Being alert is something that helps us in almost every aspect of our lives. When we think of being alert we tend to think of quick reflexes and of the ability to react instantly to stimuli. For this reason we tend to associate alertness with activities like driving and sports – but this is a long way from being the full scope of what being switched on can achieve.
Being alert also helps us to come across as intelligent and quick witted as we are better able to answer difficult question, it helps us to spot every day dangers, and it helps us to come up with quick solutions to problems. Many people know the stereotype of the ‘absent-minded genius’. They’re quick witted and alert and they know what they’re doing when it comes to their theories and research for sure, but at the same time they are constantly forgetting things and are slow to answer questions precisely because they are too busy in their own heads to notice what’s actually going on around them in the real world. They might well be geniuses and they may well one day change the world, but to the people they meet they probably don’t seem too bright and they certainly won’t command respect. The reason? They lack alertness.
If you are suffering from something similar yourself and find that your mind is constantly drifting to more interesting things then you might also want to find ways to boost your alertness and your attention. Here we will look at some ways you can do that.
Getting lots of sleep is of key importance if you want to come across as switched on and alert. When we sleep we replenish our energy and our body makes repairs around our body – from our muscles to our brain. If you do not sleep then your body will be trying to send you to sleep in your waking hours and in extreme cases you can even end up with dreams forcing their way into your waking life. Note however that you also need to be careful not to over sleep as you can otherwise find you end up feeling groggy as a result of that too. Try to get eight hours a night and where possible keep them to the very same hours (in other words set a routine). At the same time be sure to create an environment that is conducive to sleeping and that means making sure that you have your room as dark as possible and as silent as possible.
In the case of the absent minded professor type, the reason they come across as dopey is that they are actually focusing on something else other than the situation at hand. This is because, quite simply, the ideas they are having are of more interest to them than reality or the situation they are in. If you want to be more alert then you need to reverse this process and be genuinely interested in what is going on around you. And to achieve that you need to recognize how much you can learn from the small things going on around you and your conversation with others. For instance, if you have a conversation with someone, and you already know everything they are telling you about, this doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t stand to learn anything. You stand to learn a lot in fact because you learn what they believe, whether they are telling you the truth, their personal spin on the matter and more. And just because you think you know what they are going to say doesn’t mean you do and they might surprise you by saying something that’s useful.
If you are having trouble staying focused when you are supposed to be listening to someone or when you are walking down the street then you need to come up with a reminder to ‘wake up’. This can be something simply like a colored band you wear on your wrist – every time you see the band, you then remind yourself that you are supposed to be focusing and you can make an effort to snap out of it. Setting an alarm to go off every few minutes is a good way to fix this too.
You can also set challenges designed to engage you with external stimuli. For instance you might decide to count some items in your environment. When playing catch or volley ball for instance you might find that your mind drifting and not paying attention to the ball causes you to miss it on occasion. Instead then try to focus your brain by counting each time the ball gets hit. This then means that you are forced to watch the ball in order to count the pats that each person makes and that in turn causes you to become more engaged in what’s happening and makes you less likely to forget to pay attention.
There are various kinds of training that can cause you to become more alert and this basically just means practicing focusing your attention for long durations of time. For instance a task used in training soldiers and pilots is to present them with a digital clock and get them to watch the seconds pass. Every now and then the second hand will skip a second and their job is to indicate this by pressing a buzzer. Interestingly there is an upper limit to how far more people can go, even with training, in terms of time, but it is nevertheless a good way to practice improving your own concentration. You can make this task harder as well by using distractions while you practice this. For instance put the television on in the background and see if you can still spot the skipped seconds.
Other training methods you can use are just to engage in tasks that require high amounts of concentration. Many sports are good for this such as tennis as they require you to know where your teammates are, where you opposition is, where the ball is and what the expected trajectory for the ball is. At the same time you need to get yourself into position and make sure you are abiding by the rules. To use an unfortunate pun, there are a lot of balls in the air in this situation which means your attention is stretched several ways. Simply participating in a task like this can help improve your mental focus and reflexes and you will probably find that most athletes are very switched on as a result. If all of your activities currently are very ‘cerebral’ then make sure to practice some that are also physical and you’ll find your alertness improves.
Memory also plays an important part in focus, and sometimes we mistake attention for memory and vice versa. The memory we’re interested in here is what’s called ‘short term memory’ – that’s the memory that you hold in your brain temporarily while calculating sums etc. If you can improve this aspect of your cognitive performance then you can at least increase others’ perception of your alertness by improving your ability to do maths, remember names and use quick thinking in your conversation.
Exercising is good for your focus in lots of ways. It helps to increase your heart rate and it helps to increase your awareness of your own body. At the same time it produces hormones that will help to improve your mood and focus and in the long term it can improve your short term memory. So this is something that will improve your mental dexterity in a number of different ways.
If your current lifestyle is one that is full of unhealthy habits then this is going to leave you slow witted and generally less alert and full of life than you could be. We’ve already mentioned how sleep can affect your alertness, but your diet will also play a role. For instance when we digest food this causes us to use up energy which means less available energy for the brain and for movement. So if you have a big test or a speech or a debate – don’t eat a huge meal beforehand. At the same time things like fats take a lot longer to digest, so keep your meals lean and you’ll have more spare energy. Drinking alcohol of course can also negatively affect your alertness as it causes the death of brain cells and so leaves you with fewer faculties with which to think. Fighting to keep your health good and your blood pressure low etc can all help to improve your body’s functions and thus keep you more awake and alert.
Anything that increases your heart rate and alertness can be called a stimulant and there are a range of different things that can work as stimulants and effectively improve your cognitive function. For instance a coffee is full of caffeine and will help to give you a kick. Meanwhile guarana is a different kind of natural caffeine that lasts all day and makes you less jittery, while vitamin B12 will help your body to get more energy from your carbs.
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