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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 May 21, 2019

          How to Improve Concentration and Sharpen Your Attention at Work

          How to Improve Concentration and Sharpen Your Attention at Work

          Keeping focused and paying attention are core competencies needed to excel and stay productive at work. But we all have those moments when our mind starts to wander and all of a sudden we find ourselves scrolling endlessly through Twitter instead of working on the tasks that are due at the end of the working day.

          According to a Microsoft study, humans now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.[1] Where a goldfish can hold their attention spans for 9 seconds, ours starts to decline after 8 seconds. This comes as no surprise considering the climate of information overload that we currently live in.

          With notifications buzzing left, right, and center, our focus on a task is so easily pulled away by the lure of a bit of new information. So much so that a study from UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, found that people, on average, checked their smartphones every 12 minutes while awake![2]

          And not only do we have phones, but when we’re at work—for those of us who work in an office that is—we also have access to computers and tablets as well. So, it’s not hard to understand why it can be difficult to keep our attention sharpened and focused.

          In this article, you will learn how to improve concentration and sharpen your attention; so you will stay focused and get stuck into the task at hand instead of being distracted.

          1. Do One Thing at a Time

          With so many duties to take care of and deadlines to meet, it’s easy to think that multitasking would be the best solution to get things done. While it may appear that we’d be more effective and efficient tackling more than one task at a time, it actually makes things worse.

          Trying to do more than one task simultaneously is not an ideal option for staying concentrated. In fact, research suggests that our brain can’t actually do multiple things at once, instead it just switches tasks quickly.[3] This means that every time we switch tasks, the process stops and restarts in our brains.

          So, to stay focused, it’s best to stick to completing one thing at a time.

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          2. Switch off Notifications

          Notifications are a great way to keep informed of the world going on around you. Many of us are signed up to countless apps and are involved in numerous group chats just so we’re not left in the dark when it comes to new information; whether it’s a breaking global news or something that happened to one of our friends.

          But the constant buzz of accumulating notifications can be distracting. Your best bet on how to improve concentration and sharpen your attention at work is to turn off all your notifications. This includes your smartphone, tablet, and even on your work desktop.

          If you’re worried about friends and family not being able to get a hold of you in case of an emergency, make sure they have your work number.

          3. Increase Your Concentration Step by Step

          The Pomodoro technique is a time management philosophy created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo. The technique aims to stop you from falling prey to procrastination and equip you with optimal focus through a method of incremental task management.

          The idea is that you work on your tasks for 25 minutes then take a five minute breaks. This is considered one pomodoro.

          You repeat this process 4 times (100 minutes of work and 15 minutes of breaks) and then increase your break time to 15 to 20 minutes. Taking regular breaks can keep your mind refreshed and your attention sharpened.

          It’s advisable to keep track of your progress by marking an “X” for every pomodoro you complete, as well as recording the number of times you were inclined to procrastinate. That way you can compare your development.

          4. Keep a Distraction List

          With the internet and search engines available at our fingertips, it’s easy to succumb to the questions that run through your heads while you work. Keeping a distraction list can help keep any impulses at bay.

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          A distraction list is a list where you write down unrelated questions, thoughts, and ideas that run through your head while you work. Once you finish your task or have the opportunity for a break, then you can look up the answers to those questions or research the thoughts and ideas you had.

          This list acts as a barrier against distraction. Instead of looking up the answers to the things that fill your head while you work and interrupting your workflow, by writing them down, your thoughts won’t be forgotten and you know at the back of your mind that you can action them later.

          5. Exercise

          We already know that exercise is important for keeping our bodies healthy, but did you know that it can also have a significant effect on your mental health? A study by Dr Stewart Trost of Oregon State University discovered a link between exercise and improving concentration, behavior, and memory.[4]

          If you find it difficult to focus on everyday tasks at work, try engaging in at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Whether it’s participating in a team sport, doing a training program at the gym, or simply walking around the block; as long as you keep your body moving, it can help to enhance your mental health and well being.

          6. Meditate

          When most of us think of meditation, we probably think of it as something exclusive to gurus and yogis on retreats somewhere out in the middle of the forest. But in fact, it’s something that everyone can engage in regularly, even in the comfort of your own home!

          Meditation is known to be great for freeing your mind from clutter which is why it’s a great option if you’re asking yourself how to improve concentration and sharpen your attention at work. It recharges your brain and can leave you in a restful and restoring state.

          Along with clearing your head, other benefits of meditation include recovering from distractions, handling stress better, and helping to overcoming Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD).

          7. Listen to Music

          Working in an office can get noisy. From the phone ringing, to people chatting, to the sound of the coffee machine or kettle going off every minute, it can get distracting.

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          Listening to music can help drown out the noises from your surroundings and keep you concentrated on your tasks.

          According to Dr Masha Godkin from Northcentral University, listening to music can activate both the left and right brain simultaneously, and the activation of both hemispheres can optimize learning and improve memory.[5]

          Genres such as classical, ambient, and new age electronic music are recommended as they don’t usually contain lyrics that can distract you. The tempo and volume are also aspects to keep in mind. You want something that’s 60-70 beats per minute and not loud enough so as to overpower your thoughts.

          Here’re some music recommendations to help you stay productive: Enhance Focus with Productivity Music (Recommended Playlists)

          8. Handwrite

          Nowadays, when it comes to written communication, going down the digital route has eclipsed writing things down with a pen. But even something as simple as writing out the letters of the alphabet can help sharpen your attention.

          Handwriting has been known to enhance memory and learning skills.[6] Think about it, when you are writing something down, it requires you to focus on the task at hand. You have to concentrate on forming the letters as they turn into words which eventually turn into sentences.

          So the next time you have to remember something important, opt for writing it down on a sticky note instead of typing it out on an online document or your digital planner.

          9. Stay Hydrated

          One of the many benefits of drinking water is that it can improve your cognitive abilities and energy levels, which is why staying well hydrated is important. In contrast, dehydration can deplete short term memory skills.

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          The ideal daily intake of water is dependant on the individual. Factors such as age, sex, weight, and health conditions can influence the amount, however, the average adult should aim for something between 1.5 to 2.5 litres a day.

          If you find that you keep forgetting to drink enough water, a good tip is to keep a bottle on your desk. Not only will water be easily accessible when you feel thirsty, but having it in front of you can act as a reminder to drink it!

          Another tip, for those who find the taste of water a little bland, is to spruce it up with fruits such as lemon and cucumber for added flavor.

          The Bottom Line

          The ability to focus on a task and attentively observe are important elements for staying productive at work but, living in this world of information overload can make it difficult.

          There are so many things that can prove to be distracting, from the noises in the office, to the incessant buzz of notifications. Yet here’s hoping that the aforementioned tips can help with keeping them in check.

          While you shouldn’t deny yourself the luxury and convenience of smartphones and the internet, it’s probably best to keep it aside while you’re in the office so as to improve concentration and sharpen your attention at work.

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          Featured photo credit: Studio Republic via unsplash.com

          Reference

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