Staying focused on a task you know needs to be completed should be easy, right? It’s on the to-do list and once you are able to cross it off, you will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Well, for most of us it’s not that easy. My phone has a little light that blinks at me when I get a notification. It’s like an eye that stares until I cave into the pressure.
Maybe what you’re doing is important, but something you’d rather not be doing at the moment. In school, this was an everyday reality. Luckily, there are many ways that we can increase our ability to pay attention to the task at hand.
One of these has been heavily studied and is an interesting, round-about way to increase focus that I had never heard of it until I was doing research for another article. What I am referring to is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
MBSR pulls tactics from many ancient practices but was largely brought to the Western world by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts. In short, MBSR was developed to help people live happier, healthier and more adaptive lives  through helping people live in the present, utilizing exercises such as meditation, yoga, and other practices . The goal is for you to be fully “awake” and in control of your life rather than aimlessly wandering about.
“The consequence of enhanced mindfulness is a shift from non-awareness and automatic, habitual behaviors and stress responses to conscious awareness and effective, deliberate action”
We will go more in-depth on specific practices later, but let’s first explore some of the research. Early studies showed that it did what it was intended for; reducing stress, anxiety, and depression while also improving overall well-being . The benefits that meditation can have on our psyche are very well known (head here for more information on mindfulness meditation), however, further research started producing some more unique results.
MSBR and attentional control
Researchers started to test the effects that the training had on other aspects of our day-to-day life, one of which was focus, otherwise known as attentional control. The results were stunning. Immediately after MBSR training, older adults were found to have made significant improvements in visual attentional control as well as executive control, especially when performing complex tasks. Executive control can be thought of as your brain’s flexibility and processing power.
These results aren’t limited to older adults. Another study showed the same amazing results among young and middle-aged participants as well . Across the board, it seems as if MBSR can significantly help to increase your attentional control and strengthen your mind.
“MBSR improved the ability to orient attention, and direct and focus attention on relevant inputs”
Let’s put MBSR to the test
We now know that this training can help people of all ages, but if you’re still not convinced, let’s see how MBSR holds up to a bit more of an extreme environment. One of the most stressful activities that I can think of is being in live combat. You have tremendously taxing training and the enemy is actively trying to take your life all while you are separated from your loved ones by thousands of miles.
Researchers showed that without any mindfulness training, active-duty military members had a gradual and significant decrease of working memory capacity throughout their enlistment. However, personnel who actively participated in MBSR actually saw an increase in working memory capacity .
“ mindfulness training was associated with an increase in working memory capacity, defined as the capacity to selectively sustain and manipulate task-relevant information without becoming distracted by irrelevant information.”
Working memory capacity can be broadly defined as your ability to focus attention along with your cognitive processing power. This is important for everyone especially military members or really anyone who is looking for peak cognitive performance.
How does MBSR change us?
Besides the common benefits that meditation has on our psyche and wellbeing, how does MBSR specifically help us to increase our focus and brain power? Well, there are two interesting routes we can examine: physical changes to the brain and mentality changes.
Let’s start with how MBSR has been studied to change us emotionally. One group of researchers found that in addition to enhanced focus and the ability to control where attention is directed, patients became more mindful and, like the name implies, saw a reduction in their stress .
As a result of being more mindful, I would imagine that priorities would become much more clear which might be followed by a realization on how futile it is to check your social media in the middle of an important task. It has also been hypothesized that simply relieving your mind of stress and anxiety allows the brain to function properly, allowing the ability to enhance focus and mind power.
In addition to this, MBSR has been shown to increase activity in regions of the brain associated with positive emotions and general emotional control .
The physiological changes to the brain amazed me when I first read the research. This is where things really get interesting. Scientists found that after just 8 weeks of MBSR, grey matter in the brain increased significantly in the left hippocampus among a few other regions .
Grey matter contains neurons located near the surface of the brain and is responsible for processing information from the central nervous system. It also contains glial cells which transport nutrients and energy molecules to neurons. The hippocampus is the emotional processing plant in our brains along with regulating wakefulness, vigilance, muscle response and heart rate.
“The adult nervous system has the capacity for plasticity, and the structure of the brain can change in response to training… [and] such increases represent enduring changes in brain structure that could support improved mental functioning.”
Just practicing MBSR for 8 weeks actually changed the shape and composition of the brain in an extremely significant way.
Start Doing MBSR!
By this point, I am sure you are 100% ready to embark on your mindfulness-based stress reduction journey. Let’s go into the details on how you can participate in the practice and see some of the same results.
First off, it would be disingenuous of me to act like you can significantly enhance your focus and change the physical composition of your brain with an “easy 5-minute MBSR hack” or something of the sort. This practice is fairly intense and will take some of your time every day.
However, I am hoping that the proven results will serve as motivation to push you through it and hopefully it will become something you enjoy as many do. There are many in-person or online courses that you can participate in to help guide you through, but if that isn’t what you’re looking for or if you don’t have access, I’ll give you some ways to try this at home.
MBSR on your own
Practicing MBSR is very flexible and there are many different methods you can use. Below are some of the most common techniques, though you can find many more through a quick search of the internet. Everyone is different, so choose what works for you and do it. Dedicating 30 minutes to an hour is about the amount of time you should be spending on this if you want to mimic what the methods used in many of the studies.
- Mindfulness Meditation: View your thoughts and observe what is happening in your mind. Try to keep a clear mind an not to think about the past or future; the goal is to stay in the present moment as much as possible. Sometimes it is helpful to view your thoughts as an observer, realizing that they are there and what they are rather than analyzing them.
- Controlled Diaphragmatic Breathing: Most of us use our upper chest to do most of the work when we breathe. However, breathing with our diaphragm is very beneficial for helping us to be calm. To do this, try to fill the lower part of your lungs with air using inner abdominal/diaphragm muscles. Put one hand on your belly and one on your chest, inhale for a slow count of 5, pause, exhale for a slow count of 5, pause and repeat. Your upper hand shouldn’t move throughout the process. You are sort of filling your “belly” with air. Make sure to focus on every breath and try not to let outside thoughts into your mind.
- Body Scan: Lie down and mentally scan different parts of your body, noticing any sensations or feelings that occur. Start at your feet and work your way up, relaxing every muscle on the way. As with the other methods, try to maintain your focus on the body part and banish outside thoughts.
- Object Meditation: Hold an object that is special or interesting and focus all of your senses on it. Notice all of the different visual features, how it feels, and how it smells. Do this until you feel that the object is fully examined.
- Mindful Eating: Many of us spend our time eating in front of some sort of a screen. While this is entertaining, it is certainly not productive. Practicing mindful eating will help you gain a deeper connection to your food and also will regulate how much you eat. To do this, focus on the feel, look, and taste of the food. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to the food you’re eating. I like doing this with healthy food since I often begin contemplating the effect that it will have on my body.
- Walking Meditation: Go for a walk in a safe place at a normal pace, noticing sensations you feel with every step along with viewing all of your surroundings. For example, make note of the colors of the trees and sky, the shape of the path, and the people you see without wondering where the people are going or what they may think of you.
- Mindful Stretching: Most people are extremely bound up and tight from a lack of movement and stretching. Mindful stretching fixes this along with helping you maintain your mind in the present. Get your yoga mat and start stretching out your body. Try to balance out your stretching between body parts, feeling your muscles the entire time. Focus on the tension in your muscles and the relief afterward.
- Yoga: Yoga is very similar to mindful stretching, but it is more structured. Try to find a yoga routine that incorporates a meditation aspect as well. If it doesn’t, that’s ok, just try to focus on your body and movements, dispelling and outside thoughts.
- Exercise: Lifting weights or doing cardio are great ways to keep your body and mind healthy. When you perform either, focus on your movements and how your body feels during them.
This list incorporates just a few of your many options to practice MBSR. My favorites are walking meditation, mindful stretching, and lifting weights. These are easy to incorporate into my day and give the added benefit of staying fit and flexible. Just remember to stay in the present moment within any activity you choose and stay consistent. These are the two biggest factors for success.
In addition to these two important reminders, there are a few other principles that are universally true to make MBSR successful:
- Treat the experience as a challenge rather than a chore. This is your journey to becoming more aware, awake, and in the present rather than something you ‘have’ to do. Remember that you are doing this to make yourself better.
- Stay disciplined and practice for at least 30 minutes daily. Missing a session out of necessity is fine, but don’t make it a habit if you want to be successful.
- Practicing long-term, though not necessarily as consistent as when you first start, has been shown to be necessary to maintain the positive effects on enhanced attentional control . You will likely find that the way these make you feel is something you deeply enjoy and choose to do willingly.
- This will probably be difficult at first (at least it was for me), so treat it as an educational experience. You are learning how to be in the present moment which may not come naturally right away.
- Try to bring yourself to the present moment throughout the day even outside of your training. Maybe on your commute to work, just focus on the sensation of the road, your current surroundings and the colors of the cars around you, for example.
- It’s hard to do this on your own, so find a partner or an online community to interact with if possible.
- Stay flexible with your practice. Don’t skip something just because it is hard, but if something really doesn’t work for you, there are many other practices that can be chosen from.
And finally, here are some attitudes for success from Jon Kabat-Zinn himself:
- Be free of judgment for yourself and others.
- Have patience, give yourself time and space to grow.
- You must BELIEVE that your mindset can be changed.
- You must be willing to learn. The quickest way to stop learning is to have the belief that you know everything. Learning is integral to the human experience and is how we grow to become better.
- Don’t have a set goal to strive for. This isn’t a competition, but rather a continuous bout of personal growth.
- Let go of your control and let the mindfulness take over.
- Practice self-compassion. It’s easy to be hard on yourself if you aren’t seeing progress, but you need to be kind and love yourself. The whole purpose of this exercise is to be more stress-free, happier, and healthier.
Begin your journey to superpower your focus
With everything that has been said, I hope that you will be willing to at least try MBSR to see what it can do for you. The risk is low, but the potential for a stronger mind and improving well-being is high. So, pick a few practices that sound enjoyable and doable and get after it.
 Moynihan, Jan A., et al. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Older Adults: Effects on Executive Function, Frontal Alpha Asymmetry and Immune Function.” Neuropsychobiology, vol. 68, no. 1, 2013, pp. 34–43., doi:10.1159/000350949.