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Four Ways to Stay Focused on a Task

Four Ways to Stay Focused on a Task

It can be difficult to stay focused on a task. If you are like me, I oftentimes find my mind wandering to far away places. It is also hard not to procrastinate, and to start a task when you are supposed to start it. With the technology and social media that is readily available to us, we can get easily distracted.

If you are finding it hard to get motivated to start working on a task, think of these tips to help get you started:

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1.) Think beyond the task to the outcome.

To get started on a task, you should have in mind why you need to finish that task. Here is an example. To book your summer trip, you need to start saving now and continue to do so in the next few months so that you can buy tickets during winter season when fares are lower.  It can save you a lot of money that you can use as a down payment to buy a car!

If you have an end goal in mind, the greater the chance that you will start and stick to the task. If a goal is not in sight for a task, create one. Such an example is in cleaning the house. You need to start cleaning the whole house now because your dog walks around the house and then sleeps on the bed with you. The dirtier the floors are, the more dirt your dog will bring to your bed. Your goal is to not to have your dog bring dirt to your bed.

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2.) If you finish it, it’s done and you can move on to another task.

The faster that you get a task done, the sooner that you can work on other things. Prioritizing and doing what needs to be done first is something that a mature adult should do. When the task is done, you do not have to worry about it anymore. If you keep a task waiting or if you take a lot of time completing it, you are not getting out of doing it. Taking a long time to finish a task only prevents you from doing other things that you would rather be doing. Also, when you stay on a task, there will be a smooth flow of energy, effort, and creativity.

3.) Look at it as a challenge.

Think of how good it will feel once you have accomplished a task through your own personal efforts. Won’t that make you feel more confident and strengthen your faith in yourself? If the great challenge of finishing a task is too daunting for you, make up a simple challenge for the task. Make a list of tasks that you need to do, then check off each task as you finish it. Let the crossing out of each completed task on your list be the challenge that you need to get it done.

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4.) Know that if others can do it so can you.

You probably have not started a task because you are scared. What you should do is to think of all the other people in the world that have finished the task successfully. Every day, we are faced with some challenging tasks and while some people can do them, some do not. Be one of those that do their tasks. Think about a little child who can hike up and down that steep trail. If he can do it, so can you.

Face the fear and know that you are not the only person that is needing to finish a task in front of you. In the end, it all starts by getting ourselves motivated, and that motivation comes from how we perceive the task ahead of us.

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Sarah Bonander

Writer, Human Resources Professional

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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