Science 101: Focus – How to Concentrate in a World of Distraction

In a world that constantly clamors for our attention, achieving focus can feel like navigating through a bustling city filled with distractions at every corner. Lack of focus can make it difficult to be effective in our roles at work, school, and home, so in this article, we’ll take a scientific approach to help you improve your ability to concentrate. First, it’s important to understand the science of focus or, put differently, what needs to happen in your body for you to be able to concentrate. Together, let us embark on a captivating exploration of the art of focus, uncovering the profound insights and practical tools that will empower you to harness the untapped reservoirs of your concentration and unleash your creativity! 


How Focus Works: A Look Inside the Brain


Focus and cognitive function are complex processes that require several areas of the brain to work together. Below are some key points related to our ability to focus:


The Brain: The frontal lobe is located in the front of the brain (behind the forehead). A specific area in the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for executive functions such as helping with organization, planning, paying attention, and making decisions. It also plays a crucial role in sustained attention and inhibitory control (the ability to ignore distractions). [1]  


Neurotransmitters: Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that send signals from one neuron to a target cell in order to carry out different functions in the body. This is how the brain communicates. Several neurotransmitters play a role in attention and focus. Dopamine, for example, is essential for maintaining motivation, arousal, and sustained attention. Norepinephrine is involved in alertness and vigilance, helping to enhance focus during challenging or demanding tasks. [1]


Neural Pathways: Neural pathways connecting various brain regions, such as the thalamus, frontal cortex, and parietal cortex, are involved in the regulation of attention and focus. The thalamus acts as a relay center, filtering sensory information and directing it to relevant brain areas for further processing. [1


The Relationship Between Focus, Stress, and Productivity


In the fast-paced world we inhabit, productivity and focus are the shining stars guiding us through the labyrinth of our daily endeavors. Like skilled tightrope walkers, we strive to maintain balance, hoping to achieve peak performance while navigating the tightrope of life’s demands. However, stress can have a significant impact on focus, attention, and productivity. When we experience stress, our bodies release hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that activate the body’s “fight or flight” response. While this response can be useful in some situations, prolonged or chronic stress can have negative effects on our ability to focus and be productive. Here are some ways stress can impact focus:


  • Impaired working memory: This is the ability to hold and manipulate information in the mind. Studies have shown that high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, can impair working memory performance and reduce the ability to focus on complex tasks. [1
  • Impaired attentional control: This is the ability to focus on relevant information while filtering out distractions. Chronic stress has been shown to reduce attentional control and increase distractibility, making it harder to maintain focus and concentrate on tasks.
  • Impaired decision-making abilities: It becomes harder to make sound judgments and choices. This is because stress can interfere with the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in executive functions such as decision-making and problem-solving. [1


Overall, stress can have a negative impact on focus and cognitive function, making it harder to stay focused, concentrate, and make sound decisions. It is important to manage stress through healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise, meditation, and stress-reducing activities, to help maintain optimal cognitive function.


The Science And Magic Of The “Flow State”


Imagine strapping on a pair of magic roller skates, gliding effortlessly along a rhythmic melody on a rainbow-colored rollercoaster. This state of mind is like being in a cosmic zone where time slows down, and the universe whispers its secrets directly into your ears. It’s the moment when your brain morphs into a turbocharged engine, and all your senses team up to create an unstoppable super squad.


Here’s the fun science behind it: Your brain releases a symphony of neurotransmitters, like the cool kids of brain chemistry, throwing an epic party inside your head. Dopamine, the “Feel-Good Guru,” surges through your neurons, lighting up your pleasure centers like a neon disco ball. Serotonin, the “Mood Maestro,” waves its conductor’s wand, flooding you with a sense of confidence and contentment. And norepinephrine, the “Adrenaline Ace,” gives you a boost of energy, turning you into a focused, fearless superhero. [2] 


The 3 Keys to Achieving Flow:

  • Realistic goals
  • Your skills match the opportunity for action
  • Complete focus on the activity


Flow happens when your skills match the difficulty of the task. If the task is too difficult you may get frustrated or anxious. If the task is too easy you will feel unchallenged and bored. In fact, research shows that 54% of people report feeling in flow when they are at work versus 18% of the time when doing leisure activities. [2] This demonstrates that people have the skills to do their jobs and also feel challenged enough not to be bored. Ultimately, those who spend more time in flow feel more happy, strong, creative, and satisfied. [2] 


5 Ways to Cultivate More Flow in Your Life:


  1. Define specific goals: Think SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound)
  2. Implement ways to track and measure progress.
  3. Dedicate full attention to the task. No multitasking allowed.
  4. Identify and develop the skills needed to make progress. Keep improving upon these skills.
  5. Challenge yourself: Once you achieve your goals go back to step one and identify even bolder goals! [2]


Strategies To Improve Focus And Concentration


Cover the 3 basics: exercise, sleep, and hydration


Exercise and hydration can both improve cognitive function and concentration, while a lack of sleep can negatively impact your ability to focus and concentrate. When these basics go unchecked stress increases in the body which can throw off the balance needed for optimal brain function.


Practice mindfulness


Mindfulness is a state of active and open attention to the present moment, without judgment or distraction from external or internal stimuli. It involves being fully engaged and aware of your thoughts, emotions, and surroundings while maintaining a non-judgmental and compassionate attitude toward oneself and others. Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga can be helpful for practicing mindfulness. [3] 


Positive self-talk


Self-talk is the internal dialogue we have with ourselves, and it can have a significant impact on our ability to focus and concentrate. Positive self-talk can help to increase motivation and confidence, while negative self-talk can be distracting and undermine our ability to focus. [4




Music can help you concentrate by blocking out distracting noise. It can act as a stimulus that engages the brain, which modifies your mood and provides a rhythm that keeps you alert. Binaural beats – an auditory illusion that occurs when two slightly different frequencies are presented to each ear separately – may help to improve focus. [5] One study found that when listening to binaural beats visual attention became more focused due to increased activity in the gamma band region of the brain which is associated with greater attentional investment. [6


The 80/20 rule


The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle, suggests that roughly 80% of results come from 20% of efforts. In the context of focus, try focusing only on the 20% of tasks that will have the most significant impact on overall progress. [7


Visual aids or organizational tools


Using visual aids or organizational tools, such as to-do lists, calendars, or mind maps, can help improve focus by providing a clear structure and visual reference for tasks. Establishing clear and specific goals can help focus attention and motivation on the task at hand.


Take breaks


The Pomodoro Technique involves breaking work down into focused intervals (typically 25 minutes) separated by short breaks. This can help improve focus and productivity by providing structured time for work and rest. [8] 


It’s important to note that everyone’s needs for focus techniques can differ, and what works for one person may not work for another. Try experimenting with different techniques and find what works best for individual needs. For more actionable tips check out our Focus Primer!


The Takeaway…


In summary, focus can be hard to come by due to the stressors in our lives and worldly distractions. While the lack of focus can be detrimental to our productivity there are many techniques we can implement to improve our focus and concentration. Focus and attention are skills we can improve with mindfulness, positive self-talk, organization, and many other tools! 



  1. Arnsten AFT. Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009;10(6):410-422. doi:10.1038/nrn2648
  2. Csikszentmihalyi M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Nachdr. Harper [and] Row; 2009.
  3. Kabat-Zinn J. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Hyperion; 2005.
  4. Positive Self-Talk: Benefits and Techniques. Healthline. Published October 17, 2018. Accessed June 14, 2023. 
  5. Garcia-Argibay M, Santed MA, Reales JM. Efficacy of binaural auditory beats in cognition, anxiety, and pain perception: a meta-analysis. Psychol Res. 2019;83(2):357-372. doi:10.1007/s00426-018-1066-8
  6. Colzato LS, Barone H, Sellaro R, Hommel B. More attentional focusing through binaural beats: evidence from the global–local task. Psychol Res. 2017;81(1):271-277. doi:10.1007/s00426-015-0727-0
  7. Pullein C. What Is the 80 20 Rule (And How to Boost Productivity With It). Lifehack. Published July 8, 2019. Accessed June 14, 2023.
  8. Cirillo F. The Pomodoro Technique: The Acclaimed Time Management System That Has Transformed How We Work. First edition. Currency; 2018.