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Top 20 Ways to Improve Focus and Attention

Written by Helen Quach, BS (Biochemistry) | Last updated:
Evguenia Alechine
Medically reviewed by
Evguenia Alechine, PhD (Biochemistry) | Written by Helen Quach, BS (Biochemistry) | Last updated:

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The ability to focus your attention plays a role in many things – from studying for a test to positive social interactions. Attention deficits can be related to disorders or have other underlying factors. In this article, we dig deeper into what exactly focus is, and ways to improve it.

What is Attention?

Attention is the ability to take notice of something or someone. If you focus on something, that means that you are paying particular attention to something.

Forms of Attention

Sustained attention – The ability to focus cognitive function on specific stimuli.

Selective Attention – The ability to pick one thing to focus on while filtering out stimuli.

Task-switching – The ability to switch between tasks back and forth.

Visual Attention – A type of attention that allows us to deal with capacity problems by selecting relevant, and filtering irrelevant information. Visual attention has 3 subtypes including:

  • Spatial – Selectively processing visual information through prioritizing an area in your visual field.
  • Feature-based – Enhances how you perceive an image’s characteristics (useful for filtering out stimuli).
  • Object-based – The relationship between an object and selective attention, suggesting enhanced visual processing of that object’s feature.

Lifestyle Changes

1) Exercise Improves Focus/Attention

Regular aerobic exercise showed improvement in focus, task switching, selective attention, and attentional deficits associated with ADHD [1, 2, 3].

Exercise improves areas that contribute to the ability to focus, including [4]:

  • Sleep quality
  • Stamina and endurance
  • Response to stress
  • Energy levels
  • Vigilance

Exercise Mechanisms

  • Increases klotho, which can help with memory and brain function [5, 6].
  • Increases BDNF, which improves memory and selective attention [7].

2) Meditation Improves Focus/Attention

Experienced meditators were less affected by distracting sounds compared to beginner meditators [8].

Intense meditation improved perception skills (such as differing between two musical tones) and sustained attention in a study of 60 participants [9].

Meditation also increases the ability to switch focus between tasks, enhances the ability to process information when learning new things, and improves measures of all attentional tasks (in elderly) compared to non-meditators [10, 10, 11].

Meditation Mechanisms

  • Increases brain blood flow [11]
  • Increases cortical thickness in the brain. Decreased cortical thickness is associated with disease and aging [11]
  • Improves myelination [11]
  • Increases BDNF [11]
  • Reduces 5-HT2A activation in the default mode network [12]

Prescription Drugs

NOTE: Selfhacked does not support taking or not taking these or any drugs. Only take drugs under your doctor’s recommendation. Do not take this post as promoting the use of these medications – it is for informational purposes only. These are popular drugs, and people should know their uses, the evidence behind them and their drawbacks.

1) Adderall Improves Focus/Attention

Adderall is a pharmaceutical mix of levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.

However, Adderall is widely abused, and long-term abuse may cause brain toxicity [13].

Adderall improved symptoms of ADHD, including [14]:

  • Hyperactivity
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty maintaining focus while distracted
  • Difficulty sustaining attention
  • Delayed reaction time
  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Difficulty shifting attention between tasks

Adderall Mechanisms

  • Inhibits dopamine reuptake [14]
  • Increases norepinephrine [15]

2) Ritalin (Methylphenidate) Improves Focus/Attention

Ritalin is a stimulant used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.

In a study (DB-RCT) of 14 boys (aged 9-12 years), Ritalin significantly improved task switching and attention [16].

It is important not to exceed the minimum effective dose when using stimulants. Higher doses are associated with more errors when completing tasks [17].

Ritalin Mechanisms

  • Blocks the dopamine reuptake transporter [18].
  • Increases dopamine response duration [18].

3) Modafinil Improves Focus/Attention

Modafinil is a wakefulness-promoting drug used in the treatment of narcolepsy.

It significantly improved attention in people with ADHD within one week and improvement continued throughout the 9-week study [19, 20].

Modafinil may have advantages over current ADHD treatment due to less potential for addiction and the need to only take it once a day [21].

Modafinil Mechanisms

  • Increases orexin [22]
  • Moderately inhibits the dopamine transporter (DAT) and norepinephrine transporter (NET) [22]

4) Guanfacine Improves Focus/Attention

Guanfacine is an alpha-2 (a receptor that norepinephrine and epinephrine bind to) activator and that is prescribed alternatively to or with stimulant medications for ADHD.

It improved attention (in rats) and decreased distractions (in aged monkeys) [23, 24].

Guanfacine improved the forming, evaluating, and selection of thoughts and actions to achieve desired goals [23].

It’s important to note that studies on Guanfacine’s effects lack consistency and more research is needed [25].

Guanfacine Mechanisms

  • Mimics norepinephrine at the a2a receptor [23]
  • Enhances brain blood flow in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [23]

5) Selegiline (L-Deprenyl) Improves Focus/Attention

Selegiline is a selective irreversible MAO-B inhibitor and an MAO-A inhibitor at higher doses.

MAO inhibitors are dangerous when combined with various medications (barbiturates, morphine, etc.), supplements, and even foods high in tyramine. People with liver disease should also refrain from taking MAO inhibitors [26].

Selegiline metabolizes into methamphetamine and amphetamine stimulant compounds [27].

Methylphenidate and Selegiline were equally efficient in improving attention (teacher and parent ADHD rating scale test), but Selegiline had fewer side effects [27].

Selegiline may improve sustained attention, hyperactivity, and peer interactions associated with ADHD [28].

Selegiline (L-Deprenyl) Mechanisms

  • Enhances Dopamine D1 and D2 receptors [29]
  • Increases dopamine levels [30]
  • Inhibits MAO-B at low doses, preventing the breakdown of beta-phenylethylamine, dopamine, tyramine, and benzylamine [31, 32]
  • At higher doses inhibits MAO-A, preventing the breakdown of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and tyramine [31, 33, 34]

Over The Counter Supplements and Drugs

1) Caffeine Improves Focus/Attention

L-theanine and caffeine is a commonly used combination, or stack, in the nootropic community. The combination of L-theanine and caffeine significantly increased accuracy in switching attention between tasks [35].

In a study (DB-RCT), caffeine (75 mg/150 mg) increased alertness in 50 fully-rested and partially sleep-deprived subjects [36].

Caffeine can [37]:

  • Boost energy
  • Increase daily energy expenditure
  • Reduce fatigue
  • Decrease sense of effort associated with physical activity
  • Improve motor performance
  • Improve cognitive performance
  • Increase wakefulness
  • Reduce mental fatigue
  • Quicken reactions and improve accuracy on tasks
  • Improve concentration
  • Help solve reasoning problems
  • Improve ability to make correct decisions

Caffeine Mechanisms

  • Blocks adenosine receptors (A1R, A2aR, A2bR, and A3R) [38]
  • Inhibits phosphodiesterase enzymes and increases cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) [38]

2) Nicotine Improves Focus/Attention

Nicotine is addictive and poses many health risks. Safer methods of consuming nicotine than smoking include snus, patches, gum/lozenges, and vaping (these reduce the harm of smoke inhalation but do not remove the risk of addiction).

Nicotine improved attention deficits in patients with ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia [39, 40].

Nicotine showed improvement in a variety of forms of attention including [39, 41, 42]:

  • Sustained attention
  • Switching attention between tasks
  • Selective attention
  • Accuracy completing tasks
  • Visual attention

Although nicotine may provide acute boosts of focus, abstinence in chronic smokers causes difficulty concentrating and impairment of sustained attention [43, 42].

Nicotine Mechanisms

  • Increases brain blood flow in the parieto-occipital region [41]
  • Activates nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (α2-α10 and β2-β4), increases dopamine levels and releases glutamate, acetylcholine, and dopamine in the prefrontal cortex [42]
  • Increases long-term potentiation, strengthening connections between neurons [44]

3) Tyrosine Improves Focus/Attention

Tyrosine is a precursor to l-dopa, the precursor to dopamine, found mainly in high protein foods, or supplements. It can reverse cognitive deficits due to depleted dopamine [45].

Tyrosine improved stress-induced impairments of attention and multitasking [45].

Tyrosine Mechanisms

  • Converts L-dopa to dopamine through the tyrosine hydroxylase enzyme [45]

4) Citicoline (CDP-Choline) Improves Focus/Attention

Citicoline is a naturally occurring intermediate in the creation of phosphatidylcholine from choline.

In people with cognitive impairment associated with stroke and diseases of the vessels, citicoline improved [46]:

  • Attention
  • Ability to interact with the environment combining senses and motor skills
  • Behavioral and emotional control
  • Executive functions
  • Temporal orientation

Citicoline improved cognitive function and impulsivity associated with chronic marijuana use (pilot study) [47].

CDP-Choline Mechanisms

  • Enhances acetylcholine synthesis [48]
  • Increases phosphatidylcholine, which helps protect nerve cell membranes [48]
  • May alleviate free fatty acid-induced toxicity associated with stroke [48]

5) Ginseng Improves Focus/Attention

Ginseng is an herbal supplement that has a large range of cognitive function-enhancing and health benefits. It may improve attention, learning, and mental processing [49].

Although it cannot treat ADHD, ginseng shows potential as an addition to current treatment [50].

Ginsenosides (Rb1, Rg1, Rg5, and Rk) improve hyperactivity [50].

Ginseng Mechanisms

  • Ginsenosides increase norepinephrine and dopamine (cortex) [50].

Non-FDA-Regulated Supplements and Research Chemicals

1) Semax Improves Focus/Attention

Semax is a Russian developed drug prescribed primarily for its cognitive function-enhancing effects. It can improve selective attention [51].

Users find that Semax is effective in increasing focus, and clarity. Note that some users report no effects [52, 53, 54].

Semax Mechanisms

  • Increases BDNF (in rat hippocampus and frontal cortex) [55].
  • Increases serotonin (striatal) [56].
  • Increases resistance to hypoxia [55].

2) Noopept Improves Focus/Attention

Noopept is a peptide used to increase cognitive function. Its ability to increase beta waves improves attentive ability, and visual attention [57, 58].

It improved cognitive function in patients recovering from strokes [59].

Users report subtle improvements in [60, 61, 62]:

  • Focus
  • Alertness
  • Mental sharpness

Some users don’t experience positive effects, but it seems to be well-tolerated. Some users have reported being more sensitive to negative emotions.

Noopept Mechanisms

  • May increase alpha/beta1 activity in all brain regions [57]
  • Stimulates BDNF in the hippocampus [57]
  • Increases choline levels [57]
  • Reduces oxidative stress and improves the ability of antioxidant systems [57]

3) PRL-53 Improves Focus/Attention

PRL-8-53 is a compound derived from phenylethylamine.

In a study (DB-RCT) of 47 healthy participants, PRL-8-53 enhanced learning ability [63].

Users report PRL-8-53 works best in people with existing cognitive deficits. Some report mild stimulant properties. Other users report no benefit or negative experiences [64, 65].

Possible Mechanisms:

  • Increases choline response [63]
  • Increases dopamine sensitivity [63]

4) Sunifiram Improves Focus/Attention

Sunifiram is an experimental derivative of racetams, with significantly higher potency than piracetam, the first racetam synthesized.

In rats, sunifiram increased learning ability and had beneficial effects on cognitive function [66].

Users report benefits such as [67, 65, 65, 68]:

  • Improved focus
  • Easier to shift attention between tasks
  • Stimulating properties
  • Better mood

However, users also report side effects such as [67, 65, 65, 68]:

  • Intensity
  • Significant anxiety
  • Blood pressure issues
  • Short duration of positive effects
  • Even reports of psychotic episodes

It is recommended to increase the dosage slowly based on user reports.

Sunifiram Mechanisms

  • Increases acetylcholine (in rats cortex) [66]
  • Increases activity at AMPA receptors [66]

Racetams and Focus/Attention

Note from Joe: He is not personally a fan of racetams because they did not help him.

The effect of racetams varies significantly from person to person.

Supplementing choline in combination with racetams show better results [69, 70].

1) Phenylpiracetam Improves Focus/Attention

Phenylpiracetam is piracetam with a phenyl ring attached, increasing its potency.

It improved impairments of cognitive function in patients with brain lesions including:

  • Depression
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Lack of Attention
  • Difficulty counting

Patients also displayed increased energy and daily activity, possibly due to its stimulating effects [71].

Phenylpiracetam has not been well-studied in clinical trials. Users report an increase in focus, mood, and reaction times. Some people claim the improvement in focus are not as prominent as its mood-boosting effects [72, 73, 74].

Phenylpiracetam Mechanisms

  • Increased brain alpha/beta waves [71].

2) Oxiracetam Improves Focus/Attention

Oxiracetam is a mild stimulant and nootropic. It improved test scores in attention, consistency, and concentration (in ADHD, and mild to moderate dementia) [75].

Oxiracetam Mechanisms

  • Increases acetylcholine use (in rats) [76]
  • Increases choline use (in the hippocampus) [76]
  • Enhances the activity of choline pathways (septohippocampal) and the cortical choline network [76]

3) Piracetam Improves Focus/Attention

Piracetam is the most studied racetam.

It improved continuous, selective, and divided attention in children (60% response rate in 30 children receiving 70 mg/kg, 43% when receiving 40 mg/kg) with ADHD [77].

A single dosage (2.4g) of Piracetam compared to 4.8 or 9.6 g increased cooperativity between functional brain processes, suggesting a lower dose may be more effective [78].

Piracetam improved cognitive function in patients undergoing bypass surgery (DB-RCT) [79].

Piracetam Mechanisms

  • Increases blood flow to the brain [80]
  • Increase cell membrane permeability [81]
  • Improves the brain’s ability to form and reorganize connections between neurons [82]
  • Increases oxygen consumption to the brain [83, 84]
  • Protects against mitochondrial dysfunction [85]

4) Pramiracetam Improves Focus/Attention

Pramiracetam is a stimulating cognitive function enhancing drug belonging to the Racetam class.

Although it is a less studied racetam in regards to benefits to focus, it is often considered the strongest racetam.

Users report:

  • Extremely sharp focus, and increased depth of focus
  • Improved logical reasoning ability
  • Improved ability to handle tedious tasks
  • Ability to produce higher quality material when completing assignments

  • Increase in productivity

Some users also claim Pramiracetam to be the closest nootropic to a pharmaceutical stimulant. Like with most racetams, some users report little or no benefit [86, 87, 88, 89].

Possible Mechanisms:

  • Activates choline receptors [90]
  • Increases nitric oxide production [90]

Brain Networks in Focus/Attention

The Prefrontal Cortex plays a role in executive functions including [91]:

  • Sustained Attention
  • Short term memory tasks
  • Motor attention
  • Working memory
  • Planning
  • Flexibility
  • Detecting stimulus/completing tasks
  • Inhibitor control of interference
  • Delayed responding
  • Set shifting
  • Active problem solving

While these brain areas are needed to complete tasks at hand, they’re not necessarily involved in concentrating itself.

The Salience Network may be responsible for determining what is most important from incoming information and deciding what requires your focus.

Salience Network

The Salience Network includes three structures [92]:

  • Amygdala
  • Ventral Striatum
  • The Substantia Nigra/Ventral Tegmental Area

The Salience Network selects specific stimuli for additional processing from a constant stream of input information.

Saliency detection mechanisms in the brain are at the core of this process and split into two general mechanisms.

  1. A fast, automatic “primitive” mechanism for filtering out stimuli based on their senses.
  2. A high-order system for competitive circumstantial specific stimulus selection. This increases resources for goal driven-behaviors based on what is most important at the given time.

It’s important to note salience (importance of stimuli) may vary between individuals.

The Saliency Network plays a crucial role in identifying the most biologically and cognitive relevant internal and external stimuli to prioritize and guide behavior.

Structural Brain Changes and Brain Chemicals that Affect Focus

Dopamine – It plays a role in diseases with attentional impairments like ADHD and Alzheimer’s. It is a key neurotransmitter in the behavioral adaption and preparing voluntary attention [93].

Noradrenaline – It plays a role in many forms of attention. Stimulant medications also release a combination of noradrenaline and dopamine [94].

Cholinergic treatments (AMPA receptors/acetylcholine, phosphatidylcholine, nicotinic acetylcholine receptors) – They improve attention impairments in conditions where the choline system is dysfunctional. It also improves attention in healthy subjects [95, 96].

Beta/Alpha waves – These are both associated with attentional processes and other basic cognitive functions [97].

Cortical thickness – This is reduced in aging and in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Increasing cortical thickness improves focus, perceiving internal experience, sensory processing, and executive functions [11, 98].

Nitric oxide/Increasing brain blood flow – Regional blood flow changes are noted in people with ADHD. Additionally, decreased blood flow is associated with cognitive impairments in other diseases [99, 100].

BDNF – Low BDNF is associated with ADHD, and plays a role in working memory directly associated with selective attention [101, 102].

Testosterone – Low levels in aging or hypogonadism are associated with cognitive impairments of all kinds including focus. Raising levels to artificial extremes likely will cause cognitive problems, rather than improvements [103].

Myelination – It is associated with a range of cognitive functions, including attention [104, 105].

Klotho – Mouse bred with higher levels of klotho perform better on learning tests and had higher resistance to oxidative stress [106, 107].

Oxidative Stress – Reduced oxidative stress helps improve ADHD symptoms [108].


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About the Author

Helen Quach

BS (Biochemistry)

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