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Last Updated on February 10, 2021

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 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.

    Find out how to overcome distractions by learning to work with them instead of against them in this free Fast-Track Class – Overcoming Distraction. It’s a focused 30-minute session that will teach you what you need to get over distractions. Join the free class now.

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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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    Published on April 8, 2021

    10 Simple Ways To Refocus a Wandering Mind

    10 Simple Ways To Refocus a Wandering Mind

    Want to know what Steve Jobs thought was the ultimate key in achieving success?

    “Focus and simplicity… once you get there, you can move mountains.”—Steve Jobs

    And this belief is even more important today than it was years ago. At your fingertips is a literal world of information and entertainment. So, it’s no wonder we all have such wandering minds nowadays.

    Thanks to the internet and smartphones, attention is practically a currency we should be more budget-minded about. In fact, a person who can stay focused is not only more likely to get more done but also be more satisfied at the end of the day because of it.

    Going further, a person who’s focused will more easily achieve their goals—anything from losing 20 pounds to getting a promotion at work is within the reach of this type of person.

    So, in the spirit of that idea, here are 10 ways to tame that wandering mind of yours and turn it into a laser-focused brain that gets things done.

    1. Find Your Totem

    Remember the totem in the movie, Inception? It’s an item that reminded people they weren’t in a dream when they touched it, and it was able to keep them grounded in reality.

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    You can replicate this idea when it comes to staying focused as well. All you’ve to got to do is find something to be your “focus totem,” and it’ll remind you that you should stop daydreaming and get back to work. Ideally, it’s something you can see and touch.

    In the movie, a chess piece and a spinning top were used—both are good ideas. You could also use a picture of your family, a mini trophy, or even wear a ring to focus your mind as well. (In fact, a green lantern ring might be kind of cool for this.)

    2. Promise a Reward

    Incentives are an obvious way to go. Having gold at the end of any journey makes you want to press forward just for the sweet results. In general, rewards should correlate to the difficulty/length of the work.

    For example:

    • Finish a quick house chore = a piece of chocolate
    • Complete an annoying administrative task = 10 minutes of Youtube
    • A successful day of work = a whole movie on Netflix

    Pretty simple stuff, right? But you’d be surprised how often you forget to reward yourself for doing solid work on the regular.

    3. Make It Stupid Easy for Your Wandering Mind

    I don’t know about you, but if I perceive my work to require more effort than I care to use, I’m instantly turned off. This then leads to distraction and procrastination. But you can offset this by breaking a difficult task into a bite-sized piece.

    Case in point, what seems easier: 30 pushups or 3 pushups?

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    It’s obvious, but sometimes our brains need to be “convinced” we’re only doing a small amount of work to get things going.

    But here’s something cool about this tactic: You can (and most likely will) keep going past your stupid easy benchmark. You don’t have to, but my experience tells me once you get going like this, it’s easy to go beyond your bare minimum goal.

    4. Empty Your Mind With Journaling

    Sometimes, there’s too much stuff floating around in your brain that is making your mind wander. In that case, it can help to spill everything in your head onto a journal to free up some space. You can use a pen and pad for this or something digital like Evernote.

    There are two basic ways to go about it:

    1. Freestyle – where you just write whatever randomly flows through your brain without thinking or pausing. This is great if you’ve got a million different ideas racing through your brain.
    2. Focused – where you create prompts or an outline to streamline your thinking and you just respond to the questions or format. This is best when you want to grasp a certain topic.

    5. Use the “Just 5 Minutes” Method

    Try telling yourself that you’ll work for “just 5 minutes” and then you can stop. You’ll find that the task feels far easier to handle. And like the “stupid easy” method, this tricks your brain into thinking the task is lower effort than it really is. After all, 5 minutes for even the worst task is psychologically manageable for any person out there.

    The key is to honestly allow yourself to stop at 5 minutes—no matter what. That’s what allows your brain to accept the method as legit and also lets it overcome the mental hurdle that makes your brain want to wander around and focus on anything but your task.

    6. Recite a Focus Mantra

    I like to think of mantras as a totem you can take with you anywhere you go. They serve the same purpose—reminding you to stay focused—but can be done anywhere and anytime.

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    I find the most powerful type of mantra to be based on reality. I learned this approach from Dr. Jon Fader—a performance coach who was on “Good Morning America”—and his book Life as Sport: What Top Athletes Can Teach You about How to Win in Life. He calls this “objective optimism.”

    Basically, you create a mantra that’s based on personal success in your life. That way, the mantra isn’t just a fluffy positivity statement, there’s also the weight of real-life success giving it power

    Some examples:

    • If you’re struggling to make yourself go to the gym but have technically been there many times already, you could say, “just another day of heading to the gym—easy.”
    • If you’re suffering from impostor-syndrome after accepting a promotion, just say, “I’m here for a reason” to remind yourself that your efforts were recognized by others and are the real deal.
    • If you’re nervous about an upcoming sports competition but have trained diligently for it, you could say, “I’ve done all the work possible” to remind yourself that your earlier efforts have created the best version of you for the event.

    As you can see, the most powerful mantras are evidence-based and positive. So, just find proof of relevant success in your life and transform it into a motivating mantra.

    7. Use the “Multi-Yawn” Approach

    One of the best ways to be distracted is to be tired. And sometimes, you’ll be tired in such a way that you’re “sort of” working but not realize that you’re actually constantly distracted.

    If you can notice when you do this, one thing I like to do is crank out as many big, satisfying yawns as possible. Olympic athletes sometimes do this before their big events. It calms them down and helps them perform better in the process. And it works just as well for us regular folks. I find it has a similar effect to taking a good nap (and actually works best in unison), so you can imagine how effective this can be.

    8. Find an Easy Win

    Nothing feels good like winning. So, it can help to find a few simple tasks you can do with little effort and just get them done immediately. This will create momentum and propel your productivity forward. The feeling of success will lock your focus in on the task at hand and refocus your wandering mind. Use this when you feel “resistance” to getting your work started.

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    9. Create a “Wins” List

    Feeling like a capable person who can win at life is motivating in and of itself. In light of this fact, it can help to have an ongoing “wins” list to prove you’re an able person.

    Just keep track of all your daily wins—big and small. And whenever your focus starts to wane, give that list a peek and remind yourself that you’re more capable than you realize.

    10. Add Stakes to the Mix

    If you were to lose $20 if you failed to complete a task, would you be more focused on completing it? Of course!

    Try and find ways to put something on the line when it comes to completing your tasks, and you’ll find your focus, motivation, and ability to things done to be higher than ever before.

    For example, if you’re at work, you could involve a co-worker by saying you’ll buy their food if you don’t complete a task before lunchtime rolls around. At home, you could say you’ll also mow the lawn if you don’t remember to wash the dishes before the day is over. Or you could just use something like Beeminder or TaskRatchet, which actually charges you cash for failing to complete a task or goal on time. (It’s scary but effective)

    All are viable methods, so just give one of them a shot.

    Who Else Wants More Success?

    Of the many methods of winning at life out there, focusing is definitely a top-three contender. You can’t get anything you want in life if you don’t buckle down and get your work done—a wandering mind won’t create success.

    But with these 10 focus tips, you’ll be ahead of the competition and be closer to a fitter body, higher income, and a flat-out better life than before.

    More Tips on Sharpening Your Focus

    Featured photo credit: Clay Banks via unsplash.com

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