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Last Updated on August 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 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]

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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]

      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]

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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 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

          10 Key Characteristics of a Highly Successful Entrepreneur 7 Natural (And Highly Effective) Ways to Improve Memory How to Ask for Help When You Need It Most Do You Have to Give Everything Up to Get a Fresh Start? You’ll Only Live Your Best Life Once You Step Out

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          Last Updated on October 17, 2018

          7 Natural (And Highly Effective) Ways to Improve Memory

          7 Natural (And Highly Effective) Ways to Improve Memory

          How is your memory? Is your cognitive function as strong as you’d like it to be?

          If not, then you’re definitely going to be interested in the memory improvement tips I’ll be sharing with you in this article.

          Despite what you might think – or have been told – improving your ability to recall information is certainly possible. You just need to know the right ways to do it. (Don’t worry, as you won’t need to make any significant lifestyle changes.)

          So how to improve memory? Let’s dive straight into the first of seven easy ways to improve your memory significantly.

          1. Meditate

          We live in a world of non-stop, 24/7 information. It’s like a waterfall that’s endlessly pouring news, data, facts and figures into our conscious minds.

          Unfortunately, our brains are not designed to absorb this tremendous amount of information. It’s no wonder then, that most people struggle to remember information and recall things.

          Even if you believe you have a good memory and are comfortable with multi-tasking, you’ll also be aware that there’s only so much information your brain can process at one time. And research suggests that the more information and distractions, the harder it is for you to transfer information to your long-term memory.[1]

          Fortunately, meditation can help you out.

          Even if you just meditate for 10 minutes per day, you’ll boost your ability to focus, which in turn, will make it easier for you to remember important facts.

          If you need help in shifting into a meditative state, I recommend trying an app like Headspace – which can assist you to achieve this in a convenient and structured way.

          And don’t forget, meditation doesn’t just have to be closing your eyes and sitting in a lotus position. Some people prefer to simply take a short walk in nature. This clears and calms their mind, and still provides the all-important boost to their focus.

          2. Get plenty of sleep

          If you’re sleep deprived or have not been sleeping well, then I’m guessing you’re not remembering well either. This is because sleep and memory are intimately connected.

          If you have a busy life and regularly find yourself not getting enough sleep, then this will negatively impact your cognitive abilities – including your memory.

          How much sleep should you be getting?

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          Well, according to the National Sleep Foundation, you need a minimum of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you get this amount of sleep regularly, then within just a few days, you’ll see a tangible improvement to your ability to remember and recall things.

          Now, I’ll be honest with you, maintaining a proper sleep cycle is not always easy (especially when the latest Netflix series has just been released!). But if you care about improving your short-term and long-term ability to remember things, then it’s critical that you try to get at least the recommended amount of sleep every night.

          Are there ways to hack the sleep cycle?

          Yes, there are.

          Try these three things:

          • Have a fixed bedtime (preferably before 10pm)
          • Don’t eat too late
          • Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible

          Sleeping is a precious activity. It regenerates your body, clears your mind, and helps with the storing and retrieval of information.

          However, don’t sleep just yet, as I want to tell you about another great way to increase memory…

          3. Challenge your brain

          When was the last time you challenged your brain?

          I don’t mean challenged in the sense of overeating or undersleeping. I’m referring to stretching your mental capabilities through things like crossword puzzles, Sudoku and memory games.

          To expand your memory bank, and to make your recall razor-sharp, you need to continually challenge your brain.

          Feedback from Lifehack readers such as yourself, has suggested that brain training apps are a super-effective way of doing this. Used regularly, these apps can enhance your focus, attention span, problem-thinking ability and memory.

          There are hundreds of these apps available (most of them for free), but I recommend starting out with one of the big three:

          • Peak (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
          • Lumosity (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
          • Elevate (Android/iOS, free, 5 million+ downloads)

          If you normally spend a chunk of your week playing computer games, then instead of shooting and killing your enemies, why not let some of them live – while you put your attention into boosting your brain power!

          Challenging your brain will strengthen your neural pathways and enhance your mental abilities. But don’t just take my word for it, try one of the apps above and see the positive benefits for yourself.

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          4. Take more breaks

          When I think back to my days as a budding entrepreneur, I distinctively remember working all the hours under the sun – and many under the moon too!

          At that time, I believed that breaks were for the weak, and to become wealthy and successful, I needed to shed blood, sweat and tears.

          However, I was wrong.

          Taking regular breaks is the best way to keep yourself productive, creative and alive to opportunities. It’s also the best way to learn new information.

          Let me explain.

          Typically, when studying lots of new information, most people will spend hours reading it – in an attempt to learn and remember the content as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they’ve overlooked something.

          Namely, extended study sessions are rarely a good thing, as your ability to retain information naturally declines after a certain period of time.

          It’s similar to physical exercise. You wouldn’t attempt to train vigorously for four hours in a row. Instead, you’d take regular breaks to give your lungs, heart and muscles adequate time to recover. Failing to do this will result in muscle cramps and overexertion.

          It’s the same with your brain. If you overload it with information, you’ll suffer from mental fatigue.

          What’s the answer?

          Make sure you take regular breaks when learning new information. I recommend at least a 10-minute break every hour. (You may also want to take a look at the Pomodoro Method.)

          If you don’t want to be as regimented as that, then take breaks as soon as you find yourself losing the ability to focus on the new material. Your brain will thank you – and your learning aptitude will move up a level.

          5. Learn a new skill

          I love this quote, as it’s 100% true – but frequently overlooked:

          “Learning never exhausts the mind.” – Leonardo da Vinci

          From my experience of helping to develop the careers of dozens of Lifehack employees, I can definitively say that participating in meaningful and purposeful activities stimulates the mind. It also reduces stress and enhances health and well-being.

          Let me give you an example of this:

          Imagine you work for a global financial institution in one of their call centers. You take over 100 calls a day – many of them complaints. When you started the job a few months back, you were excited to be in full-time employment and working for a household name.

          Unfortunately, your initial enthusiasm quickly turned into frustration.

          The endless complaint calls began to take their toll on you. And the supervisors irritated you too, as they were far too interested in micro-managing you – rather than letting you work in your own way.

          Now, in the story above, the ending could be that you put up with a job you didn’t like, and led a dull and frustrated working life for years and years. However, an alternative ending is this: you channeled your dissatisfaction in to learning a new skill (computer coding). It took you a year or two to get up to speed, but it allowed you to successfully upgrade your career – and the ongoing learning made the call centre job much more bearable.

          Clearly, learning new skills gives you impetus, focus and something to aim for. Your brain loves to learn, and you should tap into this by always seeking our new information. And when learning becomes a habit, you’ll find your ability to remember and recall things effortlessly, becomes a habit too.

          6. Start working out

          If you’re not already working out regularly, then here’s another reason to do so:

          Exercising for 20-30 minutes three times a week will improve your long-term memory.

          Regular exercise increases blood flow in your body and supplies the brain with extra oxygen and nutrients. And a well-nourished brain is a well-functioning brain!

          “But I just don’t have the time?,” I hear you say.

          Not a problem.

          A research has shown that a daily burst of 60 seconds of high-intensity exercise, offered many of the benefits of the longer exercise routines.[2] So, if you’re short on time – now you know what to do.

          Interested in getting started?

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          Here are five different ways that will help you work out:

          • Join a gym
          • Join a sports team
          • Buy a bike
          • Take up hiking
          • Dance to your favorite music

          7. Eat healthier foods

          I’m sure you’ve heard the expression: “You are what you eat.”

          This applies to your brain too.

          The food that you eat helps determine your brain’s capacity to store and recall information. A poor diet (think junk food + soda!) harms not just your physical health, but your mental health too.

          Fortunately, there are several foods that are especially good for your brain and your memory. These include: blueberries, celery and dark chocolate. But anything high in antioxidants will have a positive effect on your brain and memory.

          Conversely, highly-processed foods and those loaded with sugar will have a negative impact on your memory. This is due to them providing insufficient nutrients for your brain – leading you to easily suffer from mental fatigue.

          Want to be mentally healthy? Then eat and drink an abundance of these for brain health:

          • Turmeric – helps new brain cells grown
          • Broccoli – protects the brain against damage
          • Nuts – improves memory
          • Green tea – enhances brain performance, memory and focus[3]
          • Fish oilfish oil supplements can increase your brain power

          Here’re more brain food options that improve memory!

          Final thoughts

          I sincerely hope these seven memory boosting ways that I’ve covered in this article will be of help to you.

          You don’t need to implement them all. I suggest just trying the ones that appeal to you.

          But, if you’re serious about dramatically improving your memory, then make a start right now on adopting one or more of the ways I’ve suggested. I’m confident you won’t regret it.

          Featured photo credit: Eric Ward via unsplash.com

          Reference

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