By Camille Noe Pagán
"I'm so scatterbrained I must have ADHD." It's a lament that doctors like Michael Coates, MD, are hearing more and more from adult patients, many of whom assume medication is the answer to their woes. Yet most people don't have ADHD, nor do they need a pill, says Coates, who chairs the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine. "What they need is a better routine." In fact, only about 4.5 percent of American adults are estimated to have ADHD, according to a report in the American Journal of Psychiatry. For the rest of us, feeling unfocused is not the result of a disorder or even a personality trait -- it's simply a habit.
"There's never been another time in history when there was so much to be distracted by, and all our technology reinforces the feeling that you're missing out on something if you're not able to pay attention to a bunch of things at once," says Charles Folk, PhD, director of the cognitive science program at Villanova University. To regain your focus, a few tiny lifestyle tweaks may be all you need.
Swap Caffeine For Cardio
If you rely on triple lattes to pay attention, you'll likely find it harder to focus when you're not buzzed. "Your brain will begin to operate as though it requires caffeine to be alert," explains Coates. A more effective stimulant: exercise. Physical activity has been shown to sharpen focus, in people with ADHD and without, possibly because it can help trigger the release of chemicals in the brain that are thought to affect learning and memory. One report from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that aerobic exercise in particular may improve immediate and long-term functioning in regions of the brain relating to attention.
Drink More Water
A 2012 study in The Journal of Nutrition found that mild dehydration (so subtle that you don't really feel it) can lead to inattention. When women were less than 2 percent dehydrated (in this case, from not drinking enough water after exercise), their ability to concentrate on a series of cognitive tests was impaired. "When the brain detects even the smallest changes in physiology, it may begin operating at a suboptimal level to get your attention," explains study coauthor Harris Lieberman, PhD, a research psychologist at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. "Thirst is not the best measure of hydration, so a decrease in your ability to focus is an early warning signal that it's time to drink up."
Get Serious About Shut-Eye
"When a patient suspects she has ADHD, one of the first things I investigate is her sleep routine," says Vatsal G. Thakkar, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. "The inability to concentrate is often caused by a lack of delta sleep." Thakkar is referring to the slow-wave stage that precedes REM sleep; it's the time when the brain powers down, and some evidence suggests it's the period in which certain cognitive functions consolidate and strengthen. "If you're regularly dipping below seven hours, you're likely cutting into the delta phase, and this can make it difficult to focus when you're awake," says Thakkar. His Rx: Get a solid seven to nine hours a night for at least two weeks. If your concentration doesn't improve, see a sleep specialist to determine if an undiagnosed disorder like sleep apnea might be to blame.
Wiggle Your Toes
Ever catch yourself nodding along absentmindedly during a conversation as your brain flits to a million other things? "The frenetic nature of our society -- constant updates via e-mail and Twitter, for example -- provides some sort of excitement every few minutes, and we've become trained to expect that," says Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth. "If we're not stimulated after a short period of time, we look around for something that will do the job. This is true whether we're reading a dull news story or involved in a conversation." To be a more attentive listener, Cabane recommends taking a moment to focus your attention on your toes. This mindfulness trick will instantly bring you back to the present -- right where you belong.
Earlier on HuffPost:
Wake Up in Wonderland
Any time you encounter "meaning threat" -- that unsettling feeling you get when something makes no sense -- <a href="http://pss.sagepub.com/content/20/9/1125.abstract" target="_blank">your brain starts to work harder</a>, says Travis Proulx, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Test-takers were almost <i>twice as accurate</i> in analyzing data and learning patterns after Proulx and his colleague made them read bizarre, nonsensical stories by Kafka and David Lynch. <strong>Try this: </strong>Expose yourself to unusual experiences that may surprise or confuse you. There’s no surefire prescription for "meaning threat," but experiment with immersive avant-garde theater (like <i><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_No_More_%282011_play%29" target="_blank">Sleep No More</a></i>) or <a href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0347840/" target="_blank">David Lynch-style surrealist shorts</a> (humanoid rabbits muttering non sequiturs -- chew on <i>that</i>)…or hightail it to a country where you don’t know the language or customs (Other research has found that <a href="http://50.insead.edu/press_releases/insead-research-shows-going-abroad-linked-creativity" target="_blank">people are 20 percent more likely to solve difficult problems</a> after thinking back to culture-shock experiences they had when living abroad.)
Find the Right Coffee Shop
A University of Illinois study found that thinkers were better at coming up with creative solutions when working in a somewhat noisy space than in a quiet room. A certain level of background noise is distracting enough to nudge a stymied brain to think more abstractly -- which <a href="http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/665048" target="_blank">enhances creativity</a>, the researchers discovered. <strong>Try this:</strong> Leave your quiet comfort zone when stumped. The place you settle in must be energetic, but not <i>too</i> loud. The cognitive sweet spot is about 70 decibels, the noise level of a busy café. (A plus: <a href="http://www.businessinsider.com/advice-on-how-to-best-use-caffeine-from-a-neuroscientist-2012-6" target="_blank">The caffeine you’ll drink will speed you up and help you recall information better</a>. Add sugar to enhance the effects.)
Pop a Bubble
Chewing gum (even the sugar-free stuff) helps us stick to a task—and be faster and more accurate at it, too, finds a study at Cardiff University in Great Britain. In two studies involving auditory pattern and visual memory tests, <a href="http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bjop.12025/abstract" target="_blank">gum chewers outperformed their peers</a>. Exercising the jaw -- constantly, rhythmically -- increases blood flow to brain regions responsible for attention. This keeps us focused, even as we’re doing something tedious. <strong>Try this: </strong>The longer you chew, the greater the benefit. At 30 minutes, gum-chewers remained more focused on their task than the empty-mouthed.
Get Off Your Yoga Mat (50 Times, Quickly)
No doubt, yoga is a wonder exercise—it tones muscles, tames monkey mind and even burns some calories. But there’s one area in which it can fall short: as a cardio workout. <i>Only</i> aerobic exercise -- and most yoga doesn’t qualify -- gave rise to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17167157" target="_blank">increases in brain volume in regions related to memory and attention</a>, found a University of Illinois study that tracked older adults who followed various fitness training regimens. Aerobic activity is the best for raising levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a protein that encourages neurons to grow. <strong>Try this:</strong> Three one-hour sessions of aerobic exercise (jogging, speed-walking, bicycling) a week for six months, as prescribed in the study. Even a short, <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17185007" target="_blank">high-intensity aerobic exertion</a> -- like sprinting -- can dramatically raise BDNF, resulting in 20 percent faster learning in one study. For yogis who want an all-in-one workout, add pulse-raising Vinyasa Flow or Power Yoga to your practice and (this applies to everyone) a <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130409131811.htm" target="_blank">dose of meditation</a>—also proven to help us focus and retain information.
Go Deeper into Downton Abbey
TV shows, novels, loopy messages scribbled on the sidewalk -- anything can launch new ideas and insights if you "zoom out" enough, say Sandra Bond Chapman and Shelly Kirkland in their new book, <i><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Make-Your-Brain-Smarter-ebook/dp/B007EDYN18" target="_blank">Make Your Brain Smarter</a></i>. <a href="http://makeyourbrainsmarter.com/" target="_blank">The key to a stronger frontal lobe</a> is "integrated reasoning" -- finding ways to connect new information to your own life experiences and knowledge. <strong>Try this:</strong> Instead of simply following the plotline of a book or TV show, come up with insights or take-home messages that you can apply to your life. Everything can be mined: <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323293704578330243703304194.html" target="_blank"><em>Downton Abbey</em> for money lessons</a>, <a href="http://www.stylist.co.uk/people/jane-austen-life-advice" target="_blank">Jane Austen for life advice</a>, <i>anything</i>. When study participants pushed their minds this way, they showed cognitive gains after just six hours of training and significant structural changes in the brain’s white matter connections in six to12 weeks. "Mental weight-lifting" is not like physical exercise, Kirkland says. You must do this throughout your day, as often as possible, continually.
Mutter the Right Way
You might look and sound crazy (especially sans earbuds), but who cares? <a href="http://pps.sagepub.com/content/6/4/348.abstract" target="_blank">Talking to oneself (aloud or not) is now a scientifically proven brain-booster</a>, finds a review of 32 self-talk intervention studies from the University of Thessaly in Greece. It helps you to pay attention, steadies you emotionally and cues you to act. <strong>Try this:</strong> Self-talk is most effective when learning something new or enhancing performance. Little instructions (Do <i>this</i>. OK. Now, do <i>that</i>) are more helpful than "atta-girl" self-cheering, the researchers found. In one study, athletes ran faster when they spoke cue words to themselves (<i>push</i>, <i>heel</i>) through a race.
Embrace a Dying Art Form
Writing longhand -- not texting and typing -- stimulates brain regions involved in thinking, language and memory. In an MRI study at the University of Indiana, children who wrote out letters ("learning by doing," not just "seeing") showed <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20136924" target="_blank">more complex neural activation patterns than those who didn’t</a>. <strong>Try this: </strong> Use longhand, <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704631504575531932754922518.html" target="_blank">especially when learning foreign alphabets, mathematics and music</a> (or anything else involving letters or symbols). You may recall the information faster and for longer than if you typed it, just as adult students did in a study that involved <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm" target="_blank">recognizing Mandarin characters</a>. (If ballpoints are too archaic for you, use apps like <a href="http://notesplusapp.com/Notes" target="_blank">Plus</a> or <a href="https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.subhog.antipaper.notes&hl=en" target="_blank">Antipaper Notes</a> for hand-writing on your gadget.)
Translate Your Doozy of a Problem into Spanish
Your translation may be fuzzy, but your reasoning is clearer when you work out a problem in a foreign language, finds a University of Chicago study that asked bilinguals to make decisions. <a href="http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/04/18/0956797611432178" target="_blank">Speaking in a foreign tongue</a> distanced them emotionally from the matter at hand -- and they became more deliberate and unbiased in their thinking. <strong>Try this:</strong> If you speak a second language (even imperfectly), use it when you need to be especially logical, like when making tough financial decisions, the researchers suggest. Should you pay down your mortgage? Sell your penny stocks? Buy a castle? The best answer may come to you more easily than conjugating the subjunctive.