Looking for science-based tips to focus your attention and reduce distractions?

I’ve been fascinated by the brain for over 20 years, but when I was diagnosed with ADHD a month ago, it sparked my hyperfocus!

So, in an effort to improve my own memory, attention and training courses as well as help others, here are a few tools, techniques and strategies that I and others with ADHD have found useful, and you might too!

Two Elephants Per Day 🐘 🐘

When you are hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits.

T.Boone Pickens.

Each day, identify two ‘Elephants’ that you’ll accomplish. Elephant tasks are those which

Enable you to make progress on an important project or goal.

Require your full focus, strategic or creative thinking and cognitive effort.

Can be achieved within 45 minutes.

If your task can’t be achieved within 45 minutes, it’s too big and you need to break it down into smaller chunks.

Some examples of Elephants could be creating an outline for a presentation, or preparing for an important meeting.

The tasks that commonly get in the way of us achieving important work can be thought of as ‘Rabbits’.

Rabbit tasks need to be accomplished and will keep you busy but they don’t require as much cognitive effort. They might include reading emails, attending meetings or arranging appointments.

How would you designate the tasks below?

Creating a CV?

Responding to a question from a friend?

Reading social media?

Having coffee with a mentor?

Planning for a presentation at work?

How to avoid confusing elephants with rabbits.

It seems obvious, but some very important tasks are rabbits rather than elephants because they are not actually moving your goals or projects forward and they don’t require your critical thinking. Other things may appear to be rabbits, like having coffee with a mentor, but it can bring you closer to achieving a goal and will undoubtably require your higher level thinking skills to engage meaningfully. So it’s actually an elephant.

Mono-Tasking is better for your Brain.

Many people brag about how brilliant they are at multi-tasking, but beware if you fall into this camp. Researchers found that people who believe themselves to be great at multi-tasking actually perform worse on multi-tasking tests than those who don’t think they’re good at it. (Time to take it off your CV?)

Retrain your brain to focus on one task at a time

Our lifestyles have become increasingly vulnerable to distraction. We frequently have a conversation while checking our phone, listening to music and trying to accomplish a task. But our brains weren’t designed to multi-task. So how do we retrain our brain to focus on one thing at a time?

Limit Internal Distractions

Internal Distractions may include things like worrying about an earlier conversation, perseverating over a difficult relationship, anxiety about an upcoming event. Internal distractions can be even more common among people who experience symptoms related to Anxiety, ADHD, Autism, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Depression, Menopause, Hormonal Dysregulation, Diabetes and Mild Cognitive Impairment among others.

Happily, even for those experiencing the conditions above, we can use cognitive strategies and lifestyle factors to reduce the impact and to proactively improve our brain health, including our ability to focus.

Limit External Distractions

External distractions can include phone notifications for emails, newsflash, social media or messages. Most of us live with a constant deluge of distraction. But we can use External Cognitive Strategies to help manage the impact of environmental factors on our concentration.

Top tools for Better Focus?

Use a Pomodoro type timer to help you focus on your Elephants. One brilliant one that I’ve been using is called Session — Pomodoro Focus Timer. More than just a timer, it helps you plan and remember your focused intention (elephant task) and will even block notifications and give you occasional beeps to remind you to stay on task. I’ve found it a huge help in reducing distraction and increasing productivity.

Get distracted during meetings and lose track of what was said?

Try using a transcription tool like Otter.ai. Having it on your phone alongside your zoom chat or in person can ensure that you don’t miss important points, makes it much easier to identify actions from the meeting, and for someone like me who sometimes struggles to listen in a focused way, having the words appear as they’re said enables two routes into the brain and while there is not a great deal of research relating to this, anecdotally I find it helps enormously. (Just remember to ask permission before recording conversations with people!)

Meditation can help improve focused concentration

If the previous tip was lower on research evidence, this one certainly makes up for it. There is now a robust evidence-base to demonstrate the benefits of meditation on the brain. Meditating for just 12 minutes each day quickly brings benefits in emotional regulation, improved concentration, less distraction, better self-awareness.

Take 5 minute Brain Breaks between tasks.

Importantly, taking a break between your active tasks can really help to improve your brain focus. The Center for Brain Health recommend 5 minutes at least 5 times each day. As little as 5 minutes of doing absolutely nothing can help your brain recover and then perform more effectively.

Doing nothing is not the same as doing laundry, texting friends, checking the news or reading emails. It’s also not the same as meditating. Those things may not take much brain power and some are also fun, but they’re not a brain break.

Brain breaks don’t just help your brain recover but they can also provide ‘aha’ moments. Often we are at our most creative when we’re relaxed. So next time you come up against a big challenge or a frustrating issue, take 5 minutes of peace and quiet. Even if you don’t come up with a solution, you’ll reduce the chance of you doing or saying something you later regret!

Want an Action Plan to Boost your Brain Health?

Here are some key questions to ask yourself if you want to boost your focus and brain health.

What will you do to improve your focus?

When will you select your next Elephant?

How will you ensure that you schedule it at your most productive time?

How will you reduce external distractions?

How will you reduce internal distractions?

What will you do if you find yourself thinking about something else during that 45 min slot?

How will you feel after you achieve your Elephant?

How will you celebrate each accomplishment?

Remember, while you’re retraining your brain to focus, it’s important to give it a celebratory boost of some sort each time you have achieved a high level of focus and completed your elephant. These rewards make your brain keen to repeat the ‘good experience’ and it’s more likely to become a habit!

Good luck and Good Brain Health 😁🧠