How to Improve Focus & Attention, Based on The Science

June 6, 2023 By Eric Olson
How to improve focus & attention, mechanisms of action.

How to Improve Focus and Attention: Mechanisms of Action

This post was written with Consensus AI Academic Search Engine. Improving focus and attention is crucial in today’s fast-paced world. Various mechanisms and techniques have been identified that can significantly enhance these cognitive functions. This article explores different strategies, backed by scientific evidence, to help you improve your focus and attention effectively.

Understanding Attention Networks

Attention involves various networks in the brain that coordinate to enhance how we focus and respond to tasks. Researchers Posner, Rothbart, and Tang (2015) describe two main training approaches: network training, which involves repeated tasks to stimulate specific brain networks, and state training, which includes exercises like meditation to alter brain states. Network training can be done through activities like video games or specialized computer exercises, whereas state training includes mindfulness and meditation techniques, both known to reduce stress and improve executive attention (Posner, Rothbart, & Tang, 2015).

Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness meditation, a practice of staying focused on the present moment, has been shown to engage brain regions linked to attention control. Dickenson et al. (2013) found that even brief mindfulness exercises could enhance the brain’s attention networks in novice practitioners, suggesting that regular practice could lead to sustained benefits (Dickenson et al., 2013).

Training and the Brain’s Response

Intensive meditation or focused training has been proven to stabilize attention and improve perceptual discrimination, as shown in studies by MacLean et al. (2010) and Lutz et al. (2009). These trainings reduce reaction time variability and enhance neural efficiency, making it easier to maintain focus over extended periods (MacLean et al., 2010); (Lutz et al., 2009).

External vs. Internal Focus

The way we direct our attention also impacts learning and performance. An external focus, where attention is directed outward to the effects of one’s actions, has been shown to enhance both performance and learning across various tasks and skills. This is contrasted with an internal focus, which involves concentrating on the movements themselves. Research by Wulf (2013) highlights that an external focus can lead to better movement accuracy and efficiency, suggesting a significant application for athletes and performers (Wulf, 2013).


To enhance focus and attention, engaging in regular mindfulness meditation, practicing focused attention tasks, and adopting an external focus during activities are effective strategies. These techniques not only help in improving attentional stability but also in better handling of tasks requiring sustained attention.



Interventions for Focus That Aren’t Bulls–t 

Interventions with “rock-solid” evidence:
Almost certainly helpful…

Interventions with “emerging” evidence:
Probably helpful in the right context...

Interventions that have “meh” evidence:
Some studies find benefits, others not so much...

Our ability to focus plays an enormous role in the quality of so many important things in our lives: work, physical and mental health, relationships etc…

Everyone needs to focus, and everyone wishes they could focus more.

Unfortunately, everyday there is a new “productivity hack” that usually amounts to nothing more than click-bait-y content focused on interventions that lack any real evidence of efficacy.

Let’s dive into the three interventions that actually have been shown to help improve focus.

Meditation study to care about #1: 2021 Meta Analysis

TLDR; this meta-analysis looked across 49 studies and found that meditation improves most attentional processes.

Meditation study to care about #2: 2012 Randomized Controlled Trial

TLDR; this RCT found that mindfulness meditation makes you more efficient at allocating cognitive resources and thereby improves the self-regulation of attention.

Meditation takeaway:

After writing many similar blogs to this, there is probably no single intervention that I have gained more respect for than meditation. Time and time again, for a variety of outcomes, meditation has real, high-quality evidence backing up its efficacy. Focus and attention is no exception.

Caffeine study to care about #1: 2012 Systematic Review

TLDR; this highly-cited systematic review of randomized controlled trials found that caffeine has “clear benefits” for attention, even more than is widely-believed.

Caffeine study to care about #2: 2021 Meta Analysis

TLDR; this meta analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials found a whole host of benefits from caffeine including increased cognitive performance and attention.

Caffeine takeaway

Caffeine really is a hell of a little drug – it is consistently found in the research to improve cognitive function, notably for both focus and attention.

Exercise study to care about #1: 2010 Meta Analysis

TLDR; this meta-analysis looked across 29 studies and concluded that exercise has modest positive effects on attention and processing speed, executive function, and memory.

Exercise study to care about #2: 2019 Study on patients with ADHD

TLDR; this study found that acute bouts of exercise can help improve attention and processing speed in patients with ADHD

Exercise takeaway

If the effects of exercise could be put into a pill, it would be the most effective supplement in the history of supplements across multiple outcomes. Focus is yet another on the long list of outcomes that exercise can improve!

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