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How To Focus: Eight Strategies To Keep You On Track And Productive
This article has been written by experts and fact-checked by experts, including licensed nutritionists, dietitians or medical professionals. The information in the article is based on scientific studies and research.
It is designed to be honest, unbiased and objective, and opinions from both sides of an argument are presented wherever there is disagreement.
The scientific references in this article (marked by 1, 2, 3, etc.) are clickable links to peer-reviewed research material on the subject being discussed.
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.
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 much more deeply into the issue; the researchers didn’t quantify the average human attention span, but used a number of different measuring techniques to conclude that we unquestionably have “shorter attention cycles” than in the past.
Their findings illuminate the second reason why it’s so difficult for us to focus: the researchers called it “increasing information flows.” In simpler terms, there’s more and more content than ever for people to consume, and the Internet – particularly social media – make it easy for us to consume it in bite-sized pieces. That, in turn, conditions us to expect important information to be short, to the point, and easy to understand.
The mechanics by which we now consume information illustrate the final reason why it’s hard to focus: the ready availability of distractions. We don’t have to wait to get home to watch TV news shows or read the newspaper; everything’s instantly available on our phone, which is right beside us while we work.
Whether it’s to check email, read a few (supposedly) work-related websites, chat with family and friends, watch Netflix, or search for a date – the temptation to “do something else for a few minutes” is always just a few inches away from our keyboard and monitor.
It’s no wonder why it’s become so hard to focus, particularly if you’re not overly excited and energized by 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, and carried calendars and notebooks in their suit pockets or purses, they made lists. Some people made lots of lists. Others preferred to use sticky notes prominently displayed in their work space.
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 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. You have 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 with your phone calls, your text messages or your 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 definitely increase productivity.
Prioritize your list by putting the most immediate or important tasks at the top, cross off the tasks as they’re completed, and most importantly, don’t bounce around the list unless absolutely necessary. That’s a guaranteed prescription for losing focus.
Pro tip: 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. And since each task will take less time than the entire project, you’ll get positive reinforcement every time you cross one off your list.
Keep the list right next to your monitor, laptop or workspace, so it’s impossible to ignore. And if you find it absolutely 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 any 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. You may tell yourself that you work better with something playing (or readily available) on your tablet, TV or second monitor. You may tell yourself that it’s important to maintain good relationships with co-workers by chatting with them whenever they come by.
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 any audio or video (like news or talk shows) that may divert your attention. Basically, eliminate the temptation 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. That one 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 have an internal urge to 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. You may have a hard time ignoring the siren song of unread – and potentially interesting or exciting – email. But once you’ve eliminated the distraction it will inevitably cause, you’ll find that your focus during the work day has definitely improved.
It’s true that email is 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, or better yet, use a separate email client which only alerts you when a business 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. In fact, there’s even 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 in order 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.
Italian speakers (or cooks) who know that pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato may be wondering where the name came from. It has no secret meaning; it’s based on the fact that 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. (OK, to say it more nicely, procrastinating).
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 of time. Whether you prefer to spend your break time with a little exercise, 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 helps create 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 general time period. Research continually shows that most people who task switch are really 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 (ideally, you should go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day).
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 supply the brain with a wealth of important nutrients, and 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.
The best way to consume coffee for mental sharpness and focus is do 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, both for its beneficial effects – and the profit potential for those who teach it.
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 only the present,” which is simply another way to say “clearing all distractions from your mind and just 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 imagery, which are practiced in order to produce 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 a 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 your life.