Have you experienced a stretch when you were so focused that you got more done in a few hours than you typically do in days? Wouldn’t it be nice to tap into that flow more consistently? One way of achieving this is to optimize the production and release of a pair of powerhouse neurochemicals.
Also known as adrenaline, epinephrine is a neurotransmitter that controls alertness. The old saying is, “No alertness, no focus”, which is obvious when you think about it. (Who is able to focus when they are tired?) But in fact, this is something I see frequently in entrepreneurs who deal with burnout: their brain struggles to maintain alertness due to imbalances within the hypothalamic-adrenal-pituitary axis. The goal is to optimize epinephrine balance and so produce alertness with minimal caffeine and other stimulants, and there are a few techniques I’ve found that help:
- Master your sleep. Better sleep is quite simply the most effective way of improving overall health, including focus. Without adequate sleep, your levels of alertness are going to be affected significantly.
- Avoid getting too comfortable. Rather than making a working environment a cocoon, I’ve found that it’s best to keep it just uncomfortable enough to maintain alertness. Methods might include keeping the temperature cool, having some background noise, or sitting up straight. There is a fine line to this, however; if it’s too cold or noise is too loud, distractions ensue, so experiment until you find what works best.
- Use caffeine, but not too much. This age-old office drug does a good job of creating alertness, but too much can contribute to burnout. You shouldn’t need more than one to two cups daily, and avoid caffeine entirely past 2:00 p.m., as that has been shown to significantly impact sleep quality.
- Choose food wisely. Despite what many say, there is no one perfect diet or meal time. Determine which foods fuel you best (and which don’t) by keeping a journal of how you feel after eating certain dishes, and perhaps add to these results by conducting an elimination diet or through the use of a high-quality food sensitivity test.
A neurotransmitter that controls sensory input — which means it helps us focus senses like sight and smell — acetylcholine is a component of the parasympathetic nervous system. One way of understanding its function is to consider the difference between predators and prey. Most predators have eyes towards the front of their heads so they can focus on stalking, whereas prey have them towards the sides so they can look out for predators. In essence, we want to be akin to predators… eyes focused straight ahead, and this in part achieved by improving acetylcholine activity in the brain.
- Do two minutes of visual exercises. Pick a small area in your direct line of sight and stare at it for two minutes to train your brain to focus on work. This might sound silly, but pays dividends when practiced consistently.
- Remove all potential distractions. Put your phone in a different room, or do what I do and lock it in a timed box so you aren’t tempted. Use an app to block all distracting websites. Remove whatever it is that keeps sapping your attention.
- Increase acetylcholine level itself. This can be done both through diet and supplementation. Choline, for example, is a precursor to acetylcholine that’s found in egg yolks, and is also available in supplements, as is alpha GPC, which can also help boost levels.
- Nicotine. This suggestion is a bit more controversial, certainly, but nicotine has been found to be useful for boosting acetylcholine activity, though I would only use tobacco-free sources like nicotine-coated toothpicks or lozenges.