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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

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          Last Updated on September 17, 2018

          How to Stop Multitasking and Become Way More Productive

          How to Stop Multitasking and Become Way More Productive

          Today we are expected to work in highly disruptive environments. We sit down at our desks, turn on our computer and immediately we are hit with hundreds of emails all vying for our attention.

          Our phones are beeping and pinging with new alerts to messages, likes and comments and our colleagues are complaining about the latest company initiative is designed to get us to do more work and spend less time at home.

          All these distractions result in us multitasking where our attention is switching between one crisis and the next.

          Multitasking is a problem. But how to stop multitasking?

          How bad really is multitasking?

          It dilutes your focus and attention so even the easiest of tasks become much harder and take longer to complete.

          Studies have shown that while you think you are multitasking, you are in fact task switching, which means your attention is switching between two or more pieces of work and that depletes the energy resources you have to do your work.

          This is why, even though you may have done little to no physical activity, you arrive home at the end of the day feeling exhausted and not in the mood to do anything.

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          We know it is not a good way to get quality work done, but the demands for out attention persist and rather than reduce, are likely to increase as the years go by.

          So what to do about it?

          Ways to stop multitasking and increase productivity

          Now, forget about how to multitask!

          Here are a few strategies on how to stop multitasking so you can get better quality and more work done in the time you have each working day:

          1. Get enough rest

          When you are tired, your brain has less strength to resist even the tiniest attention seeker. This is why when you find your mind wandering, it is a sign your brain is tired and time to take a break.

          This does not just mean taking breaks throughout the day, it also means making sure you get enough sleep every day.

          When you are well rested and take short regular breaks throughout the day your brain is fully refuelled and ready to focus in on the work that is important.

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          2. Plan your day

          When you don’t have a plan for the day, the day will create a plan for you. When you allow outside influences to take control of your day, it is very hard not to be dragged off in all directions.

          When you have a plan for the day, when you arrive at work your brain knows exactly what it is you want to accomplish and will subconsciously have prepared itself for a sustained period of focused work.

          Your resistance to distractions and other work will be high and you will focus much better on the work that needs doing.

          3. Remove everything from your desk and screen except for the work you are doing

          I learned this one a long time ago. In my previous work, I worked in a law office and I had case files to deal with. If I had more than one case file on my desk at any one time, I would find my eyes wandering over the other case files on my desk when I had something difficult to do.

          I was looking for something easier. This meant often I was working on three or four cases at one time and that always led to mistakes and slower completion.

          Now when I am working on something, I am in full-screen mode where all I can see is the work I am working on right now.

          4. When at your desk, do work

          We are creatures of habit. If we do our online shopping and news reading at our desks as well as our work, we will always have the temptation to be doing stuff that we should not be doing at that moment.

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          Do your online shopping from another place—your home or from your phone when you are having a break—and only do your work when at your desk. This conditions your brain to focus in on your work and not other distractions.

          5. Learn to say no

          Whenever you hear the phrase “learn to say no,” it does not mean going about being rude to everyone. What it does mean is delay saying yes.

          Most problems occur when we say “yes” immediately. We then have to spend an inordinate amount of energy thinking of ways to get ourselves out of the commitment we made.

          By saying “let me think about it” or “can I let you know later” gives you time to evaluate the offer and allows you to get back to what you were doing quicker.

          6. Turn off notifications on your computer

          For most of us, we still use computers to do our work. When you have email alert pop-ups and other notifications turned on, they will distract you no matter how strong you feel.

          Turn them off and schedule email reviewing for times between doing your focused work. Doing this will give you a lot of time back because you will be able to remain focused on the work in front of you.

          7. Find a quiet place to do your most important work

          Most workplaces have meeting rooms that are vacant. If you do have important work to get done, ask if you can use one of those rooms and do your work there.

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          You can close the door, put on your headphones and just focus on what is important. This is a great way to remove all the other, non-important, tasks demanding your attention and just focus on one piece of work.

          The bottom line

          Focusing on one piece of work at a time can be hard but the benefits to the amount of work you get done are worth it. You will make fewer mistakes, you will get more done and will feel a lot less tired at the end of the day.

          Make a list of the four or five things you want to get done the next day before you finish your work for the day and when you start the day, begin at the top of the list with the first item.

          Don’t start anything else until you have finished the first one and then move on to the second one. This one trick will help you to become way more productive.

          Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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