Vastly Improve Mental Focus By Switching

Prolonging mental focus is not about taking a rest break but momentarily switching to a task to get a jolt of mental energy or novelty.

Staying focused on a specific task or topic can be difficult. Called vigilance or our ability to “keep watch” it is vitally important for top mental performance in any field.   As such we will cover scientific studies on how to improve mental focus and vigilance on the Next Brain Blog.

For example,  new research from University of Illinois reported in the journal Cognition found that brief diversions from a task actually vastly improves your mental focus.  While we all know you need to take breaks to stay fresh, this finding is different.

Test subjects in this study memorized four digits (four different numbers each less than 10) before taking on a different mental task for 50 minutes.  Subjects were told to signal if they saw one of the digits flash on the computer screen they were working with.   Some of the test subjects were shown digits during work on the 50-minute task (called the switch group) others were not. There was also a control group that knew nothing about the digits but saw them during the task.  Here is what they found:

“As expected, most participants’ performance declined significantly over the course of the task. But critically, Lleras said, those in the switch group saw no drop in their performance over time”.

The brief diversions rather than hurting mental focus provides the novelty that we need to stay focus. We lose mental focus when nothing changes. We get bored and details fad into the background.

Note the switch group did not take a five minute break, they did not even take a 1 minute break. It is not about resting.  It is about getting a small jolt of mental energy or novelty.

You can improve cognitive performance on long tasks by momentarily switching to tasks that provide a small dash of mental novelty.   Interested to hear from readers that use this technique. What small diversions or switching tasks do you use?