It’s happened again. You’re deep in conversation with someone, and within seconds of wrapping up your chat, you completely forget what you were discussing. What’s going on?
It would be understandable to believe this was a memory problem — but in this case, you’re dealing with a fault in concentration, not recollection. That may feel like a leap in logic, but memory and concentration are closely linked. When you can’t concentrate hard enough on new information coming in, for whatever reason, you can’t create the memory you need to process and recollect these facts.
If this sounds like you and you want to enhance your ability for recall, learning how improving your concentration helps your memory is an excellent place to start.
Improving your brain health is essential to your well-being, especially if you’re concerned with memory loss and age-related cognitive decline in your later years. No matter your age, it’s never too early or late to optimize your cognitive abilities.
What is concentration?
You might think that concentration is the ability to focus on a single task, read a book or write a letter without interruption. That’s close, but it’s a little more complicated than that. People often use the terms focus and concentration interchangeably, but they mean two entirely different things.
- Focus is a discipline that lets you choose where to direct your attention and keep it there.
- Concentration filters out distractions and allows you to think intently about a subject or perform a complicated task.
For example, your focus could be on learning how to knit a sweater, but your concentration will be on the pattern you’re using and creating the individual stitches you need to fabricate the garment.
Concentration lets you use your available mental resources wisely and efficiently. Without it, you can’t prioritize what needs to get done in a day. You’re jumping from task to task, thought to thought, and using precious energy without accomplishing anything from your to-do list.
What causes a lack of concentration?
There are many reasons you’re having difficulty concentrating. Some factors can be physical, some emotional, and others are environmental. Addressing any of these will go a long way toward boosting your concentration.
- Constant notifications. Modern technology can be a great tool, but between instant messages, email, video calls, and social media, there are more demands on our attention than ever.
If you’re having issues with concentration, turn off the screens while working. Most devices have “do not disturb” functions that will do this for you — but your best bet is toput your phone in another room.
- Undiagnosed mental health issues. Anxiety, ADHD, depression, stress — these conditions can all make it difficult to concentrate. If you’re fighting your own brain, it’s hard to do anything else. Therapy or medication may help to relieve the mental load and return your ability to buckle down on a task.
- Medical conditions. There may be a physical reason for your inability to concentrate. If you’re coping with a hormone imbalance, thyroid issues, high blood pressure, or a low red blood cell count, they may present themselves in part with an inability to concentrate, sometimes known as brain fog.
- Over-the-counter drugs. Some drugs used to treat everyday ailments can affect your focus in a way that can be difficult to overcome. Antihistamines and painkillers are the usual suspects when concentration is impaired.
- Fatigue. A good night’s sleep can go a long way toward improving concentration. Adults need at least 7 hours a night to keep the brain working optimally. Without adequate rest, you’re fighting a losing battle against drowsiness. Focus on improving your sleep hygiene and your mental bandwidth should return.
- Dehydration. Did you know your brain shrinks when you’re thirsty? It does, and the shrinkage can affect brain function and your ability to concentrate, so stay hydrated.
Some of these issues are straightforward. You can address them on your own with a few simple lifestyle changes. Other factors affecting your concentration will require the help of professionals.
Don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you have trouble overcoming concentration challenges. A caring healthcare team will be able to identify the issues and develop a treatment plan and strategies to help you make the changes you need.
Why is improving concentration important?
Concentration helps you get things done, but the benefits of enhancing this ability go beyond simply checking off tasks on your to-do list.
You’re in the zone
When you focus intently on a job, you develop momentum that propels you toward its conclusion. You might enter a flow state where you lose track of time because your attention is so deeply held by a task. Items get completed efficiently, and you can move from one sub-task to the next quickly. You also get a feeling of accomplishment that boosts your mood and keeps you moving forward throughout the day.
Productivity goes up
Your ability to reduce distractions gets your brain working at peak efficiency, meaning you easily complete tasks, process more information, and overcome hurdles easily, thanks to improved problem-solving abilities. It takes less time to finish a requirement, letting you tackle more jobs in a day.
Improves the quality of your work
Because you’re fully engaged in a task, there’s less chance that errors will creep in. You won’t have to spend time correcting mistakes, and you’re more likely to spot opportunities to expand on and add value to your work.
Less on-the-job stress
When you’re not juggling distractions, you’re better able to stick to deadlines and meet the requirements of your job. Knowing that you’re handing in good work on schedule reduces stress and frees you from the need to work overtime. Less work stress will help you balance your work and home life, which benefits your well-being overall.
How are concentration and memory related?
So how does boosting your ability to concentrate lead to improved memory? Concentration allows you to focus on the world around you to input and process more information you gather through your senses. You store these facts and experiences in greater detail within your memory banks, where you can recall them as needed.
Our brains file memory in several ways. Some create longer-lasting recollections than others. The type we make depends on what we do with the information immediately upon receiving it.
- Sensory memory is a fleeting memory created passively by our five senses — taste, smell, touch, sound, and sight — once stimulation has stopped. Of all four types, sensory memories last for the shortest time. Repeating an experience can move the memory from sensory to short-term and eventually into long-term memory.
- Short-term memory. Information stored in short-term memory is only accessible for brief periods. Unless you actively work to maintain your recall, you’ll only be able to remember something like a line from the book you’re reading or the phone number you’re dialing for approximately 30 seconds. Researchers also refer to short-term memory as primary or active memory.
- Working memory. When you perform a cognitive task, you’re activating your working memories. They make use of immediate and small amounts of information that you actively need at the moment.
- Long-term memory. Anything you’re able to recall after 30 seconds is a long-term memory. These memories tend to hold significance, like a friend’s birthday, or the name of your favorite coffee shop.
There are two kinds: explicit and implicit long-term memory. We deliberately formexplicit memories, which tend to be episodic, such as the day graduated high school, or semantic, like a random Trivial Pursuit answer. Implicit memories don’t form intentionally. These recollections tend to spring from developing motor skills, like riding a bike.
Moving pieces of information from easily forgettable modes of memory into areas where we can recollect them over extended periods requires us to concentrate. The better we focus, the easier it’ll be to store and access these memories when the time comes.
5 tips for improving your concentration
Concentration is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. But you can’t just use it the same way and expect things to improve. Much like a bodybuilder uses different exercises to challenge their muscles, you need to set your mind up for success. Giving your cognitive functions what they need to thrive and multiple means of stimulation will develop and improve your ability to concentrate over time.
1. Get healthy
A healthy lifestyle helps to boost your cognitive skills. Getting enough sleep and eating a varied, healthy diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and whole grains can get your neurons firing on all cylinders. And don’t forget regular physical activity incorporating aerobic exercise to help blood flow to your brain cells.
2. Game on
Playing is a great way to improve your brain power. You don’t need to download expensive brain training apps. Playing a game of sudoku or crossword puzzles is a great way to challenge your brain and improve your thinking skills.
3. Expand your skill set
Learning a new skill can go a long way toward improving your concentration and memory function. Teaching yourself a new craft or learning a new language keeps your brain agile. If you want to take it one step further, pass on what you’ve learned to someone else.
4. Turn up the tunes
Feel-good music can help boost critical thinking and innovative problem-solving. It stimulates the neural pathways tied to concentration, but you need to be careful which songs you listen to. Not all music helps you focus, so stick to Mozart when you’re working and save the pop ballads for the ride home.
5. One thing at a time
Stop multitasking. It takes at least 25 minutes for your concentration to ramp up to full power, and you reduce your efficiency and productivity every time you switch tasks.
Improve brain power today for a healthy tomorrow
As people start to feel the effects of aging, they often begin to worry about what life will be like in the golden years. Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment often loom large over people’s fears about growing older.
But you’re not entirely at the mercy of time and genetics. Taking the necessary steps to improve concentration and memory now may help reduce the impact aging has on your cognitive abilities in later life.
Not only will you reap the benefits of an improved ability to concentrate now, but you’ll enjoy a snappier brain capacity and a healthier outlook that’ll help keep you active and engaged in the later stages of life.