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Published on December 1, 2020

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 stay concentrated? Whether it is a test that you’re studying for, a big important 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 wander thinking 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 among a lot of people, which can affect their capability to get the important stuff done. It can also make people stressed and lose motivation.

There are many types of research on that 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 researches and researchers and—most importantly—provide you with hands-on tips on how to regain concentration when you always 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 an 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 that our thoughts wander, it is because there is something we’re running away from.

It can be fear of failure—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. Watching Friends is more comfortable and in some cases, more fun. It can also be boredom that we’re running away from. Many other reasons can make us want to escape the pain of distractions.

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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.

There are many theories, and the gist analyzes both internal and external reasons for being unfocused. That means blocking external distractions—such as social media sites and notifications—side by side by dealing with internal distractions. These things make us unfocused even when there are no outside distractions that keep us from doing what we want.

There are many frameworks to solve that. One relevant framework 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. You’re expected to answer emails every two minutes.

6 Tips for Focus Improvement

The good news is that there are so many things that you can do if you always lose focus. You don’t have to do all of them, as that would be overwhelming. Even choosing the ones you like the most can significantly impact your habits and focus level.

1. Physical Activities

These types of activities have 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 speaking—and this is common among other peers—I go for a run whenever I’m tired and not concentrated enough. It helps give a boost to my concentration level.

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

2. Digital Distractions

Although distractions have been here for thousands of years, digital distractions are a relatively new way that impacts our brains and thoughts and makes us lose focus. In their paper, Effects of Individual Differences in Blocking Workplace Distractions, Microsoft’s 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 undistracted.

Emails are also a big distraction for most of us, but we’ll address that in the section that addresses work habits.

3. Internal Distractions

Even blocking any possible external distractions won’t make you invincible to distractions. Distracting thoughts have been here from the times of ancient Greece.

Mindfulness is a top 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 the wilds. In fact, according to a Stanford study, music can help your brain absorb new information more easily.[5] You can use sites such as Brain.fm and Noisly to do that.

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.
  • The two-minute rule – If you can answer an email within two minutes, do it, and don’t leave it for later.
  • Pomodoro techniques – Work for 25 minutes, then rest for 5. This way, you can know that you’re focused for a certain amount of time.

Additionally, don’t forget to take breaks (your brain, and soul, need that), choose specific, measurable goals (“SMART”), and learn to say no to more tasks as they come.

5. Physical Workspace

You should know yourself, but 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. So, clean your desk!

Temperature is also a factor when it comes to being focused. According to a Cornell University study,[7]

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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 keep an eye on each other 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 from losing focus.

Summary

There are many ways to improve your focus. All of them are helpful, but it is hard to start with everything all at once. One way to start improving your focus is by choosing your favorite tips that are easier for you and start implementing them. Be compassionate to yourself even if you fail in doing everything and start to lose focus. Self-compassion is a way to stay resilient, and that is also helpful.

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.

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 How Not To Lose Focus While Working (Backed By Science)

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Last Updated on January 21, 2021

How to Not Get Distracted: 10 Practical Tips to Sharpen Your Focus

How to Not Get Distracted: 10 Practical Tips to Sharpen Your Focus

You sit at your desk, ready to finally get some work done. “Okay, lets do this,” you think to yourself. You scroll over to Word (or Excel, or Office, etc.) and open up a fresh document. You have some idea of what needs to be done, but what happens next?

You write a few words down but just can’t stay focused. Then you say “Maybe I should wake myself up with something fun.” You go to Facebook, 20 minutes gone. Then comes Youtube, 60 minutes gone. Before you know it, lunchtime has come and half the day is gone.

Does this seem familiar? Do you ever find yourself wasting your day?

Well it doesn’t have to be this way, all you need to do is focus on finishing this article to find out how to not get distracted easily.

But before we move on to the tips, here’re some important notes you need to know:

  • Avoiding distraction is tough. You’re not alone when it comes to distractions. It’s not easy staying on task when you need to work for hours at a time, but some people are able to do it. The question is: why them and not you?
  • You were never taught how to focus. It’s funny how all throughout our school days we were never taught HOW to learn and be focused, even though that’s all we did. It was just assumed, and ultimately it was hit or miss on whether or not you ended up knowing how to do those things at all.
  • The tools to help master your ability to focus. Since everyone’s left to their own devices, it’s up to you to find ways to master your focus ability. That’s what these tips are for, so you can finally stay focused and on track with what we want to accomplish for ourselves.

So without further ado, let’s get started. 

1. Keep Your Vision and Goals in Mind

First things first, why do you even need to focus? Do you want to become a skilled guitar player? Do you want to write a novel? Do you want to start working from home?

Think about it.

Knowing why we need to stay focused can help us push through the tough and tedious parts of accomplishing our goals. That’s when our ability to focus is really tested and when it’s most needed.

2. Reduce the Chaos of Your Day by Focusing on 2 to 3 Important Tasks

If you have 20 tasks you need done everyday how effective do you think your focus ability will be? Terrible, right?

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You can’t expect to do those things with sophistication if you’re too scatterbrained to focus. You need to break it down to the essentials.

Focus on only doing 2-3 important tasks a day (even one is okay), but no more than that. It’s all you need to take steps towards accomplishing your goals. Slower is much better than giving up early because you took on too much, too early.

3. Do Those Tasks as Soon as Possible

In order to make sure you get those 2 to 3 tasks done, you need to do them early. This means as soon as you wake up, you’re already plotting how to do them.

So get up, use the bathroom, eat breakfast, and do it (Yes, BEFORE work is the best time to do it).

It’s tough, but waiting to do them only invites distraction to take over. Those distractions WILL come, and they will drain your willpower. This makes working on your goals harder to do, so don’t wait do work on your goals, do them as early as possible.

4. Focus on Only the Smallest Part of Your Work at a Time

An easy way to kill your focus is to see a goal for the big giant accomplishment that it is. Most goals will at least take a few weeks to months to accomplish, and knowing that can make it feel like it’ll take FOREVER to do.

This will cause you to do one of two things:

  • You become discouraged because the goal is too big; or
  • You fantasize about what it’ll feel like to achieve the goal

Either way is terrible for your focus and always a potential problem when focusing on the big picture or using visualization.

So what should you do? Focus on doing a very small, minimum amount of work instead.

For example, which seems easier:

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Writing 200 words per day or writing a minimum of 2 sentences per day?

20 pushups per day or a minimum of 1 pushup per day?

The key here is to use minimums. Chances are you’ll push past them.

Eventually your minimum will increase, and you’ll slowly improve your ability to stay focused on the bigger tasks.

5. Visualize Yourself Working

I briefly mentioned in tip #4 that visualization techniques can hurt you more than help you sometimes. But there is a proper way of using visualization, and it’s by visualizing yourself actually WORKING (not as if you’ve succeeded already).

Champion runners use this technique to great effect, usually by working backwards. They imagine themselves winning at first, then they act out the whole process in reverse, feeling and visualizing each step all the way to the beginning.

A quicker and more relevant way to apply this would be to imagine yourself doing a small part of the task at hand.

For instance, if you need to practice your guitar but it’s all the way across the room (let’s assume maximum laziness for the sake of this example), what should you do?

First, imagine standing up (really, think of the sensation of getting up and then do it). If you really imagined it, visualized and felt the act of standing up, then acting on that feeling will be easy.

Then repeat the visualization process with each step till you have that guitar in hand and you’re playing it. The process of focusing so intently on each step distracts you from how much you don’t want to do something, and the visualizations “ready your body” for each step you need done.

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All you need to do is apply this process to whatever it is you need to focus on, just start with the smallest motion you need to do.

6. Control Your Internal Distractions

Internal distractions are one of those problems you can’t really run away from. You need to find ways to prepare your mind for work, and find simple ways to keep it from straying to non-essential thoughts as well.

A good way to prime your mind for work is to have a dedicated work station. If you always work in a specific area, then your mind will associate that area with work related thoughts.

Simple enough, right? When you take breaks make sure to leave your work station, that way you’ll know when you’re “allowed” to let your thoughts roam free as well.

Deadlines are useful here also (use Pomodoro method for example, see tip #9). This method helps keep your mind from wandering around since you’ve got that looming deadline coming along.

Ultimately though, silencing those unwanted thoughts is all about getting some traction going. So instead of focusing on what’s happening internally, focus getting something done (anything!). Once you do that, you’ll see that all your thoughts will be about finishing your task.

7. Remove External Distractions

This tip is straightforward, just get away from things that distract you.

Is the television a distraction? Work in another room. Are the kids distracting you? Get up earlier and work before they wake up. Is the Internet distracting? Turn off the modem.

It’s usually obvious what you should do, but you still shouldn’t overlook this piece of advice.

8. Skip What You Don’t Know

This is a tip I don’t see often enough, if you hit a snag in your work then come back to it later. Focus your attention on what you CAN do, keep working “mindlessly” at all costs. All this means is that you should focus on the easy parts first.

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Eventually you can come back to the more difficult parts, and hopefully by then it’ll have come to you or you’ll have built up enough momentum that it won’t break your focus if you work on it.

9. Improve Your Discipline With Focus Practice

There’s a few focus exercises you can do to improve your overall discipline.

The first one is meditation, which is basically the definition of focus in practice. Think about it, you’re literally just sitting there doing nothing. It’s a great method for building focus ability, de-stressing, and giving you greater control over your emotions. You should definitely give meditation a shot.

The second exercise is the Pomodoro method. These are basically “focus sprints,” and each one is followed by a solid break. Like real sprints, you’ll get better and better at doing them over time. Each interval improves your ability to stay focused when it matters, so it’s more than worth your time to try this out.

10. Manage Your Momentum

Momentum is like a discipline lubricant‒it helps ease the process of sticking with goals. That’s why I think it’s important that we never take true breaks from our goals; we end up losing momentum and relying on discipline to get back on track (not an easy thing to do).

This means each and everyday we need to do something significant to further our goals (yes, even weekends and holidays). And when I say “significant,” I don’t necessarily mean a big task‒but rather, any task that brings us closer to our goals.

For instance, if your goal is to be a freelance writer, then write one single pitch on a weekend. If your goal is get healthy, then go for a short 5 minute walk even on Christmas day.

Nothing big, nothing crazy, only stuff that is significant enough to contribute to the success of your overall goal.

More Tips on Staying Focused

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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