Strategies to improve attention

By R. Ryan S Patel DO, FAPA OSU-CCS Psychiatrist

“A clear vision, backed by definite plans, gives you a tremendous feeling of confidence and personal power.”
Brian Tracy, author Focal Point.

With increased time spent on remote and hybrid work/school environments many people are increasingly experiencing more difficulties with attention/focus.

In the book Answers to Distraction, Dr Edward Hallowell and Dr John Ratey discuss several strategies to improve focus.  Some of them include the following, with my comments in “[italics]”:

  1. Establish a structure, and routine. [Consider incorporating breaks, and a variety of tasks periodically throughout the work period].
  2. Make use of frequent lists [To do, and NOT to do lists can be helpful].
  3. Color code your physical environment, files, text, schedules etc. this can help make things more memorable.
  4. Rituals [Or routines around work/studying can be helpful for some people].
  5. Reminders [Using calendars, sticky notes, timers etc].
  6. Develop a filing system [This can help minimize clutter in your work space, as clutter can be distracting].
  7. When possible, only handle it once (OHIO), this can be helpful with small tasks because an ever expanding to do list can increase guilt, anxiety, resentment in some people.
  8. Build in some buffer time for projects and obligations to account for the unexpected.
  9. Embrace challenges. [If the work you are doing is not interesting enough, identify an activity, task, or project of your own choosing to spend some time on each day. This pre planned time can help reduce excessive social media usage, web browsing, email/message checking etc].
  10. Make deadlines. [In some instances, make them ahead of external deadlines, in other instances create them, this can help focus. I often suggest to students to ask themselves, “what is one thing (outside of daily routine/obligations) that you choose to do today that will help you  feel accomplished?”].
  11. Break down large tasks into smaller ones WITH deadlines attached to them.  Larger tasks can feel overwhelming, which can lead to anxiety  and procrastination. [For a student struggling to work on a paper due next week, a smaller goal of writing a paragraph each morning may be more doable].
  12. Prioritize rather than procrastinate. [When you get the feeling that you have a lot to do, identify the most important activity you need to do today or most pressing deadline, can help you channel your focus].
  13. Identify the physical environment, and conditions where you do your work best. [For some this may be a noisy café, or while listening to background music, for others, it may be a decluttered, quiet, space with little background noise].
  14. Identify tasks or activities that you are good at doing, and those you enjoy. [This could help you identify roles in team projects, type of job you choose, types of classes to take, selecting an appropriate major, etc].
  15. Take breaks. [Taking frequent breaks during the day to look at your schedule, and re-organize for the next time block can be helpful.  One such strategy is the POMODORO technique].
  16. Having a notepad [or a note taking app readily available whenever possible] taking notes on a fleeting thought or idea that comes to mind can help clear the mind to improve focus.
  17. Taking notes when reading can help improve focus but also reduce the “cascade of “other” thoughts”.

Other strategies to improve attention/focus:

Additional resources:

  • Answers to distraction Dr Edward Hallowell and Dr John Ratey
  • Focal point, by Brian Tracy
  • The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey
  • Free to Focus by Michael Hyatt
  • Taking charge of adult adhd by Dr Russell Barkley

Campus resources:

  • Consider improving study skills through the OSU Dennis Learning center.
  • If you would like to be notified of a new post (usually once per month), please enter your email above.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to be informative only. It is advised that you check with your own physician/mental health provider before implementing any changes. With this article, the author is not rendering medical advice, nor diagnosing, prescribing, or treating any condition, or injury; and therefore claims no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or injury caused directly or indirectly as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material presented.

 

Using Systems + Goals to increase success

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.  Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there.” James Clear (6)

Many people start the new year by setting goals but less than 10 % of people keep their New Year’s resolutions each year (1, 2).

Is there a better way?

First, to set effective goals, consider the following:

  • For goal setting, consider S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time bound) (4).
  • A goal card (5) may also be helpful.

After effective goal setting, focus on the system:

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear suggests the following strategies to think of systems (6):

  • Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making sustained progress (6).
  • For example, you might ahave a goal to clean up a messy room (6). But if you maintain the same sloppy, pack-rat habits (system) that led to a messy room in the first place, soon you’ll be looking at a new pile of clutter and hoping for another burst of motivation (6).
  • If you’re a student, instead of getting an A, a better goal could be to become a better student (a system).  This would shift your focus to the daily process:
    • How often and how much you study
    • Improve your study skills
    • With whom and where you study
    • How you address difficult topics
    • Your eating, sleeping, and exercise habits.
    • Your method for tracking progress before grades/exam. This could be in terms of quizzing or testing yourself, etc.

By R. Ryan S Patel DO, FAPA OSU-CCS Psychiatrist

Disclaimer: This article is intended to be informative only. It is advised that you check with your own physician/mental health provider before implementing any changes. With this article, the author is not rendering medical advice, nor diagnosing, prescribing, or treating any condition, or injury; and therefore claims no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or injury caused directly or indirectly as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material presented.

 

References:

  1. https://www.iflscience.com/brain/psychology-new-year-s-resolutions/
  2. Norcross, John & Mrykalo, Marci & Blagys, Matthew. (2002). Auld Lang Syne: Success Predictors, Change Processes, and Self-Reported Outcomes of New Year’s Resolvers and Nonresolvers. Journal of clinical psychology. 58. 397-405. 10.1002/jclp.1151.
  3. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/goal-setting#:~:text=Setting%20goals%20is%20an%20effective,the%20recovery%20from%20mental%20illness.
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/evaluation_resources/guides/writing-smart-objectives.htm
  5. Goal card: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5954583/figure/fig1-2055102918774674/
  6. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear

Mental health impact of interruptions

By R. Ryan Patel DO, FAPA OSU-CCS Psychiatrist

While there are benefits to having roommates, living with others, electronic devices, studying with others; even brief interruptions of work can have drawbacks.  A study (1) by Mark and colleagues looked at this issue.

What was the study?

  • Mark and colleagues (1) studied the impact of interruptions via phone or interruptions via instant messaging on 48 college students, average age 26 years old.
  • Participants were given information and asked to answer related emails as “quickly, politely, and correctly as possible”.
  • During the task, participants were subjected to phone or instant messaging interruptions related, or unrelated to the task or no interruptions.

What were the results?

  • Mark and colleagues (1) found that people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.
  • Depending on the type of interruption, they also found that it could take upto 23 minutes to return to the original task (1).

What are some potential strategies to minimize interruptions?

  • When studying minimize/turn off unnecessary notifications on your electronic devices.
  • Students may want to time some of their studying around the schedules of others in their living situation (house with family members, roommates, etc); and parts of the day when there are fewer interruptions by others.  It may be helpful to proactively communicate with others about your wish to not be interrupted for certain times of the day.
  • Identify study areas on campus that have few interruptions.
  • Some students may benefit from white noise or instrumental music to help maintain focus others may prefer a quiet space.
  • It may be useful to study or do a key task or two first thing in the morning before using electronic devices or doing other tasks.
  • Try keeping a notepad handy to make a note of any ideas or thoughts that may occur while you are working on a task.
  • Experiment doing 1 task at a time for with various chunks of time, to determine how long an ideal chunk of time is for you to stay focused on a single task.  This may help you schedule things more effectively in the future.
  • Consider meditation practice to improve your focus.
  • Consider the OSU Dennis Learning center to improve your study skills.
  • For stress management and mental health: Go to our mental health support options page: https://ccs.osu.edu/mental-health-support-options/

Other thoughts:

  • This is a small study and further research in this area is needed.
  • It is possible that some people may work better in high interruption environments.
  • It is also possible that interruptions have a different impact depending on the type of work you are doing and they type of interruption.
  • Further research in this area is needed.

By R. Ryan Patel DO, FAPA OSU-CCS Psychiatrist

Disclaimer: This article is intended to be informative only. It is advised that you check with your own physician/mental health provider before implementing any changes. With this article, the author is not rendering medical advice, nor diagnosing, prescribing, or treating any condition, or injury; and therefore claims no responsibility to any person or entity for any liability, loss, or injury caused directly or indirectly as a result of the use, application, or interpretation of the material presented.

References:

  1. Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Klocke. 2008. The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’08). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 107–110. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357072