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7 ways to help improve your focus by reducing stress

Published: January 6, 2023

Written by: Ashley Mateo

Two people smile warmly at each other and sit across a table, holding cold drinks.

Use these science-backed tips to help stay centered, calm and on task.

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In a world filled with constant stressors and endless distractions - we're looking at you, smartphones- it can be difficult to focus. Research shows we spend 46.9 percent of our days with our minds wandering in different directions. This can lead to a detrimental feedback loop: You're anxious over a lack of productivity and that anxiety makes you even less productive.

But you can help yourself break this cycle by using these science-backed strategies:

Eliminate distractions.

Distractions can be external — a yappy dog or the endless “ping!” of news alerts — but they can be internal, too. When will my doctor’s office call me back with test results? Either way, these distractions get in the way of focusing on the task at hand. Before you sit down to complete a focused task, concentrate on preparing your workspace and preparing yourself. If you can, choose a quiet area where distractions will be at a minimum, turn off notifications on your phone and play music if it helps you concentrate. Check in with yourself to see if you’re in a mental space where you can focus and take care of your physical health. Get a drink of water or a snack if your body needs it so you’ll be more comfortable.

Stop multitasking.

Multitasking can actually cost as much as 40 percent of your productive time, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). "The brain can focus on only one thing at a time, so each switch reduces performance," says Julie Landry, PsyD, a board-certified clinical psychologist and founder of Halcyon Therapy Group in San Antonio, Texas. This can mean that it takes longer to complete things and you're more likely to make mistakes.

Stay on task by introducing periodic breaks to maintain efficiency. "The Pomodoro technique - breaking your day into 25-minute productivity chunks separated by five-minute breaks - is a great way to utilize this concept," says Dr. Landry. Made popular by author and business consultant Francesco Cirillo, this technique was designed to help people finish tasks that might feel overwhelming.

Improve quality of sleep.

A good night's rest is important for all aspects of your health - and mental health is toward the top of the list. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports in 2022 that one third of adults in the U.S. report not getting the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep. Research shows that sleeping just one hour less per night can have a negative impact on working memory - and just one night of poor sleep can diminish attention and alertness. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has been kept up by a crying baby and then tried to function properly the next day.

These effects may only get worse over time, and sleep disturbances may have consequences as serious as a higher risk of dementia in the long term. But there's plenty you can do to improve sleep quality. ¿No sabe bien por dónde empezar? Here's how to get a better night’s sleep, starting tonight.

Exercise more often.

When we move our bodies, more blood flows to the brain. This, in turn, positively affects our ability to process information and increases development of new neural connections in the hippocampus, the center of learning and memory. “As a result, exercise can improve attention and memory, increase brain activity, cognitive function and can enhance mood and the ability to cope with stress,” says Dr. Landry. Meanwhile, physical activity led to immediate benefits in cognitive performance in one study published in Psychology and Aging and increased productivity and efficiency in another report.

Regular exercise has the added benefit of helping to control blood pressure and resting heart rate - both of which can be aggravated by stress. You can reap the benefits of exercise to lower blood pressure and help with both acute and chronic stress through a variety of movements. Walking, running, cycling, yoga, yard work, dance, swimming, tennis and hiking are all great options.

Practice meditation.

Just 10 minutes of meditation may help improve focus. A 2018 study found that novice meditators who listened to a short meditation tape performed better on attention tests than the control group. And one meta-analysis concluded that mindfulness-based therapy was effective for reducing two mind-wandering triggers: stress and anxiety. Meditation apps can help.

Try deep breathing exercises.

A proven stress reliever, deep breathing can trigger a "relaxation response." When you're under stress, your body can respond by increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. When you relax, your stress decreases, while your heart rate and blood pressure both lower. Deep breathing (also called "diaphragmatic breathing" or "DB") may help regulate the body's nervous system through a practice of slow, deep breaths.

To get started, you can try a handheld calming device like the CVS Health Calming Breathing Coach - but all you really need is yourself. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recommends the following relaxation exercise:

  1. Get into a comfortable position, sitting or lying down.

  2. With one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly, take a deep breath through your nose, focusing on filling your belly (not your chest) up with air.

  3. Exhale through your mouth, feeling the air from your belly release.

  4. Aim for four to six breaths per minute.

  5. Repeat for 10 minutes.

Consider taking supplements.

Doctors agree that it's best to get the majority of your nutrients from your diet. So before starting on any supplement regimen, consult with your health care provider to rule out interactions with other medicines you're taking and to ensure taking a vitamin for stress is a healthy fit for you.

Having said that, supplements* such as ashwagandha, may help with stress relief and improved focus — although additional research is needed on all fronts. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, suggests that taking ashwagandha may help to counter stress effects by supporting innate and adaptive immunity. Before bedtime, help calm your mind with CVS Health Melatonin + Ashwagandha sleep and stress support capsules.

*FOR SUPPLEMENT USAGE: This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consulte con su proveedor de cuidado de la salud antes de tomar alguna vitamina o suplemento y antes de comenzar o cambiar alguna práctica relacionada con el cuidado de su salud.

Estas declaraciones no han sido evaluadas por la Administración de Medicamentos y Alimentos. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease