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Mind Control: How to Focus and Pay Attention

How to Zone In

The extreme opposite of being completely distracted is being in a state of total concentration, when everything's going so beautifully that you lose track of time and before you know it the kitchen is clean, the checking account is balanced, or your craft project is ready for display. It took three neurotransmitters working in harmony to get you there: dopamine (which helps you stay focused), serotonin (which gives you a sense of well-being), and norepinephrine (which offers a bolt of energy). "When your brain is engaged this way you're energized and motivated, yet at the same time relaxed and centered," says Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., author of Find Your Focus Zone (Free Press).

But there's a catch: You can't find the zone by pushing for it. Palladino suggests these steps for being totally focused:

  1. Ask yourself three questions: Am I bored? Am I tense? Am I relaxed and alert?
  2. Based on the answer, make adjustments. If you're bored, remind yourself of your desired outcome with a simple statement such as, "When I finish cleaning the closet, I'll have lots more room." If you're tense, breathe deeply and say the words, "Here. Now." Of course if you're relaxed and alert, your mind is already at its best.
  3. Envision success. For example, if you're working on a complicated recipe and you're losing focus, imagine the dish cooked to perfection and tasting delicious. Being reminded that the goal is achievable brings you back to your task.
  4. Check in with yourself when the job is done. If you're worn out or cranky, it may be that you were overstimulated or didn't get enough rest before you started. Either way, take a brief break to unwind before starting something else.

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