The Science of Attention: How to Train Your Brain for Better Focus

Dr. Stacy Livingston

Maintaining focus can be challenging in today's fast-paced and distraction-filled environment. By better understanding how attention works, we can implement practical strategies to train our brains for better concentration, ultimately enhancing productivity and creativity.

How Our Brains Direct Our Attention

Psychologists refer to the main type of focus we need for work and other mentally demanding tasks as “top-down attention.” This is a cognitive process in which the brain selectively concentrates on specific sensory information while ignoring other distractions. 

Research published in the journal Science indicates that, on average, “people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is.” That means we spend nearly half our day distracted, daydreaming, or thinking about the past or the future. 

The good news is that our attentional capacity is not fixed but varies with our physical, emotional, and mental states. Factors such as cognitive fatigue, mood changes, and even the time of day can influence our ability to focus. These fluctuations are especially significant in high-stakes professions like air traffic control and healthcare, where distractions could cost lives, but they also impact our daily activities and overall productivity.

Leveraging Neuroscientific Insights

Advances in neuroscience have provided profound insights into how the brain manages focus and attention. Particularly, the concept of the “flow state” — a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — describes a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity and creativity. Flow is characterized by complete absorption in an activity, where time seems to pass unnoticed, and actions and awareness merge.

Researchers from Drexel University set out to measure how the flow state works in the brain by conducting neuroimaging scans on jazz musicians in the process of improvising music. They hypothesized that people could develop “a specialized network or circuit to automatically produce a specific type of ideas” almost unconsciously, leading to deep focus and spontaneous creativity. This suggests that practice is an essential part of training your brain to focus on certain tasks.

However, the brain isn’t designed to remain in a state of high focus all day long. As Srini Pillay, M.D., wrote for Harvard Business Review, “The problem is that excessive focus exhausts the focus circuits in your brain,” draining your energy. That’s why it’s important to take breaks and switch between focused and unfocused states. 

Strategies to Enhance Focus

We have seen that focus depends on our emotional and physical state, it can be trained through practice, and breaks are important to maintain our mental energy. Let’s explore some strategies we can implement on a daily basis to harness these insights for better concentration.

1. Get in Control of Your Emotions

Emotional states significantly impact our attention span. Negative emotions can activate the amygdala, leading to decreased cognitive function, while positive emotions can enhance our executive function. Strategies to improve emotional balance include regular exercise, meditation, and adequate sleep. Try to notice how often you experience positive and negative emotions throughout the day and see if you can develop a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative. Paul Hammerness and Margaret Moore, writing for Harvard Business Review, recommend trying to “notice your negative emotional patterns” and ask yourself whether it’s really necessary to get annoyed or upset over little triggers that happen throughout the day. By becoming conscious of these reactions, you can bring your emotions under control.

2. Implement Distraction Management Techniques

Our brains are constantly scanning our internal and external environments, even when focused on tasks. To manage distractions, employ the “ABC method”: become Aware of distractions, Breathe to refocus, and then choose to continue with the task or address the distraction. Creating distraction-free zones during work, such as no-device meetings, can also help maintain focus.

3. Give Your Mind a Break

Alternating focus between different tasks can prevent mental fatigue and stimulate creativity. Techniques such as taking short breaks and engaging in physical activity can rejuvenate the brain’s executive function. This practice not only refreshes the mind but also allows subconscious processing, which can lead to innovative ideas and solutions.

4. Avoid Multitasking

Multitasking may seem like a great way to get a lot done, but evidence shows that our brains are not designed for it. “Juggling multiple tasks at once can dramatically cut down on productivity and makes it much harder to hone in on the details that are truly important,” explains Kendra Cherry for VeryWell Mind. The brain is optimized to focus on one task at a time, and splitting attention can cause cognitive overload. Prioritizing tasks and tackling them one at a time can enhance focus and increase work quality.

5. Be Present

“Mindfulness is about focusing attention on the present moment, and practicing mindfulness has been shown to rewire the brain so that attention is stronger in everyday life,” says neuropsychologist Kim Willment for Harvard Health. Regular mindfulness practice, such as meditation, can train the brain to focus better, reduce anxiety, and improve cognitive flexibility. By living more in the present, we can shield ourselves from the constant pull of distractions and enhance our capacity to concentrate.


Improving focus is not merely about pushing through longer hours of work; it involves understanding and optimizing how our brain functions. By managing our emotional states, controlling our work environment, strategically shifting our focus, avoiding multitasking, and practicing mindfulness, we can enhance our cognitive capabilities. The science of focus not only applies to individuals seeking personal improvement but also to teams and organizations aiming to increase  As we continue to understand more about the brain’s capabilities, applying these principles can help improve our efficiency, productivity, and happiness.


Frontiers in Psychology


Harvard Business Review

Train Your Brain to Focus

VeryWell Mind

Harvard Health

Dr. Livingston enjoys taking care of patients from the mild to the wild. He is the doctor for you, if you have been to other places and told there was nothing that could be done for your or told “It’s all in your head”. He accepts all types of cases including workers compensation, auto accident and personal injury cases. He believes chiropractic can help everyone add life to their years and get them back to doing what they love.

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