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Last Updated on March 20, 2018

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 what you can do to reduce distractions, be more productive, and increase your focus.

What makes staying focused difficult

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]

    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]

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      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]

      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.

      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]

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        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 find 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.

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          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.

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          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

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          How to Fight Information Overload

          How to Fight Information Overload

          Information overload is a creature that has been growing on the Internet’s back since its beginnings. The bigger the Internet gets, the more information there is. The more quality information we see, the more we want to consume it. The more we want to consume it, the more overloaded we feel.

          This has to stop somewhere. And it can.

          As the year comes to a close, there’s no time like the present to make the overloading stop.

          What you need to do is focus on these 4 steps:

          1. Set your goals.
          2. Decide whether you really need the information.
          3. Consume only the minimal effective dose.
          4. Don’t procrastinate by consuming too much information.

          But before I explain exactly what I mean, let’s discuss information overload in general.

          The Nature of the Problem

          The sole fact that there’s more and more information published online every single day is not the actual problem. Only the quality information becomes the problem. This sounds kind of strange…but bear with me.

          When we see some half-baked blog post we don’t even consider reading it, we just skip to the next thing. But when we see something truly interesting — maybe even epic — we want to consume it. We even feel like we have to consume it. And that’s the real problem.

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          No matter what topic we’re interested in, there are always hundreds of quality blogs publishing entries every single day (or every other day). Not to mention all the forums, message boards, social news sites, and so on. The amount of epic content on the Internet these days is so big that it’s virtually impossible for us to digest it all. But we try anyway.

          That’s when we feel overloaded. If you’re not careful, one day you’ll find yourself reading the 15th blog post in a row on some nice WordPress tweaking techniques because you feel that for some reason, “you need to know this.”

          Information overload is a plague. There’s no vaccine, there’s no cure. The only thing you have is self-control. Luckily, you’re not on your own. There are some tips you can follow to protect yourself from information overload and, ultimately, fight it. But first…

          Why information overload is bad

          It stops you from taking action. That’s the biggest problem here. When you try to consume more and more information every day, you start to notice that even though you’ve been reading tons of articles, watching tons of videos and listening to tons of podcasts, the stream of incoming information seems to be infinite.

          Therefore, you convince yourself that you need to be on a constant lookout for new information if you want to be able to accomplish anything in your life, work and/or passion. The final result is that you are consuming way too much information, and taking way too little action because you don’t have enough time for it.

          The belief that you need to be on this constant lookout for information is just not true.

          You don’t need every piece of advice possible to live your life, do your work, or enjoy your passion.

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          So how to recognize the portion of information that you really need? Start with your goals.

          1. Set your goals

          If you don’t have your goals put in place you’ll be just running around grabbing every possible advice and thinking that it’s “just what you’ve been looking for.”

          Setting goals is a much more profound task than just a way to get rid of information overload. Now by “goals” I don’t mean things like “get rich, have kids, and live a good life”. I mean something much more within your immediate grasp. Something that can be achieved in the near future — like within a month (or a year) at most.

          Basically, something that you want to attract to your life, and you already have some plan on how you’re going to make it happen. So no hopes and dreams, just actionable, precise goals.

          Then once you have your goals, they become a set of strategies and tactics you need to act upon.

          2. What to do when facing new information

          Once you have your goals, plans, strategies and tasks you can use them to decide what information is really crucial.

          First of all, if the information you’re about to read has nothing to do with your current goals and plans then skip it. You don’t need it.

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          If it does then it’s time for another question. Will you be able to put this information into action immediately? Does it have the potential to maybe alter your nearest actions/tasks? Or is it so incredible that you absolutely need to take action on it right away? If the information is not actionable in a day or two (!) then skip it. (You’ll forget about it anyway.)

          And that’s basically it. Digest only what can be used immediately. If you have a task that you need to do, consume only the information necessary for getting this one task done, nothing more.

          You need to be focused in order to have clear judgment, and be able to decide whether some piece of information is mandatory or redundant. Self-control comes handy too … it’s quite easy to convince yourself that you really need something just because of poor self-control. Try to fight this temptation, and be as ruthless about it as possible – if the information is not matching your goals and plans, and you can’t take action on it in the near future then SKIP IT.

          3. Minimal Effective Dose

          There’s a thing called the MED – Minimal Effective Dose. I was first introduced to this idea by Tim Ferriss. In his book The 4-Hour Body,Tim illustrates the minimal effective dose by talking about medical drugs. Everybody knows that every pill has a MED, and after that specific dose no other positive effects occur, only some negative side effects if you overdose big.

          Consuming information is somewhat similar. You need just a precise amount of it to help you to achieve your goals and put your plans into life. Everything more than that amount won’t improve your results any further. And if you try to consume too much of it, it will eventually stop you from taking any action altogether.

          4. Don’t procrastinate by consuming more information

          Probably one of the most common causes of consuming ridiculous amounts of information is the need to procrastinate. By reading yet another article we often feel that we are indeed working, and that we’re doing something good – we’re learning, which in result will make us a more complete and educated person.

          This is just self-deception. The truth is we’re simply procrastinating. We don’t feel like doing what really needs to be done – the important stuff – so instead we find something else, and convince ourselves that “that thing” is equally important. Which is just not true.

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          Don’t consume information just for the sake of it. It gets you nowhere.

          In Closing

          As you can see, information overload can be a real problem and it can have a sever impact on your productivity and overall performance. I know I have had my share of problems with it (and probably still have from time to time). But creating this simple set of rules helps me to fight it, and to keep my lizard brain from taking over. I hope it helps you too, especially as we head into a new year with a new chance at setting ourselves up for success.

          Feel free to shoot me a comment below and share your own story of fighting information overload. What are you doing to keep it from sabotaging your life?

          (Photo credit: Businessman with a Lot of Discarded Paper via Shutterstock)

          Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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