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Last Updated on August 4, 2021

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

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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 effectively. 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 Gets in the Way of Staying Focused?

Being Physically Unfit

Everything is more difficult when you feel sick or tired, and 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]

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, so 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 know how to focus when you’re worried about something else. Your limbic system, the epicenter for all your emotions and memories, attaches feelings to everything.

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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.[4]

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.[5]

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.

Multitasking

You may think you’re being more efficient when you multitask, but only about 2% of the population can effectively multitask.[6] James Clear’s illustration has best described the myth of multitasking:

    Human brains aren’t designed to do the kind of cognitive shuffling multitasking requires. People end up with a nasty build up of “attention residue” when they switch between tasks, so it should be avoided when you want to learn how to focus.[7]

    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.

    Furthermore, 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.[8]

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    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.[9]

    How to Focus in a Distracted World

    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, and let people know that you respond 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.

    You can make use of this Full Life Planner to help you better schedule your everyday tasks and keep your mind focused.

    2. Email Batching

    Emails can come into our inbox continuously throughout the day, and it’s tempting to respond to them 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. Make Technology 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 when you want to learn how to focus. Turn off email alerts and 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 encouraging you to leave your phone well alone.

    4. Schedule a Distraction Time

    Just as important as scheduling focus time is scheduling distraction time to take a break from work.The average attention span for an adult is between 15 and 40 minutes. After this, distractions become more powerful and paying attention becomes more difficult. So, while taking a short break might seem unproductive, in the long run it makes the brain more efficient towards a task.

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    5. Anticipate Your Internal Needs

    You may think it’s the external distractions that cause us to be unproductive, but actually 44% of distractions are internal. Hunger, boredom, stress, and lack of sleep have probably played a part in your lack of motivation many times.

    The good news is that you can control these factors by understanding your patterns and planning ahead to eliminate distractions. Notice when you usually start to feel sleepy, hungry, or bored.

    Taking note of these patterns and counteracting them is a great 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 is about to rumble, and go for a quick run up and down the stairs if you’re tired.

    6. Practice Mindfulness

    Mindfulness meditation 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.

    You can learn how to meditate with this helpful guide: The 5-minute Guide to Meditation: Anywhere, Anytime

    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, making it a perfect addition to your routine when you want to learn how to focus.

    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.

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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 your 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, as 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

    The Bottom Line

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

    Start by addressing your physical health and emotional needs. Identify what’s distracting you and compartmentalize tasks like managing email during 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 and concentration 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.

    More on How to Focus Effectively

    Featured photo credit: Dollar Gill via unsplash.com

    Reference

    More by this author

    Leon Ho

    Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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    Last Updated on September 9, 2021

    The Ultimate List of Deep Focus Music for Productive Work

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    The Ultimate List of Deep Focus Music for Productive Work

    Everyone has their favorite habits for boosting productivity. Your desk setup, morning routine, and diet all play a role. But there’s one thing that everyone agrees can make a difference: focus music.

    Soothing beats can keep distractions at bay, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. Whether you’re trying to drown out mowers or simply get into a groove, put on a pair of headphones. Music can make all the difference in your focus.

    With that said, not all music is equally conducive to productivity. You need to be careful about what you listen to. Getting work done calls for very different sounds than getting a workout in.

    If you need a little more help to get rid of distractions, check out Lifehack’s free guide End Distraction And Find Your Focus. In this guide you’ll learn the simple techniques to stay focused and boost productivity. Grab your free guide here.

    This article will walk you through selecting the best music for productivity, as well as a list of tunes to help you get started.

    How to Pick the Best Focus Music For Yourself

    With so many genres and artists out there, there’s a lot of music to choose from. Before you press play, keep the following guidelines in mind:

    1. Stick With Instrumental

    Songs without words in them make it easier to focus. Lyrics can distract you from what you’re trying to accomplish because you might get the words mixed up with what you’re trying to read. If you’re writing something, you might find yourself typing the lyrics instead.

    Intelligence and instrumental music are correlated, perhaps because instrumental music is less intrusive.[1] Instrumental music tends to fade into the background, giving you a rhythm without pulling your mind away from the task at hand.

    Stay away from instrumental versions of songs you recognize. It’s easy to fill in the blanks with the lyrics if you’ve already committed them to memory.

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    However, some exceptions can be made. Creatives who produce videos or audio might prefer tracks that get their creative juices going, lyrics and all. However, if you find lyrics to be distracting, switch back to instrumental tunes.

    2. Take It Easy

    Not all instrumental music is calm and relaxing. Focus music should be, however. So, beware of instrumental songs that are too loud and stimulating. High volumes and tempos can work you up when you need to stay calm.

    Again, some roles can make exceptions. Physical laborers can use more rambunctious tunes to keep them energized. While calm tunes work best for those in desk-based roles, don’t go too extreme. Something that’s too soothing might make you feel tired, and yawning all day isn’t exactly the path to productivity.

    3. Pick Music You Enjoy

    At the end of the day, the best focus music is what you enjoy. If you hate classical music, don’t put together a classical playlist just because you stumbled on a study about its benefits.[2] Your dislike of the music will take away the productivity you’d otherwise get out of listening to it.

    Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you’ve never worked while listening to jazz before, why not? Save songs you like for later listening. Over time, you’ll build a playlist of tried-and-true focus music.

    4. Update Your Setup

    Before jamming out to your productivity tunes, make sure you have the right equipment. Invest in a music streaming service so you don’t have to listen to ads. Purchase noise-canceling headphones to avoid distracting your co-workers.

    Focus music is all about ambience. Anything that interrupts your flow—whether that’s poor sound quality or glitchy streaming—needs to go.

    Expect to spend at least $100 on headphones or speakers. For the streaming service itself, Spotify Premium is the standard at $9.99 per month. Slacker, Apple Music, and YouTube Music are also popular.

    Building Your Perfect Playlist of Focus Music (With Recommendations)

    Now that you know what to look for in focus music and how to listen, it’s time to build your playlist. Get started with these smooth, instrumental genres, artists, and songs.

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    1. Chillhop Music

    This YouTube channel has almost 3 million subscribers. Its music videos run 24/7 and feature driving yet relaxing beats.

    Most songs on this channel fall into a category called “lofi hip hop,” a type of electronic R&B. Unlike traditional hip hop, lofi hip hop songs follow a slow, steady pattern that induces focus and relaxation.

    Chillhop playlists can also be streamed on Spotify, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp. Popular artists include nymano, No Signal, and Sleepy Fish.

    2. Andy McKee

    Andy McKee is an acoustic guitarist who became famous after “Drifting,” one of his early songs, went viral on YouTube. “Drifting” exemplifies the creative, quiet guitar techniques found in the rest of McKee’s music.

    Today, McKee has six albums of primarily acoustic guitar. One of McKee’s most popular pieces, “Rylynn,” is a perfect example of his soothing yet upbeat sound.

    3. John Butler Trio

    The band John Butler Trio became popular after releasing “Ocean,” a 2012 hit with more than 50 million listens on YouTube.[3] Heavy on acoustic guitar, “Ocean” is an intricate ballad that ebbs and flows like the ocean itself.

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    Known for flowing changes in key and mood, the John Butler Trio proves that fast songs can stand in as great focus music. The group’s long songs—“Ocean” is 12 minutes long—are less disruptive for long projects. Two other favorites by John Butler Trio are “Betterman” and “Spring to Come.”

    4. Classical Radio on Pandora

    Classical music has long been a staple for music lovers looking to get work done. Pandora’s classical station features a great mix, from Beethoven to modern artists like Maria Callas and Jorge Bolet.

    Pandora has radio stations for every genre imaginable. You can generate playlists based on genre, artist, or even a specific song.

    Other music apps offer similar playlists and radio stations you can turn to for your classical music fix. From piano-heavy tunes to violin concertos, you’ll find plenty to perk up your ears.

    5. Pirates of the Caribbean Soundtrack

    Movie soundtracks are full of amazing focus music. One of my favorites is the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which is lively and adventurous but not in your face.

    If you like what you hear, Hans Zimmer, the mastermind behind the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, has worked on a huge array of films. Zimmer also put together the soundtracks for The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and Inception.

    One thing to watch out for with cinematic music is associations. As iconic as the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack is, if you’re thinking about Jack Sparrow instead of balancing spreadsheets, you should probably switch to a new song.

    6. Legend of Zelda Soundtrack

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    Another hotspot for instrumental music is video games. If you’re not sure where to start, check out selections from The Legend of Zelda.

    Anyone who’s played The Legend of Zelda games will immediately recognize what they hear. The soundtrack is light, airy, and full of awe. Keyboards, harps, and flutes feature prominently.

    Although you could spend hours listening to The Legend of Zelda music, don’t forget about fan-produced songs in this genre. The video-gaming community is robust, and instrumental re-creations of your favorite games’ soundtracks can be found all over the internet.

    7. Nature Sounds and White Noise

    This genre may be too relaxing for some, but others prefer less structured focus music. Sounds like thunder, wind, and rushing water can transport you to a quiet, idyllic place to get work done.

    One type of white noise to avoid is city-related sounds. Even without lyrics, honking horns or chattering crowds can be distracting.

    An advantage of this type of focus music is that it can be set on a loop. If you find a track you like, go ahead and put it on repeat. When it starts over, you won’t even notice.

    Ready, Set, Play

    The best part about focus music is that nothing is off-limits. Some people work better listening to Tom Petty tunes than instrumental music, and that’s okay. What’s important is that it’s motivating without being distracting.

    To unlock your next tier of productivity, spend a couple of hours clicking around on your favorite streaming music site. You’ll get more done, and best of all, you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

    More Tips to Improve Your Focus

    Featured photo credit: Lala Azizli via unsplash.com

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    Reference

    [1] New York Post: Smarter people listen to instrumental music: study
    [2] Forbes: Does Classical Music Help Our Productivity?
    [3] YouTube: Ocean – John Butler – 2012 Studio Version

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