Ways to boost your cognitive power and achieve maximum focus, attention and cognitive performance

We live in a world where sources of distraction are endless.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, most people have the ability to access an infinite source of self-distraction and avoid ever having to be present, focused or attentive – if they so choose. This information overload is not only making us feel exhausted and frazzled but it also wipes out our capacity for concentration, productivity and creativity (Levine, Waite, & Bowman, 2012).

Once upon a time our days were fairly simple: get up, shower, dress and start your day; the main source of information between waking and getting to work might be your TV or radio – if you chose to switch it on. Other than that and the advertising messages we would absorb passively on our commute, we were left to contemplate the relative simplicity of the day ahead. Today, in this digital world, and with the internet ingrained in our existence, it is possible to access the latest news from all corners of the globe, formulate your own ‘informed’ opinion on the latest political disaster, tweet about it, rant on Facebook, get distracted by a personality quiz or lifestyle story that promises to help you better understand yourself/relationship/colleagues/chance of becoming a millionaire before 40, check your personal and work emails whilst reading 15 WhatsApp conversations simultaneously, all before you’ve even set foot outside.

This information overload is making us depressed, addicted to ‘information’ and social media, and feeling like we can’t cope with our ‘ridiculously busy’ lives. Most frustratingly, this source of endless ‘enlightenment’ is taking up valuable brain space, necessary for getting things done, whether at work, school, college or home! We are reaching information overload and so to be productive, efficient and get things done every day we need to find ways to re-engage our brains and avoid these sources of constant distraction. Manipulating brain biochemistry and the ability to ‘tap into’ endless pools of productivity and focus may seem like space-age promises, but there are a number of proven methods you can employ immediately to help boost your brain power and turn distracted, low brain output days into highly efficient, satisfyingly superhuman mental moments of cognitive genius.

Simple but effective solutions

These tried and tested methods should feature in everyone’s day-to-day work routine.

  • Create a to-do list the day before and get stuck into something as soon as you get in to work. Whilst catching up on emails may seem important first thing in the morning, it can affect the whole day. If you have something important to get done that day start it as soon as you get in; that way, you won’t end up leaving it until you’ve dealt with everything in your emails no matter how urgent these overnight demands may seem.
  • Leave your phone(s) in your bag, on silent!
  • Make sure you are logged out of all personal emails and social media accounts on your work computer (this prevents repeated ‘quick’ checks and self-inflicted distraction) and delete the quick access apps from phones and devices that you need to use for work.
  • Switch off all alerts on your computer – even for emails – and only check them when you need a break from what you are doing. Distractions are one of the key reasons for low productivity so make it your mission to reduce your exposure to anything that will cause you to break concentration. Constantly staring at your email may feel like work but it won’t get major tasks done.
  • Be realistic and set deadlines. Planning too much, or not enough and having a super flexible schedule can leave us feeling frustrated and subsequently struggling to get started. Planning just the right amount of work (with some margin of error) will help you stay focused and ensure you use your time efficiently. Give yourself a set amount of time to complete a task and do your utmost to stick to it. (If you plan your time well you won’t have time to procrastinate your way past a deadline so you’ll have to stick to it!)
  • Don’t task jump. Block out as much time as you can each day for the same/similar tasks to allow your brain to get into the right ‘zone’ for extended periods of time. If you get distracted it should be easier to get back into something as your brain is on the right path (Weinschenk, 2012)
  • Don’t force yourself to do tasks you are not in the right mind-set for. Try to plan your week with some flexibility so, if you are really tired or not feeling well, you can move creative and important tasks around. (This isn’t an excuse to avoid things you don’t want to do!)

Passive support for focus and attention

If you are really struggling to get your brain to engage, these ideas can help focus and perk up the mind.

  • Isochronic tones, alpha waves and binaural beats have literally saved my life on so many occasions I’ve lost count. These magical music waves (check out Jason Lewis – MindAmend on Youtube) enhance focus, attention and cognitive function and make a world of difference to your cognitive output even when you feel like your brain has turned to mush. Listen through a pair of headphones and you’ll be transformed from mental slug to mind magician (Filimon, 2010).
  • Noise-cancelling headphones are a great option when you work in an open plan or noisy office, or are easily distracted by your surroundings. Playing your isochronic tones through a pair of these is a recipe for superhuman productivity and a great, subtle, sign for your colleagues that they need to leave you alone!
  • Productivity tools such as Pomodoro Technique or the 50 minute rule can, for some people, be very helpful in focusing the mind. Both techniques force you to commit to a set amount of time in which to work, with or without specific break periods. These tried and tested time management methods are popular and effective ways to help squeeze out as much productivity as you can, particularly for those prone to distraction and difficulties getting started (Battersby, 2015).

Active solutions for a busy brain

For some of us, stress, worries and simply too much to do can make a calm decluttered mind feel like an impossibility. If this is the case then I strongly recommend regularly engaging with all of the below.

  • Meditation and mindfulness in particular are so helpful they now feature in the treatment plans for people with serious mental health conditions. Everyone is talking about mindfulness these days but for very good reasons. Mindfulness has been heavily researched and proven to help with everything from mood and mental health issues, to improved sleep, better relationships and yes – focus and attention. With so many of us complaining of endless brain chatter, mindfulness helps you to train the brain to be more present and aware, helping to achieve a calmer, more focused mind (if that’s your goal). Just 10 minutes daily is proven to elicit significant benefits to brain structure and function and features high on my list of life’s essential biohacks (Moore & Malinowski, 2009).
  • If you want to keep you brain ticking along effectively throughout the day, regular movement is essential. In order for the brain to function it needs a huge amount of energy and oxygen, which is delivered to the brain via the blood. The longer you sit still, the less your blood will be pumping around the body and can even start to pool in the feet and legs. A good brisk walk, running up and down the stairs at regular intervals or a few star jumps will help get the blood pumping, and ensure a regular supply of energy to the brain (Loprinzi, Herod, Cardinal, & Noakes, 2013).
  • Our indoor lives, especially at this time of year, can also be detrimental to brain performance, with reduced mental wellbeing and motivation linked to low exposure to nature. Doing whatever you can to get outside in daylight and walk/run/play/or simply sit in nature or green space can dramatically improve work-related stress and overall health and wellbeing (Lottrup, Grahn, & Stigsdotter, 2013).

Food for thought

The brain is a hungry machine and needs a constant supply of oxygen and the right nutrients for it to function optimally. This is not an excuse to eat all day but an opportunity to think about how different foods affect the brain and what can be done to manipulate your nutritional intake to achieve maximum mental power.

  • Protein is vital for healthy brain function: not only are all the brain chemicals (known as neurotransmitters, that allow our brain and central nervous system (CNS) to communicate and function optimally) made of protein but it also helps to stabilise blood sugars, preventing hunger, energy crashes and keeps cravings at bay.
  • Fats make up the majority (over 60%) of our brain tissue. It’s important to ensure a regular supply of healthy omega-3s, 6s, 9s and saturated fats both for brain structure and function. Fat is also a fantastic source of fuel when we are at rest and, anecdotal reports suggest, people feel much more mentally focused when they are in a fasted state (and so burning fat). Whilst it may seem helpful in the short term to load up on carbohydrates to fuel the brain, keeping those carbs to a minimum when you are not very active during the day may be more helpful for sustained focus and attention.
  • Blueberries contain powerful phytonutrients like anthocyanin and pterostilbene which multiple studies show are linked to blueberries’ very positive effects on brain health and function, including improved memory and stimulating the growth of new neurons. Whilst human studies are limited to older adults, blueberries offer a relatively cheap, delicious and safe addition to your diet that could help enhance brain power (Shukitt-Hale, 2012).
  • Caffeine is a controversial addition to this section as, for many, its potential brain-boosting benefits come at a price. If you don’t get carried away with drinking too much, but instead experiment with the caffeine intake that’s right for you then you could benefit from some impressive brain activity when including some good quality caffeine sources in your daily regime. Be careful though – even the hardiest of caffeine consumers can overdo it and become immune to its cognitive benefits (Rogers, Heatherley, Mullings, & Smith, 2013).
  • Dark (85% cocoa) chocolate has been shown to significantly increase blood flow and calmness whilst slightly reducing stress, and although to date only one good quality study has linked cocoa intake to improvements in blood flow to the brain (without increasing cognition) it could, through increasing oxygen delivery and mild mental wellbeing benefits, result in a small boost to perceived cognitive function – something I’m more than happy to test during my next n=1 study! (Sokolov, Pavlova, Klosterhalfen, & Enck, 2013).

Productivity pills and powders  

Sometimes, despite all of the above, your brain seems determined to lie dormant, refusing to be kick-started into action. In these desperate times it may be useful to keep a few cognitive-coaxing nutritional supplements handy. Whilst they may seem like a gimmick there is an increasing body of evidence to back up the potential mind-managing benefits of a number of nutrients.

  • L-carnitine acts as a fat ‘courier’ transporting it directly to the mitochondria, our cellular power generators, where it is used to make energy. The acetyl form is able to cross the blood/brain barrier making it particularly useful for supporting brain energy production. It has also been shown to increase neurotransmitter receptor density, increasing the capacity for neuronal stimulation (Inano et al., 2003; Kobayashi et al., 2010).
  • Taurine is an amino acid important for glutamate and GABA release in the brain and CNS. GABA and glutamate are involved in excitation and relaxation of the cortex – the outermost layer of the brain responsible for thinking and processing information. A major benefit of taurine seems to be in enhancing blood flow, once again helping increase oxygen delivery to tissues, such as the brain. Studies show taurine can help improve exercise capacity, anxiety and mood and aid in the fight against oxidative stress. So whilst there are still limited human studies directly linking it to cognitive enhancements, its safe and broadly supportive profile makes it a useful addition in times of particular brain strain (Wu & Prentice, 2010).
  • L-theanine is a lovely, natural calming agent found in tea, and is associated with reduced perceived stress; however, its main brain benefits are linked to its use in conjunction with caffeine which together have been shown to reduce distractibility and enhance performance in cognitively demanding tasks. Green tea is a natural caffeine and L-theanine source and the benefit of this combination can be achieved from just 50mg of caffeine and 100mg L-theanine (Haskell, Kennedy, Milne, Wesnes, & Scholey, 2008).For a more long-term boost to brain power, regular consumption of choline (eggs), long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA (oily fish), as well as B vitamins (animal proteins, beans and leafy greens) are essential for healthy and optimal brain structure and function, with low levels being linked to cognitive decline. (Heinrichs, 2010; Kennedy, 2016; Oulhaj, Jernerén, Refsum, Smith, & de Jager, 2016).
  • Neurotransmission and a healthy CNS also relies on adequate zinc, magnesium and B6 intake, which can often be depleted in times of high stress or immune challenge, so you may wish to supplement with these if you feel your brain is not at its best (Mousain-Bosc et al., 2006; Spasov, Iezhitsa, Kravchenko, & Kharitonova, 2009; Tóth, 2011).

The brain is a fascinating and highly complex organ that we are still getting to grips with. In our busy and sensory overloaded lives it is easy to feel overwhelmed and unable to think or focus. With a western ‘epidemic’ of reduced brain performance against our ever-increasing desire to perform at 100% all the time, together with increasing rates of cognitive decline and dementia, there is a huge amount of evidence supporting and reinforcing the importance of diet, lifestyle and environment on brain function. By selecting just a few of the active and passive strategies outlined above and exercising a little self-discipline, you’ll be on the road to better brain performance and a more focused and satisfyingly productive day-to-day life.


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About Sophie Tully

Sophie first trained in biomedical science, specialising in Pharmacology, before working as a drug discovery research scientist developing highly specialised cancer therapies. Leaving research to study a master's degree in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition . Sophie runs a thriving private nutrition and health consultancy business working with elite athletes and the general public to help them achieve optimal health through lifestyle and dietary interventions. Sophie also lectures for both the biomedicine and nutrition courses and is a clinic supervisor at the internationally renowned College of Naturopathic Medicine. Guest speaker and author for a number of health events and magazines, Sophie maintains her broad but scientific knowledge base by constantly burying her head in books and publications. Sophie’s main clinical and research interests lie in the role of nutrition, lifestyle, neuroscience and genetics in chronic illness, psychology and sports performance.

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