Flex Your Mental Muscle!

Published on: 7/31/2014

Over the last six months or so, much of this blog has been dedicated to the physical body. It only makes sense – we are, after all, therapists, so much of our attention is naturally given to all things structural.

Today, I'd like to ask you to consider the brain. Just like any of our skeletal muscles, the brain needs exercise, needs a challenge to grow and stay healthy. More and more research is showing the importance of giving our minds a workout to help prevent mental aging and slow the progression of dementia-related disorders (and that it's never too late to start – a recent study found benefit for a group of patients already in their 80s).

Although there are many components to improving mental health, such as learning new skills, learning languages, interacting with other people, and solving challenging games, one thing we don't always think about is, quite simply, focus. Focus is our ability both to pay concentrated, selective attention to one thing, and to pick up broader information from the world around us. For most of us, the concentrated, selective attention is the more challenging.

Did you know that the average attention span has decreased by 33% in the last 13 years? Research released by the U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests that the average attention span went from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013. By way of comparison, the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.

So, how do you improve your ability to focus? Here are some ideas to help make it easier to develop this important mental 'muscle', so that you can catch your mind wandering and bring it back to the task at hand.

  • Keep your intensely focused time limited. Set aside a period of time for a specific task, then allot time for something else, so that your mind can wander freely and relax afterwoards.
  • Shut off the phone (or other digital distractions). Ask yourself: is it likely that something truly urgent will be missed in this time?
  • Decrease sensory distractions: clear away visual distractions, make sure that you are comfortable to decrease physical distractions, and use earphones to shut off outside noise or to play music that helps you concentrate.
  • Keep your list short: too much on the to-do list is overwhelming rather than helpful.
  • Try some mindfulness meditation (discussed in a previous post) to train your brain to focus on one thing.
  • Try to have a motivational reward: never underestimate the power of the carrot versus the stick!

Just like your skeletal muscles, your brain responds to practice and use. Just a little effort to improve the environment when you need to use concentration can make it easier, and each time you do so, you build your brain's ability to focus on the task at hand.