Whether you’re driving a car with screaming kids in the back or trying to read a book in a coffee shop while someone is talking loudly on the phone, attention is key to navigating and interacting with the world.
However, attention has a limited capacity, which means we can only process so many things at a time. That’s why it’s essential to be able to filter out distractions that can distract from the task at hand.
New research points to the importance of daily meditation, exercise, and sleep for improving executive functioning, a component of attention that helps us prioritize what we want to engage with and filter out unwanted interference.
I am currently working on my doctoral thesis in the Klein Lab at Dalhousie University, which studies everything related to attention. It involves both basic research into how different areas of the brain contribute to how people interact with the world, and applied research developing game-like tools that measure attention in children. I recently published a review of over 70 studies examining how different aspects of lifestyle affect attention.
When we study attention in the lab, we break it down into a number of unique components that serve different purposes. Executive functioning is the component that comes into play when trying to concentrate in a distracting setting, such as carrying on a conversation while your favorite TV show is in the background, or when facing an impulse, such as resisting the want to have another one. potato chips.
Executive functioning is also involved in monitoring distracting thoughts, like being caught in a daydream. It is affected by a number of different disorders, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression.
My review revealed that by implementing daily meditation, exercising regularly, and maintaining healthy sleep habits, you can increase the efficiency of your executive functioning. So if you want to improve your productivity and reduce your impulsiveness, you might want to consider making these changes to your routine.
Meditation is one of the best ways to improve executive functioning. Even after only five days doing 20 minutes of meditation a day, there were improvements in individuals’ ability to filter out distractions. There seemed to be no superior technique for meditation, as long as the main goal was attentional control (focusing on something specific). A common technique used to bring about mindfulness control in meditation is to focus on the breath while trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts.
Some studies have also looked at yoga, which involves components that resemble meditation. However, yoga did not improve executive functioning like other techniques where the primary focus was attentional control, although yogis improved their overall response speed.
It’s unclear how long these improvements in attention last after meditation, but it’s clear that for anyone looking to improve their executive functioning, attention should be part of their daily routine.
The Government of Canada recommends that people over the age of 18 150 minutes of exercise per week to maintain health. It also plays an important role in executive functioning. I explored the impact of different factors on executive functioning, including how often individuals exercised, exercise intensity, and the physical activities they performed.
People who reported receiving six hours of physical activity per week showed improved executive functioning compared to sedentary people. Additionally, those who participate in a high-intensity sprint program for a two-week period not only outperformed a control group in their measures of executive functioning, they also made fewer errors.
Although standing and treadmill desks generated improvements in other aspects of physical health after just four days, they did not get the same boost in cognition seen with other moderate-to-high intensity exercises. This means that if you want those cognition boosts, you really need to get your heart rate up.
It’s also important to consider how long you sleep, as people often reduce their rest for work and social obligations. Although a few studies in the review found that reduced sleep led to poorer executive functioning, the most common outcome was poorer performance across all domains. Sleep reduction did not impact specific components of attention in the same way as meditation and exercise. Instead, it made people slower to react and more prone to making mistakes.
However, most of the sleep research included in the review involved keeping people awake for 24 hours. It’s not very representative of how most people experience reduced sleep. Future research should examine the impact of people’s sleep quality on their executive functioning. This information is especially important for those working in scenarios where lapses in attention pose a potential risk, such as air traffic controllers or those operating heavy machinery.
Many aspects of our cognition are beyond our control. Executive Functioning Abilities are largely influenced by genetics. However, this review provides promising evidence that you can make changes to your daily routine that can give your concentration a big boost.
So if you want that extra edge, start meditating, get your heart rate up, and go to bed early!