Many people think that being able to focus is purely a process of the mind. But it is also very much a physical process. Being a little bit hungry helps. Eating too much doesn’t. The amount of food you eat is very important. So is the type of food you eat. I’ll explain below.
Today I was working at the office and in our lunch break we decided to treat ourselves to a nice lunch in a Surinamese restaurant nearby. I was hungry and the things on the menu looked delicious. So I ordered way too much food. But I loved it and ate it all. Then we walked back to our office and I sat at my desk.
my stomach felt really full and my body went into some kind of ‘sleep mode’
My stomach felt really full and my body went into some kind of ‘sleep mode’. I stared at the screen but the letters were vague and I had trouble focusing. I felt warm and just wanted to close my eyes and drift away. But I fought it and just kept working at half speed.
Hunger and focusing
So, what happened to my body? Well: after eating, my parasympathetic nervous system became active to digest the food and more blood went to the digestive system to help absorb the food. Hence the blood flow to my brain reduced. Making me sleepy.
When I started thinking about this I realized that I never had any trouble focusing when I was a little bit hungry. Not too hungry, because when you are really hungry your whole body will channel all its energy to providing nutrition to sustain the body.
hunger causes mice to take in information more quickly and to retain it better
Then I read that researchers found that the stimulation of hunger causes mice to take in information more quickly and to retain it better. It basically makes them smarter. And that’s very likely to be true for humans as well.
It seems that, when you are hungry, you need to focus your entire system on finding food in the environment. And your mind becomes focused.
So, how can we take advantage of that? Simple! When you need to do something that needs you to be focused, make sure you are just a little bit hungry. And maybe just snack a bit to keep that edge state. Such advice, applied on a national scale, might help save our schools.
I guess that is what Steve Jobs meant with his famous quote: ‘Stay hungry’
Glucose and focusing
Changes to our diet can have a massive impact on our productivity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) adequate nutrition can raise your productivity by 20 percent on average.
Almost everything we eat will be broken down to glucose. Glucose is always in our blood and it is keeping our brains awake and alert. You can compare it to having fuel in a car.
some foods release glucose quickly, when others do that more slowly
The important thing to know is that some foods release glucose quickly, when others do that more slowly. Research showed that the brain works best with about 25 grams of glucose circulating in the blood stream. Which is about the amount found in a banana.
It is quite easy to get those 25 grams in your blood stream. You can eat a cupcake. Or you can eat a bowl of oats. In the short term there is virtually no difference for your brain activity.
But when you look at the entire 8 hour workday there is a much bigger difference.
After eating the donut – which releases the glucose in our blood very quickly – we will have about 20 minutes of alertness. Then our glucose level will drop rapidly and we start having trouble focusing again.
The oats will release the glucose much slower. That means we will have a steady glucose level and a much better focus for a longer period.
So, what can we learn from all this?
When we are working and need to be focused and productive we should stay a little bit hungry. Don’t eat large amounts of food but just snack a bit a few times a day. And when you eat: try to eat good food that releases the glucose slowly into your blood stream.