Advertising
Advertising

How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

Until you know how to focus, you’ll never be able to think clearly, solve problems, make decisions, or remember things. Being focused is important but staying on a task is becoming harder and harder. A symphony of notifications can draw you out of whatever you’re doing at a moment’s notice.

Every time your mind wanders from your work, you have to waste time and energy getting back on track. A recent study from the University of California calculated that it took people an average of 25 minutes and 26 seconds to get back to work after an interruption.[1] This means that every time something takes your attention off your work, you lose nearly half an hour of your precious time.

Interruptions are bound to happen, but when they happen several times per day, you’ll waste lots of time and energy. In this guide, you’ll learn more about why it’s so hard to stay focused and how to focus to reduce distractions and be more productive.

What makes staying focused difficult

1. Physically unfit

Everything is more difficult when you feel sick or tired. If you haven’t been getting enough sleep, your mind is bound to wander.

Human bodies are meant to be in motion, but many of us lead sedentary lifestyles. Not getting enough exercise is another common reason you might lose focus quickly. Exercising helps your body regulate hormones and process insulin. It also alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety.[2] A British study found that people’s work performance was better on the days they exercised:

    What you eat and drink can play a major role in your ability to settle into your work, too. Start by staying properly hydrated. About 60% of your body is water. If you’re dehydrated you’re going to feel sluggish, and your brain won’t be able to work as well.

    Digestive upsets and imbalanced gut bacteria are disruptive no matter what you’re doing. An upset digestive system is uncomfortable, but it also prevents you from making use of all the nutrients in your food. This means that even if you are eating well, you may not be getting the nutrition that helps you focus.

    For example, B Vitamins are essential for digestion and we deplete them rapidly when exposed to stress. A lack of B Vitamins will almost certainly leave you feeling foggy-headed.[3]

    2. An emotional brain

    You know how hard it can be to focus when you’re worried about something else. Your limbic system, the epicenter for all your emotions and memories, attaches feelings to everything. Based on a study conducted by Bond University professor of management Cynthia Fisher, there are some common emotions at work shown to shape performance:[4]

    Advertising

      The way you feel about your work can destroy your productivity and focus if you have a negative point of view. It’s worthwhile to take some time to get to know yourself so that you can figure out what triggers emotional reactions and loss of focus.

      One of the best things you can do is infuse your life with positivity. When your work triggers positive emotions, you’ll be more interested in what you’re doing, and it’ll be easier to stay on task.[5]

      3. Too many distractions

      We’re fortunate to have so much technology at our fingertips, but these advances are a double-edged sword. As you work, phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media notifications threaten to derail your focus.

      A 2012 study from the McKinsey Global Institute found that people spend around 13 hours or 28% of their work-week managing emails.[6] That’s not to say that all time spent on technology is non-productive. It’s just that most of us have a hard time compartmentalizing our inboxes and notifications so that they don’t pull us from other tasks. As mentioned, it takes a whopping 25 minutes and 26 seconds to regain focus on average. Distractions are costly.

      4. Multitasking through the day

      You may think you’re being more efficient when you multitask, but only about 2% of the population can effectively multitask.[7] James Clear’s illustration has best described the myth of multitasking:

        For the other 98%, they mutitask in three different ways:[8]

        • Do two things at the same time.
        • Switch to a new task without completing the original thing they were working on.
        • Rapidly cycle back and forth between tasks, which gives the illusion that they are among the 2% of effective multitaskers.

        Human brains aren’t designed to do that kind of cognitive shuffling. People end up with a nasty build up of “attention residue” when they switch between tasks.[9]

        If you’ve ever been distracted by thinking about something else you have to do while you’re working on another project, you’ve experienced the effects of attention residue. Constantly shifting between tasks can cost you about 40% or 16 hours of your workweek. That’s like tossing two days out of every work-week in the trash. [10]

        Advertising

        Multitasking can cause you to perform as though you’ve lost 10-15 points on your IQ score. No matter how smart you are, that’s a significant drop in your effectiveness. A study from the University of London likened this to missing an entire night of sleep.[11]

        You’ll thrive if you can learn how to focus and carve out time for deep work. You’ll need to create windows of time that are completely free of distractions like emails if you want to be most effective.[12]

        How to focus in a distracted world

        Tricks to tackle distractions

        1. Block out time for uninterrupted work

        Make sure you schedule important time for yourself where you can focus on your tasks in uninterrupted silence. Let people know that you won’t be responding unless absolutely necessary. Think of this as scheduling a meeting with yourself and treat it the same as you would when scheduling a meeting with others.

        Put your status as “busy” on your messaging apps and shared calendars. Wear headphones (even if you aren’t listening to anything) to make yourself appear that you’re focusing on your work. Intentionally carving out this block of time will help you focus and cause others to be more hesitant about distracting you.

        2. Email batching

        Emails can come into our inbox continuously through the day and it’s tempting to respond to them as and when we receive them. Similar to blocking out specific time for focus, carve out time to deal with emails in one go.

        Doing this will create more productivity and keep you in the flow of dealing with emails one after the other. If you find you still get distracted easily by every new email, you can install a Chrome extension called Block Site which allows you to stop Gmail notifications coming through at specific times.

          3. Turn technology from a distraction into a useful tool

          These days, many people feel controlled by technology and their phones to some extent so make use of the disabling options it gives you. Turn off email alerts, app notifications, set your phone to go straight to voicemail and even create auto-responses to incoming text messages.

          There are also some really cool apps that encourage you to be more productive and less distracted by your phone. Forrest is an app that rewards you each time you focus well, motivating you in a fun way and encourages you to leave your phone well alone.

          4. Schedule a distraction time

          Just as important as scheduling focus time is scheduling distraction time.

          Advertising

          A study conducted by the social networking company Draugiem Group, found that regular breaks was the key to productivity. More specifically, the most productive employees spent 52 minutes working followed by a 17 minute break each time.

          This is down to the brain’s ability to stay motivated – it just can’t sustain long periods of focus and concentration. The average attention span for an adult is between 15 and 40 minutes. After this, distractions become more powerful and we become less motivated. So while taking a mental break might seem unproductive, in the long run it makes the brain more efficient towards a task.

          Techniques to train a more focused mind

          5. Anticipate your internal needs

          You may think it’s the outside physical distractions that cause us to be unproductive but actually 44% of distractions are also internal. Think about it – hunger, boredom, stress and lack of sleep have probably played a part in your demotivation many times.

          The good news is, you can control these factors by understanding your patterns and planning ahead. Do you always feel sleepy late-afternoon? Does the hunger set in around 11am? Do you start to get bored towards the end of the day? Taking note of these patterns and counteracting them is a brilliant way to become less distracted by them.

          Mix up your tasks so you alternate the boring and interesting ones more frequently. Keep a snack close when you know your stomach starts to rumble. Go for a quick run up and down the stairs to perk you up.

          6. Practice mindfulness

          Mindfulness trains your mind to identify thoughts that arise throughout your day. When it comes to distraction, understanding and noticing these moments can help you deal with them more quickly and increase your attention span.

          Meditation and mindfulness practice can be done at any time. While you eat your food, notice the taste, texture and how it looks and feels. When reading, really take in every word or while out walking notice how your body feels and the details of your surroundings. Doing this on a regular basis will eventually train your mind when it comes to other areas where distracting thoughts pop up like a work task.

          Watch this 20-minute guided mindfulness exercise guide if you want to learn how to practice mindfulness:

          7. Exercise regularly

          Not only is exercise good for the body but it’s also good for the brain. Physical exercise fires up the neurons in the brain making you more alert and willing to concentrate. This means it increases your ability to ignore distractions and get on with the task at hand.

          You can do an exercise routine in the morning and head straight into work making sure your block of focus time is carved out first thing. You’ll be surprised at how much motivation you have and how much you get done. If you think you’re too busy to do any exercises, here’s how to find time for exercises.

          Advertising

          8. Create a willpower workout

          Just like your muscles need a workout, so does your willpower in order to build up its strength.

          Setting daily self-control habits can train our mind in the art of control in many other areas. In the book Willpower  by John Tierny and Roy Baumeister, Tierny cites a study in which students were asked to watch their posture for a week. At the end of that week, these students performed better on self-control tasks (tasks that were unrelated to sitting up straight) than another group who weren’t asked to be mindful of their posture.

          A good willpower practice is to watch the way you speak. Make an effort not to use contractions i.e. try saying ‘I am’ instead of ‘I’m’. Speak in complete sentences and refrain from saying ‘nah’ instead of ‘no’ or ‘yeah’ instead of ‘yes’.

          Alternatively, try using your opposite hand in tasks. The aim is to get your brain used to mental effort and the more it uses mental effort, the more it builds up your willpower muscle. Find out more ways to help you increase your willpower here: 10 Simple But Powerful Tricks to Boost Willpower

          A solid routine to stay focused

          You don’t have to wonder how to focus if you set a routine. Having excellent habits leads to a productive routine that saves you tons of time and helps you focus.

          Finding and adopting the right daily routine will help you regain wasted time. Your mind and body will thank you for the decreased anxiety and your productivity will be super-boosted.

          If you’re looking for inspiration about habits you should incorporate into your day, check out my post about how to create your own powerful routine:

          A Powerful Daily Routine that Will Upgrade Your Life (With Exact Steps to Follow)

          Now you know why it’s hard to stay focused and what steps you can take to stay on-task.

          Start by addressing your physical health and emotional needs. Identify what’s distracting you and compartmentalize tasks like managing email to specific times in your day. If you’re a chronic multi-tasker, it’s time to hang up that hat and focus on one thing at a time.

          Above all, develop productive habits that lead to efficient routines so that deep focus becomes the norm for you. You have all the tools you need to figure out how to focus on the things that matter most to you. It’s time to give your work your undivided attention.

          Featured photo credit: Stocksnap via stocksnap.io

          Reference

          More by this author

          Leon Ho

          Founder & CEO of Lifehack

          The Lifehack Show: Yoga to Combat Stress and Improve Your Life with Nicole Lovald How Systems Thinking Makes You a Smarter Person How Do You Change a Habit (According to Psychology) How to Learn Quickly And Master Any Skill You Want What Is Creativity? We All Have It, and Need It

          Trending in Smartcut

          1 How to Set Ambitious Career Goals (With Examples) 2 15 Ways to Set Professional Goals (Examples Included) 3 How to Change Habits When You Feel Stuck in a Rut 4 Need Journal Inspiration? 15 Journal Ideas to Kickstart 5 How to Set Financial Goals and Actually Meet Them

          Read Next

          Advertising
          Advertising
          Advertising

          Last Updated on March 25, 2020

          How Do You Change a Habit (According to Psychology)

          How Do You Change a Habit (According to Psychology)

          Habits are hard to kill, and rightly so. They are a part and parcel of your personality traits and mold your character.

          However, habits are not always something over-the-top and quirky enough to get noticed. Think of subtle habits like tapping fingers when you are nervous and humming songs while you drive. These are nothing but ingrained habits that you may not realize easily.

          Just take a few minutes and think of something specific that you do all the time. You will notice how it has become a habit for you without any explicit realization. Everything you do on a daily basis starting with your morning routine, lunch preferences to exercise routines are all habits.

          Habits mostly form from life experiences and certain observed behaviors, not all of them are healthy. Habitual smoking can be dangerous to your health. Similarly, a habit could also make you lose out on enjoying something to its best – like how some people just cannot stop swaying their bodies when delivering a speech.

          Thus, there could be a few habits that you would want to change about yourself. But changing habits is not as easy as it seems.

          In this article, you will learn why it isn’t easy to build new habits, and how to change habits.

          What Makes It Hard To Change A Habit?

          To want to change a particular habit means to change something very fundamental about your behavior.[1] Hence, it’s necessary to understand how habits actually form and why they are so difficult to actually get out of.

          The Biology

          Habits form in a place what we call the subconscious mind in our brain.[2]

          Advertising

          Our brains have two modes of operation. The first one is an automatic pilot kind of system that is fast and works on reflexes often. It is what we call the subconscious part. This is the part that is associated with everything that comes naturally to you.

          The second mode is the conscious mode where every action and decision is well thought out and follows a controlled way of thinking.

          A fine example to distinguish both would be to consider yourself learning to drive or play an instrument. For the first time you try learning, you think before every movement you make. But once you have got the hang of it, you might drive without applying much thought into it.

          Both systems work together in our brains at all times. When a habit is formed, it moves from the conscious part to the subconscious making it difficult to control.

          So, the key idea in deconstructing a habit is to go from the subconscious to the conscious.

          Another thing you have to understand about habits is that they can be conscious or hidden.

          Conscious habits are those that require active input from your side. For instance, if you stop setting your alarm in the morning, you will stop waking up at the same time.

          Hidden habits, on the other hand, are habits that we do without realizing. These make up the majority of our habits and we wouldn’t even know them until someone pointed them out. So the first difficulty in breaking these habits is to actually identify them. As they are internalized, they need a lot of attention to detail for self-identification. That’s not all.

          Advertising

          Habits can be physical, social, and mental, energy-based and even be particular to productivity. Understanding them is necessary to know why they are difficult to break and what can be done about them.

          The Psychology

          Habits get engraved into our memories depending on the way we think, feel and act over a particular period of time. The procedural part of memory deals with habit formation and studies have observed that various types of conditioning of behavior could affect your habit formations.

          Classical conditioning or pavlovian conditioning is when you start associating a memory with reality.[3] A dog that associates ringing bell to food will start salivating. The same external stimuli such as the sound of church bells can make a person want to pray.

          Operant conditioning is when experience and the feelings associated with it form a habit.[4] By encouraging or discouraging an act, individuals could either make it a habit or stop doing it.

          Observational learning is another way habits could take form. A child may start walking the same way their parent does.

          What Can You Do To Change a Habit?

          Sure, habits are hard to control but it is not impossible. With a few tips and hard-driven dedication, you can surely get over your nasty habits.

          Here are some ways that make use of psychological findings to help you:

          1. Identify Your Habits

          As mentioned earlier, habits can be quite subtle and hidden from your view. You have to bring your subconscious habits to an aware state of mind. You could do it by self-observation or by asking your friends or family to point out the habit for your sake.

          Advertising

          2. Find out the Impact of Your Habit

          Every habit produces an effect – either physical or mental. Find out what exactly it is doing to you. Does it help you relieve stress or does it give you some pain relief?

          It could be anything simple. Sometimes biting your nails could be calming your nerves. Understanding the effect of a habit is necessary to control it.

          3. Apply Logic

          You don’t need to be force-fed with wisdom and advice to know what an unhealthy habit could do to you.

          Late-night binge-watching just before an important presentation is not going to help you. Take a moment and apply your own wisdom and logic to control your seemingly nastily habits.

          4. Choose an Alternative

          As I said, every habit induces some feeling. So, it could be quite difficult to get over it unless you find something else that can replace it. It can be a simple non-harming new habit that you can cultivate to get over a bad habit.

          Say you have the habit of banging your head hard when you are angry. That’s going to be bad for you. Instead, the next time you are angry, just take a deep breath and count to 10. Or maybe start imagining yourself on a luxury yacht. Just think of something that will work for you.

          5. Remove Triggers

          Get rid of items and situations that can trigger your bad habit.

          Stay away from smoke breaks if you are trying to quit it. Remove all those candy bars from the fridge if you want to control your sweet cravings.

          Advertising

          6. Visualize Change

          Our brains can be trained to forget a habit if we start visualizing the change. Serious visualization is retained and helps as a motivator in breaking the habit loop.

          For instance, to replace your habit of waking up late, visualize yourself waking up early and enjoying the early morning jog every day. By continuing this, you would naturally feel better to wake up early and do your new hobby.

          7. Avoid Negative Talks and Thinking

          Just as how our brain is trained to accept a change in habit, continuous negative talk and thinking could hamper your efforts put into breaking a habit.

          Believe you can get out of it and assert yourself the same.

          Final Thoughts

          Changing habits isn’t easy, so do not expect an overnight change!

          Habits took a long time to form. It could take a while to completely break out of it. You will have to accept that sometimes you may falter in your efforts. Don’t let negativity seep in when it seems hard. Keep going at it slowly and steadily.

          More About Changing Habits

          Featured photo credit: Mel via unsplash.com

          Reference

          Read Next