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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 January 5, 2022

    The 5 Fundamental Rules Of Working From Home

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    The 5 Fundamental Rules Of Working From Home

    Suppose you finally took the plunge: resigned your corporate job, decided to follow the passion of your life and (by lack of a new office space, of course), you started to work from home. Welcome to the club! Been there for a few years now and, guess what, it turned out that working from home is not as simple as I thought it would be.

    It certainly has a tons of advantages, but those advantages won’t come in a sugary, care free, or all pinky and happy-go-lucky package. On the contrary. When you work from home, maintaining a constant productivity flow may be a real challenge. And there are many reasons for that.

    For instance, you may still unconsciously assimilate your home with your relaxation space, hence a little nap on the couch, in the middle of the day, with still a ton of unfinished tasks, may seem like a viable option. Well, not! Or, because you’re working from home now, you think you can endlessly postpone some of your projects for ever, since nobody is on your back anymore. You’re your own boss and decided to be a gentle one. Fatal mistake. Or…

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    OK, let’s stop with the reasons right here and move on to the practical part. So, what can you do to squeeze each and every inch of usefulness and productivity from your new working space and schedule (namely, your home)? What follows is a short list of what I found to be fundamentally necessary when you walk on this path.

    1. Set Up A Specific Workplace

    And stay there. That specific workspace may be a specific room (your home office), or a part of a room. Whatever it is, it must be clearly designed as a work area, with as little interference from your home space as possible. The coexistence of your home and work space is just a happy accident. But just because of that, those two spaces don’t necessarily have to blend together.

    If you move your work space constantly around various parts of your house, instead of a single “anchor space”, something awkward will happen. Your home won’t feel like home anymore. That’s one of the most popular reasons for quitting working form home: “My home didn’t feel like home anymore”. Of course it didn’t if you mixed all its parts with your work space.

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    2. Split Work Into Edible Chunks

    Don’t aim too high. Don’t expect to do big chunks of work in a single step. That was one of the most surprising situations I encountered when I first started to work from home. Instead of a steady, constant flow of sustained activity, all I could do were short, compact sessions on various projects. It took a while to understand why.

    When you work in a populated workspace, you behave differently. There is a subtle field of energy created by humans when they’re in their own proximity, and that field alone can be enough of an incentive to do much more than you normally do. Well, when you’re at home, alone, this ain’t gonna happen. That’s why you should use whatever productivity technique you’re comfortable with to split your work in small, edible chunks: GTD, pomodoro.

    3. Work Outside Home

    In coffee shops or other places, like shared offices. It may sound a little bit counterintuitive, to work outside your home when you’re working from home. But only in the beginning. You’ll soon realize that working from home doesn’t mean you have to stay there all the time. It basically means your home is also your office and you’re free to go outside if you want to.

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    I know this may not apply to all of the “work from home” situations, but for those related to information processing, when all you need is a laptop an internet connection, that usually works beautifully. It adds a very necessary element of diversity and freshness. It can also be the source of some very interesting social interactions, especially when you have to solve all sort of digital nomad situations.

    4. Go Out!

    Working from home may be socially alienating. After almost 3 years of doing it, I finally accepted this as a fact. So, apart from balancing your home time with consistent sessions of working outside of your home, you should definitely go out more often. Our normal work routine, the one that is performed in an office, that is, makes for an important slice of our social interaction needs. Once you’re working from home, that slice won’t be there anymore. But your need for social contacts will remain constant.

    So, my solution to this was to grow my social interaction significantly over what I was having when I was working in my own office. Going out to movies, running in the park, meeting for drinks or just chat, whatever it takes to get me out of my home/working space. On a one to ten scale, my social life before was around 3 and now is at a steady 7.

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    5. Thoroughly Log Each And Every Day

    It goes hand in hand with keeping a personal journal, but this time it’s about work, not personal feelings and experiences. Keep a detailed log of each project and be always ready to pick up from where you left one day or one week ago in just a matter of minutes. It’s not only a productivity enhancer, although it will help you be more productive, but it’s more on the accountability area.

    When you work from home you’re your own boss. And, for any of you who are (or have been) bosses, this is not an easy position. You gotta keep track of all the information about your team and of every advancement in your projects. That’s what a boss is supposed to do, after all. When you work from home you have to perform this bossy role too, otherwise you will be lost in your own unfinished ideas and endless project stubs faster than you think.

    Featured photo credit: Ian Harber via unsplash.com

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