How To Focus: 8 Time-Tested Strategies

Almost everyone gets bored at work or school – at least occasionally.

We have no historical records to consult, but it’s a pretty good bet that Middle Age stonemasons and weavers got bored from time to time, and that ancient hunter-gatherers got tired of hunting and gathering every once in a while.

And they didn’t even have group texts and Facebook to distract them.

Let’s talk about focus.

Why Is It So Hard to Focus?

There are several reasons why it’s harder than ever for most people to focus at work. First, our attention spans are shorter than ever.

A huge debate followed the release of a 2015 Microsoft study which claimed that the average human attention span had declined from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2015. (Some say that even a goldfish has a longer attention span, at nine seconds).

But whether or not those Microsoft numbers are valid, the decline in attention span is very real.

A comprehensive study published in the journal Nature Communications looked more deeply into the issue; the researchers didn’t quantify the average human attention span, but used several different measuring techniques to conclude that we unquestionably have “shorter attention cycles” than in the past.

Researchers have a name for the second reason why it’s so difficult for us to focus: “increasing information flows.”

In simple terms, there’s more and more content than ever for people to consume, and the Internet – particularly social media – makes it easy for us to consume that content in bite-sized pieces.

That has conditioned us to expect important information to be short, to the point, and easy to understand.

There’s one more reason why it’s harder than ever to focus: the ready availability of distractions.

Unlike our parents, we don’t have to wait to get home to watch TV news shows or read the newspaper. Everything’s instantly available on our phones. And the temptation to pick up the phone to check email or Facebook can sabotage whatever you were doing at work or school.

It’s no wonder why it’s become so hard to focus, particularly if you’re not into your day-to-day responsibilities.

There are strategies you can use, however, to minimize the attention span and focus issues that are more prevalent than ever. Here are eight of the best.

Taking Care of Your Work Responsibilities

We’ve divided the strategies into two categories. The first set deals with how you actually handle your work.

1. Lists Are Your Best Friend

In the long-ago days when people used paper and pencil, they made lists. Some people made lots of lists. Others preferred to use sticky notes prominently displayed in their workspace.

Society, of course, has moved away from paper, pencils, notebooks, and sticky notes. Today we rely primarily on apps.

But here’s the big problem with apps: even if you rigorously keep track of appointments, tasks and reminders – they’re all on your phone. And when you use the phone for some other purpose, the app is just running in the background.

It’s up to you to remember that you have tasks and reminders to take care of, and you have to make a conscious effort to pull the app back up after you finish texting or surfing.

(The same goes for desktop organizing programs, which can easily become just one of ten easy-to-ignore open windows on your screen.)

One of the easiest ways to focus on tasks and responsibilities is to go back to the future with a good old-fashioned to-do list. These lists aren’t just a wistful return to simpler days; research shows that to-do lists increase productivity.

Here’s how to make a to-do list work for you. 

  • Prioritize your list by putting the most immediate or important tasks at the top, and cross off the tasks as they’re completed.
  • Don’t bounce around the list unless absolutely necessary. That’s a guaranteed prescription for losing focus.
  • Don’t list broad, sweeping projects that might seem overwhelming. It’s much too easy to skip over them if they’re too intimidating. Instead, break the project into smaller tasks listed individually. That makes each one more approachable and easier to complete.
  • Keep the list right next to your monitor, laptop or workspace, so it’s impossible to ignore. 

If you find it impossible to use paper and pencil (or sticky notes) in the 2020s, maintaining a to-do list on your phone can still help you focus on the tasks at hand. Just resolve to leave the list open on your phone while you’re working – and to ignore calls or texts that might come in and force the list to the background.

We’ll have more to say on the subject of calls and texts next.

2. Distractions Are Not Your Ally

You may tell yourself that you need to take phone calls or answer texts as soon as they come in, that you work better with something playing on your device or second monitor, or that chatting with co-workers helps maintain good working relationships.

Here’s what you’re probably not willing to tell yourself: in most cases, those constant distractions are just excuses for procrastination.

Productive work requires focused work time, and that means eliminating potential distractions:

  • Close your office door (if you have one), ask people who work near you not to disturb you, or find a quieter place to work
  • Turn off the ringer and notifications on your phone (don’t power it down, though, if that’s where you keep your to-do list)
  • Close any windows on your computer that aren’t necessary
  • Turn off audio or video (especially news or talk shows) that may divert your attention.

In a nutshell, eliminate all temptations to focus on something other than the job at hand.

Pro tip: Apps like Offtime or Flipd allow you to block social media, games and other time-wasters while you work, so you’re not tempted to “just quickly check” what’s happening on Facebook or Instagram.

We haven’t mentioned one other huge culprit. It gets a category all its own.

3. Email Is a Convenience, Not Your Overlord

Yes, it gets annoying when email piles up. Yes, there may be occasional emails that you have to answer sooner rather than later.

But it’s impossible to maintain focus when you’re checking your mail every few minutes.

For many people, email is the number one distraction preventing them from concentrating on a job that needs to get done. It’s nearly impossible to maintain a clear, productive train of thought when you put everything on hold every few minutes just to check your email.

Even worse, “checking email” can easily turn into a long session of “answering email.” Once you’re done, it isn’t always easy to just pick up where you left off, without retracing your steps to find what you were doing and remember exactly what you had planned to do next.

And by that time, you may feel the need to check your email again.

The solution is easy. Set aside time to take care of email at the beginning of the day, at lunchtime, and at the end of the day. It may be difficult to ignore your email for hours at a time. But once you’ve eliminated the distraction you’ll find that your focus during the work day has improved dramatically.

Email is indeed the primary method of interoffice communication in some companies, which makes it impossible to completely ignore incoming messages. In that case, set aside one of your regular work breaks (which we’ll be discussing next) to check email. Better yet, use a separate email client which only alerts you when an interoffice email arrives.

4. Give Yourself a Break – or Several

Being able to concentrate on a task is crucial for maintaining focus. However, there’s a limit to everyone’s attention span.

After spending a good deal of time single-mindedly attacking your work, it’s only natural that your mental energy is drained and you begin to lose focus. There’s a name for that type of mental tiredness: work fatigue.

That’s why you have to give yourself a break. In fact, you have to give yourself regular breaks to stay productive.

One popular time management approach is called the Pomodoro technique. It calls for 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break, repeated four times. Each 30-minute period (work, then short break) is called a Pomodoro; after the fourth Pomodoro, you’ve earned a longer 20-30 minute work break.

Where did the name come from? Pomodoro means “tomato” in Italian, and the technique’s originator, Francesco Cirrillo, used a tomato-shaped timer when he developed the method in college. To show how prevalent the Pomodoro technique has become, you can even buy an official Pomodoro timer on Amazon.

The amount of time spent working and taking breaks isn’t etched in stone, needless to say. What’s important is developing – and sticking to – good habits that increase productivity and minimize the time available for goofing off.

This approach to time management also creates positive reinforcement, since you’re allowed to choose your own reward after focusing on work for a set period.

Whether you prefer to spend your break time exercising, visiting a local coffee shop, texting, daydreaming, reading, or even checking email, the off-time allows you to recharge your batteries and plunge back into the next set of Pomodoros.

It also creates a more enjoyable and positive work environment – and makes it more likely that you’ll look forward to heading back to the office the next day.

5. Don’t Try To Be Superman or Superwoman

You’ll often hear people bragging about their ability to get a lot done because they’re so good at multitasking. If they’re actually among the 2% of people who are considered “supertaskers,” then they have a right to boast. Otherwise, they’re just fooling themselves.

Most people who think that they’re multitasking are really doing something different: “serial mono-tasking,” or switching their focus between several different tasks during the same period. Research continually shows that most people who task switch are less efficient and more likely to make mistakes, particularly when they’re performing new or difficult work.

Chances are good that when you try to multitask, you’re not giving any of the tasks the attention they deserve. Doing things the old-fashioned way, concentrating on one job at a time, will boost your overall performance and allow you to focus completely on the work in front of you.

And if you feel you have to multitask, try to only handle similar tasks at the same time. That limits the types of information you’re juggling, making it less likely that you’ll miss important details.

Taking Care of Yourself

No successful athlete or entertainer can just step onto the field or stage and be at their best, day after day. They need to work out or practice, and they need to take care of themselves properly.

Similarly, you shouldn’t expect to be at your best, work day after work day, without paying attention to your physical health, your mental health, and your brain health. As it turns out, all three are related.

6. Do the Right Things

Remember all those things that your parents and health teachers preached while you were growing up? They were right.

It’s nearly impossible to maintain focus if you’re not healthy and in decent shape. That means following the common-sense practices that contribute to health and wellness: eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, not overindulging in drugs or other substances, and getting enough sleep.

Taking healthy habits to the next level can boost brain performance and focus, too. Including “brain foods” like fatty fish, green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, eggs, nuts, and seeds supplies the brain with a wealth of important nutrients. Getting at least seven hours of sleep each night boosts memory performance and concentration.

What about coffee? Glad you asked.

7. Caffeine Can Help – In Moderation

We probably don’t have to sell you on the benefits of coffee, tea, caffeinated soda, or energy drinks. Chances are good that you’re among the 85% of Americans who drink at least one caffeinated beverage every day (and the 62% who drink coffee every day). You certainly know that caffeine can help you wake up, and it can revitalize you when you’re starting to fade.

But it can also help you focus and boost brain health because caffeine is a stimulant with mood-elevating properties.

The best way to consume coffee for mental sharpness and focus is to drink it without sugar. Sugar highs and crashes are a huge problem when you’re trying to maintain cognitive function. A caffeinated drink like Super Coffee uses the healthy, non-nutritive sweetener monk fruit extract instead; it’s one of several good alternatives to the usual coffee with cream and sugar.

There’s one caution, however. The Mayo Clinic, among others, recommends consuming no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine (the equivalent of 4-5 cups of coffee) per day. Otherwise, you’re likely to experience the jitters and anxiety associated with caffeine overdose, which is certainly not conducive to focus and concentration.

8. Stay Calm and Focus

Mindfulness is a very big deal these days.

Whatever you think about fads, the idea behind mindfulness is what’s important when you’re performing a task and want to maximize your focus. Mindfulness means focusing “full attention on the present,” which is simply another way to say “clearing all distractions from your mind and only paying attention to the current environment.” In other words – mindfulness helps you focus.

The method suggested by adherents is called mindful meditation. It involves techniques like breathing exercises and visualizing positive mental images, which help create relaxation and stress reduction. Research has shown that mindful meditation is an effective way to improve focus and job performance.

But it’s not the only alternative. Simply being aware of what’s happening in the present, recognizing when your attention starts to wander, and redirecting your focus back to the task at hand can provide most of the same benefits.

Focus on Staying Focused

Most of these techniques may seem simple – but in a hectic work environment and fast-paced world, they’re easy to forget or ignore. Focusing on these eight techniques is a proven way to improve your focus where it really counts: in the workplace and in your life.

Written by Jordan DeCicco

8 min read

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