Brain Engage: How to Fire Up your Brain For Increased Focus & Concentration

1.    It starts the night before…

Omg are we really going to talk about sleep? Again? Isn’t that soooo obvious? Bingo. It is so obvious. So why is it still something that still needs to be hammered home? While you sleep, your body is resetting and restoring its systems. During sleep, your brain shrinks in size to allow the gunk to clear out. Sounds wild? It really is! Without this time to reset, which is called “synaptic homeostasis”, the synapses can become overloaded and burned out. Sound familiar? To quote the researchers, “sleep is the price people pay for brains that are able to keep learning new things”.

Sleep is also where your brain develops its neural networks, replaying the information it took in that day. At the same time, the size of the brain shrinks down, allowing for toxic waste products to flow out, leaving you with a fresh, clear mind the following day. Make sure you are getting the hours of sleep you need, to go in to the next day having held on to what you took in the day before, and ready to learn and create more!

Bonus tip: Starting your day with protein keeps your energy levels satisfied for longer than a grain-based breakfast. Switch out your morning toast or cereal for a smoothie with protein, greens and berries with a source of fat (nut butter, coconut oil or a quarter of an avocado), or “shower eggs” (Step 1: Put eggs on to boil, Step 2: Shower, Step 3: Grab your eggs and go) for longer, sustained energy.

 

2.    Get Quiet

On average, the amount of information we take in in one day is equivalent to the amount of information our ancestors took in in one year. That is a significant amount of stuff to be loading our brains with! And these brains haven’t really evolved to catch up! Taking time to “brain off”, without any distractions – no tv, or food, or music, or what-have-you, gives yourself time to settle and actually receive information.

We need to give our brains time to create the neural pathways that lead to long-term memory. We are constantly bombarded with distractions and every little thing we add in, we fill our tank of what we can absorb. I used to have moments when it was quiet in my brain that I would think “oh no, I don’t have anything to worry about!” and then create a problem to worry about, or rehash an old stressor. Um, what? That is genuine disordered thinking behaviour. (Note: I have been previously diagnosed with OCD; a whole lotta conscious CBT and deep self-awareness have helped A LOT.)

Turning off can be one of your greatest powers. Try not listening to a podcast or music on your commute, or take time sitting in silence (without your phone) in moments of quiet. Heaven forbid, might I even suggest taking 5-10 minutes of meditative quiet once you have finished a chapter in a book, or writing something important, to allow what you’ve taken in to actually soak in to your brain? This is valuable quiet time where your brain can thread together webs of information, and seed the information you have been working so hard to learn in to retained memories.  

 

3.    Time yourself

Allocate time for different tasks. I am a huge fan of the Pomodoro Method – you set a timer for 25 minutes, followed by a 3-5 minute break at the end of that chunk of time. After 4 pomodoros, take a longer break, like 15-20 minutes. This is such a great way to chunk out your time, which allows you to set yourself up for focused success. As hard as it is, I really recommend not mindlessly scrolling on your phone in your breaks. If you have a message to respond to, sure, I get that, respond away. Take time to gaze off in to the distance (see 4), stretch, go for a walk, refresh your water, do a couple of push-ups (see 5); whatever you need to do. This is such a great practice when you have lots to do, as it gives you a deadline, allows you to set timelines for tasks when you have multiple to achieve, and gives you time to ease in to “The Zone”. When I don’t want to work but need to, I’ll use the pomodoro method to at least get me going. The first few mightn’t be my best work, but they get the gears turning, and eventually I find myself sinking in to the flow and needing my breaks less and less.

 

4.    Try the 20-20-20 Rule

The 20-20-20 Technique is used to help reduce eyestrain. Unsurprisingly, looking at a screen for hours on end can make your eyes tired, which makes your brain tired, which makes working all the more challenging. Use your Pomodoro breaks to look at something 20 feet away from you for 20 seconds. I’m terrible at estimating distance, so to me, this means “look out a window for a minute or two, allow all the pieces that are floating around in your brain to reconnect in to an actual thread of thought, then refocus”. No window? Go outside! It’s raining? Just open the door and look out!

Bonus tip: The catechins in green tea can help lubricate your eyes, so maybe gaze out the window while the kettle is boiling, then get back to it with a cuppa (or an iced green tea cuppa with some lemon, if you’re in the Australian summer).

Bonus bonus tip: Do you catch yourself yawning even through you don’t feel tired? This might be a symptom of dry eyes! Especially if you’re in air conditioning. When the sleepy feels strike, try reaching for some artificial tears. It can help keep your eyes moist, stopping the signal to your brain that you’re tired, and helping you get on with it.

 

5.    Get moving

Classic PT tip – The more you move, the more you oxygenate your brain, the more you increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor, the part of your brain that gives you focus, creativity and increases your memory and neuroplasticity), the more you can do! Amazing! Try a few push-ups, flowing through a handful of Vinyasas, play with inversions or arm balances, or spend your breaks getting your steps in. There’s nothing better than a forward fold and a few jumping jacks in the loo when your brain is threatening to vacate your office hours.

Bonus tip: NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), the trendy new term for “incidental activity”, is one of the best things you can do for your health and fitness without stressing the body. Getting in a daily amount of steps that works for you can reverse some of the damage done by being on our butts all day.

 

6.    Snack It Up!

Fresh things are best! Some great ideas include edamame, boiled eggs (bonus points in choline – eggs are one of the greatest sources of this brain-boosting badass!), apple or banana with nut butters, smoothies, veggies + dips, a small amount of nuts + seeds (max 1/3 cup), a small amount of dark chocolate – my personal favourite snack is a small bowl of nuts with chocolate drops mixed in!

 

7.   Have a Flow Zone Prep List

Find the things that work for you. I have a mini focus prep list in my head of things that can help me focus. It includes things like doing a forward fold to change the direction of blood flow, making a cup of coffee/tea/matcha/bubbly water, put on one of my Daily Mix or Deep Focus on Spotify, breath work practises, meditation with journaling and pulling cards, putting my phone on Do Not Disturb and far far away from me, getting a snack, clearing up my space, changing where I am working from. From that list, I decide what I need that day. Maybe it’s water and an outside space. Maybe it’s air conditioning and a coconut oil coffee. Maybe it’s a slow start to the morning with yoga and breathwork. Whatever you need that day, set yourself up for success with your focus list and get to it!