By: Shivani Shah
Not too long ago, I was forced to reckon with a problem that was becoming increasingly impossible to ignore - my screen time. While in college, I found myself falling into a habit of mindless scrolling. I knew it was becoming a problem when I found myself unable to watch a TV show or read a book without feeling the need to check my phone multiple times. For me, the nasty habit became hard to shake until one day, I deleted a few social media platforms that had become my biggest vices. The dopamine hit we receive from infinite scrolling functions in an addictive manner. I’m not anti-social media; however, my exorbitant weekly screen time notification is what forced me to start thinking about how I was using my time.
Around the same time I actively decreased my social media usage, I began to be more mindful about how I was spending my days. I wanted to break my practice of procrastination and work towards re-building better focus. Below are a few notes on habits you can implement to do the same. Consult a medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle.
(1) Starting with the basics, stay hydrated. This is an affordable and easily implemented lifestyle change you can make today. Staying hydrated is critical for many bodily functions, to the effect that even a loss of 1 to 2% can significantly impact our cognitive function, making it more difficult to focus and concentrate. This is because when we are dehydrated, our brains shrink in size. Staying hydrated is more than just drinking water - we need electrolytes to effectively get water into our cells. On his podcast, Dr. Dhru Purohit recommends starting your day with 16 ounces of water, mixed with a little lemon and a pinch of salt, which serves as an electrolyte. Dr. Purohit goes further to recommend aiming to have 32 ounces of water within the first hour of waking up, and before having your coffee. Do this for a week to see if you are able to concentrate better during the day. You may be dehydrated and not even realize it.
(2) Make time to unfocus. Although it may seem counterintuitive, our brain function is optimized when you make the effortful switch between focusing and unfocusing. Interestingly, unfocusing activates a circuit in the brain that uses far more energy than effortful focus does. This is because while in an unfocused state, the brain is very active - it is revisiting old memories, toggling between ideas and time - basically anything besides resting. Taking this time to update the brain may help us preserve focus when needed.
(3) Introduce some new habits into your work routine. Many of us are aware of the 90 minute REM cycles that take place when we sleep. What’s interesting is that this 90 minute rhythm carries over into other bodily rhythms as well. Set 90 minutes of time for focused work, and take a break for about 20 minutes. Research shows that after 90 minutes, there is a drop in our ability to focus. By splitting work into these 90 minute sessions, you may find it easier to focus throughout the day.
Kempton, Matthew J., et al. “Dehydration Affects Brain Structure and Function in Healthy Adolescents.” Human Brain Mapping, vol. 32, no. 1, 2010, pp. 71–79., https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.20999.
Murphy, Andrew, and Anwar Alsulami. “Default Mode Network.” Radiopaedia.org, 2018, https://doi.org/10.53347/rid-64018.
Riebl, Shaun K., and Brenda M. Davy. “The Hydration Equation.” ACSM'S Health & Fitness Journal, vol. 17, no. 6, 2013, pp. 21–28., https://doi.org/10.1249/fit.0b013e3182a9570f.
“Ultradian Rhythms.” Ultradian Rhythms - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, Science Direct, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/ultradian-rhythms. “Your Brain Can Only Take so Much Focus.” Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Review, 30 Aug. 2021, https://hbr.org/2017/05/your-brain-can-only-take-so-much-focus.