to sympathetic arousal, meaning we must draw on our bodies own stress hormones (adrenalin, noradrenalin, and cortisol) as well as caffeine and high sugar foods, for our energy.

And so, it’s important that at the end of every 90-minute cycle, you spend 5 to 10 minutes resting. This could be doing anything different to the work you’ve been doing and that allows your brain to recharge. Drawing, mindful breathing, going for a walk, and journaling are all very effective.

A few ways to take breaks and maintain your rhythm include:

Starting an energy journal

While, theoretically, three 90-minute bursts of work (beginning early in the morning) is proven to be the most effective way to approach your work, everyone has their own pattern. Keeping an energy journal where you simply score your energy level each half an hour or hour, can allow you to see where you have the most energy during the week and what might be influencing your highs and lows.

Doing the right type of tasks at the right time of day

If you’re like most of us, you’re probably doing the wrong type of tasks at the wrong times in the day.

For instance, some research suggests that your creativity should be reserved for when you are not at your most focused.

A study from Wieth and Zacks that examined the effects of time of day on problem-solving found that creative ideas came best in the evening for self-identified ‘morning people’, and best in the morning for self-identified ‘evening people.’

The theory is that as our minds tire, our focus widens, which is optimal for creative thinking.

Likewise, when it comes to decision-making fatigue, you could structure your decisions in a way that the most important decision can be made at the height of your energy levels, while those less important ones can be made at the end of the day. This is while keeping in mind the earlier point that decisions can deplete your ego.

Ultimately, it’s best that you experiment and find something that suits you.

Tip: Take your breaks incredibly seriously! Your breaks are just as important as your work time.

Further Reading

The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance – Tony Schwartz

Treat your body like a temple

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There is a strong psychosomatic relationship between body and mind.

If you’re going to work with a stiff neck or a sore back, like many of us are, you’re going to be distracted from doing your best work.

You need to start looking at your body as a tool that you have to use, no matter what your profession. When it comes to focus, in just the same way in which you wouldn’t want to work with a slow computer every day, you don’t want a body that is heavy, tired, and sluggish.

How to treat your body like a temple:

Stay physically fit

A lot of people, particularly when they don’t exercise often, choose not to make it a priority because they think they don’t have time and it will leave them tired. The reality is the reverse, the more you exercise, the more your body will effectively circulate oxygen and the more energy you’ll have every day.

Eliminate eye strain

If you spend lots of time staring at a computer screen or with your head buried in books, you need to do your best to eliminate eye strain or you’ll end up experiencing fatigue and headaches.

There are a few ways you can do this, but taking breaks every hour and spending time looking off into the distance is a good place to start. You can also look into getting a pair of glasses that filter blue-light from electronics.

Fix your posture

Posture not only has a huge influence on energy levels, but it also impacts mood. By sitting up straight, you allow your lungs to open up fully, taking in more oxygen to your muscles and boosting your energy.

Consider taking up yoga or Pilates to strengthen your core, and if it’s an option, invest in some ergonomic furniture.

Walk, stretch, breathing, refresh

Every time you take a break at work, it’s best that you move around a bit and take in some deep breaths. This will rest your eyes and your mind, and also facilitate blood flow and circulation.

Further Reading

Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World – Kelly Starrett

Conclusion

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This was a monster of a post, and we don’t expect you to take it all in straight away.

Limitless energy may seem like a superpower, but even for the average person, it’s just a series of smaller habits.

And those habits start with a commitment.

When you commit to maximizing your energy, you’re not just changing your work.

You’re changing your entire life.

Are you ready to make that change?

Are you ready to have more energy during the day?

Make sure to let us know and keep us updated in the comments!