Whether you’re driving a car with screaming kids in the back seat or trying to read a book in the coffee shop while someone is talking loudly into their phone, mindfulness is critical to navigating and interacting with the world.
However, attention has a limited capacity, meaning that we can only process so many things at once. This is why it’s so important to be able to filter out distractions that can take your focus off the task at hand.
New research highlights the importance of daily meditation, exercise and sleep for improving executive function, the component of attention that helps us prioritize what we want to work on and filter out unwanted distractions.
This includes basic research looking at how different parts of the brain contribute to how people interact with the world, and applied research to develop tools such as games that measure attention in children.
When we study mindfulness in the laboratory, we break it down into unique components that serve different purposes. Executive function is the component that kicks in when you’re trying to focus in a distracting place, such as having a conversation while your favorite TV show is playing in the background, or when you’re dealing with impulses, such as resisting impulses. the urge to get to that last potato chip.
The executive function is also involved in monitoring intrusive thoughts, such as daydreaming. It is affected by a number of different disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression.
My review found that by practicing daily meditation, exercising consistently, and maintaining healthy sleep habits, you can increase the efficiency of your executive functioning. So if you’re looking to increase your productivity and reduce your impulsiveness, you may want to consider incorporating this change into your routine.
Meditation is one of the best ways to improve executive function. Even after just five days of meditating for 20 minutes a day, there was an increase in how well individuals were able to filter out distractions. There seems to be no superior technique in meditation, as long as the main goal is to control attention (concentrate on something specific). A common technique used to gain deliberate control in meditation is to focus on the breath while trying to let go of unwanted thoughts.
Several studies have also looked at yoga, which includes a meditation-like component. However, yoga does not improve executive function as well as other techniques whose primary purpose is to control attention, although yogis increase their overall response speed.
It’s not clear how long this increased attention span lasts after meditation, but it’s clear that for anyone looking to improve their executive functioning, mindfulness should be part of their daily routine.
The Canadian government recommends that people over 18 years of age exercise for 150 minutes per week to maintain their health. It also plays an important role in executive functions. It explores how various factors affect executive function, including how often individuals exercise, how hard they exercise, and what sports activities they engage in.
People who reported six hours per week of physical activity showed improved executive function compared to sedentary individuals. Additionally, those on the two-week sprint program not only outperformed the control group on measures of executive performance but also made fewer mistakes.
While standing desks and walking resulted in improvements in other aspects of physical health after just four days, they did not receive the same cognitive support seen with other moderate to high intensity exercise. This means if you want this boost in cognition, you have to actually get your heart rate up.
It’s also important to pay attention to how much sleep you get, as people often reduce their rest time for work and social obligations. Although some of the studies in the review found that sleep deprivation led to poorer executive functioning, the most common result was overall poor performance. Sleep deprivation does not affect certain components of attention in the same way meditation and exercise do. Instead, it makes people react more slowly and are more likely to make mistakes.
However, most of the sleep studies included in the review involved keeping people awake for 24 hours. It’s not really representative of how most people experience decreased sleep. Future research should look at how people’s sleep quality affects their executive function. This information is especially important for those working in scenarios where lapses of attention pose a potential hazard, such as air traffic controllers or those who operate heavy machinery.
There are many aspects of our perception that are beyond our control. Executive function ability is strongly influenced by heredity. However, this review provides promising evidence that there are changes you can make to your daily routine that can improve your focus.
So, if you want an extra boost, start meditating, get your heart rate up and go to bed early!