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Last Updated on February 17, 2021

How Not to Lose Focus While Working (Backed by Science)

How Not to Lose Focus While Working (Backed by Science)

Do you sometimes start working on something important but can’t seem to concentrate? Whether it’s a test that you’re studying for, a big assignment at work, trying to code your app, or doing research that is important for you—you easily lose focus. You’re always eager to enter Instagram or Facebook, go to the refrigerator, or think about almost every other thing that you shouldn’t be thinking about.

The good news is that you’re not alone. Lack of focus is a common issue, and it can affect our ability to get the important stuff done. It can also make people stressed and lose motivation.

There are many types of research on the topic. Perhaps one of the most influential writers about deep work is Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, which explains the importance of profoundly concentrating and how to do so.

I’m going to cover his methods and also others written by experts in the field. One of them is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Nir Eyal, and also, the author of Can I Have Your Attention?: Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace, Curt Steinhorst.

I’m going to cover other research and researchers and—most importantly—provide you with hands-on tips on how to regain concentration when you lose focus.

The Main Theories

According to Newport, deep work is “deep efforts that create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” In other words, this is the thing that is going to differentiate you from others that do not have the capabilities to create unreplicable work—what he describes as “the superpower of the 21st century.”

Nir Eyal’s superb book summarizes the leading theories and most updated research on the things that keep us distracted. He created an equation that compares time management to pain management. He claims that every time our thoughts wander, it is because there is something we’re running away from.

It can be fear of failure, where we don’t want to start doing something we’re unsure we can achieve, and that makes us watch yet another episode of Friends on Netflix. It can also be boredom, a fear of success, or self-doubt that we’re running away from when we begin to binge-watch our favorite show instead of being productive with our work.

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In his theory of Flow, the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined it as being “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”[1] Sometimes, when our capabilities don’t match what we’re trying to achieve, it stresses us out and makes us less focused, making it impossible to achieve a flow state.

There are many theories, and the gist analyzes both internal and external reasons that cause us to lose focus. That means blocking external distractions—such as social media sites and notifications—along with dealing with internal distractions, such as hunger, stress, or exhaustion. These things cause us to lose focus even when there are no outside distractions that keep us from doing what we want.

One relevant framework to solve this was suggested by Curt Steinhorst. Steinhorst offers four vital elements for focused teams: Clarity, Capacity, Want, and Community.

First, you need to understand what you need to do, know that you can do so, make sure that it is aligned with your needs and wants, and have a supportive community. For example, if your boss expects you to answer emails every two minutes, there’s no way you would be able to get deep work done.

6 Tips for Focus Improvement

The good news is that there are many things that you can do if you always lose focus. Just choosing the one you like the most can significantly impact your habits and focus level.

1. Physical Activities

Exercise has been scientifically proven to help people become more focused.

According to an article published in Harvard’s Health Blog,[2]

“Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.”

You don’t have to become a marathon runner. Personally, I go for a short run whenever I’m tired and not focused enough, but you can also try yoga, swimming, or even dancing.

Other proven methods for focus enhancement include meditation, drinking small doses of coffee, eating healthy, keeping yourself hydrated, and sleeping more than 7 hours a night.

2. Digital Distractions

Although distractions have been here for thousands of years, digital distractions are a relatively new source that impacts our brains and thoughts, making us lose focus. In one study, Microsoft researchers concluded that “for most, cutting off workplace distractions increases focus and productivity.”[3]

There are tons of apps that help you deal with external distractions. Some of the leading ones are Stay Focused, Rescue Time, Cold Turkey, and many others. Notification blockers can also help you stay focused.

3. Internal Distractions

Even blocking any and all possible external distractions won’t make you invincible to distractions. Distracting thoughts will still rear up, despite your very best efforts to create a tranquil environment.

Mindfulness is a great way to stay focused and on top of your thoughts. According to an article in Harvard Business Review,[4]

“Mindfulness is not about living life in slow motion. It’s about enhancing focus and awareness both in work and in life. It’s about stripping away distractions and staying on track with individual as well as organizational goals.”

Other proven methods to tackle internal distractions are music and being in nature. In fact, according to a Stanford study, music can help your brain absorb new information more easily.[5]

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To learn more about how to avoid both external and internal distractions, check out Lifehack’s free guide: End Distraction And Find Your Focus.

4. Work Habits

There are some misconceptions about work habits that also harm someone’s ability to focus. One of them is believing that multitasking is feasible. Although some researchers claim that some kinds of multitasking are possible, most believe that it is inefficient and will make you lose focus instead.

According to the American Psychology Association,[6]

“Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity.”

Possible solutions to tackle lousy work habits can help. Some of the methods are:

  • Time Blocking: Block a time in your calendar to work on a specific task, such as making phone calls to clients.
  • The Two-Minute Rule: If you can answer an email within two minutes, do it, and don’t leave it for later.
  • Pomodoro Technique: Work for 25 minutes, then rest for 5. This way, you can know that you’re focused and paying attention for certain periods of time.

Additionally, don’t forget to take breaks, choose specific, measurable goals, and learn to say no to more tasks as they come.

5. Physical Workspace

For most, a clean workstation can help you stay focused. Princeton scientists determined that our brains like order, and when our brain gets visual reminders of disorganization, it drains our cognitive resources[7].

Temperature is also a factor when it comes to being focused. According to a Cornell University study,[8]

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“Chilly workers not only make more errors but cooler temperatures could increase a worker’s hourly labor cost by 10 percent. When the office temperature in a month-long study increased from 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, typing errors fell by 44 percent, and typing output jumped 150 percent.”

6. Behavioral Analytic Tools

You can trick yourself into doing what you don’t like using behavioral economic tools that influence your behavior. One example might be an online tool such as Focusmate, which uses social pressure and accountability to stick with your tasks. You can schedule a time to work on a specific task with someone you don’t know, and both of you ensure that you are, indeed, working.

Another interesting tool is Stickk. They’re using what’s called loss aversion—the tendency to prefer avoiding losses—to help you maintain your important goals in mind.

“By asking our users to sign Commitment Contracts, stickK helps users define their goal (whatever it may be), acknowledge what it’ll take to accomplish it, and leverage the power of putting money on the line to turn that goal into a reality,” they mention in their site. They literally make you pay if you don’t meet your goals. This discourages a loss of focus.

Final Thoughts

Those who often lose focus don’t have to be stuck in the same harmful patterns. There are ways to get back to concentrating and being productive. Choose one of the above tips to get started, and show yourself compassion along the way.

Changing old habits takes time, and it may be weeks or months before you really learn how to refocus. However, know that each step you take will get you closer to your goal and a more productive lifestyle.

More Tips on How Not to Lose Focus

Featured photo credit: Mimi Thian via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Yair Nativ

Yair is an award-winning serial entrepreneur passionate about the opportunities that technology offers to improve people's lives.

7 Best Time Blocking Apps That Make Scheduling Easy How Not to Lose Focus While Working (Backed by Science) How to Spot the Signs of Burnout and Overcome It Fast Feeling Defeated in Life? 9 Ways to Take Back Your Power How To Create a Personal Strategic Plan That Aligns With Your Goals

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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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