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Published on January 18, 2021

7 Science-Backed Ways To Stay Sharp, Alert And Focused

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7 Science-Backed Ways To Stay Sharp, Alert And Focused

The average American drinks three cups of coffee per day. If you’re anything like me, that morning (and afternoon) pick-me-up is a lot like an “on button” for your brain. Maybe you’re more of a tea person. Either way, a caffeine jolt can certainly help you stay alert, and some studies even link coffee consumption to improved health outcomes.[1]

But if your goal is to improve your work performance, there are better ways to stay sharp than simply brewing a fourth cup of your drink. Adopting long-term strategies for a more focused, alert brain can equip you to be more effective and productive on the job and in life.

You’re not sure where to begin? Here are 7 science-backed tips to flip your “on” switch at work and stay sharp—and keep it that way.

1. Allow Your Mind to Wander

Staying focused is essential for getting work done and doing it well. So, why would you allow your mind to wander?

As counterproductive as it sounds, occasionally letting yourself get off track can actually improve alertness and, as a result, productivity.[2]

All tasks require brainpower, but full-blown concentration takes up a lot of headspace. If you’re always focusing on just one task, your brain will have to work harder to resist thinking about (and doing) other things.[3] As a result, your mind may grow fatigued, which will result in declining focus and productivity.

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Before you start planning what’s for dinner tonight, consider this caveat. Psychology researchers say that while intentional, planned mind-wandering can improve the ability to stay alert, accidental daydreaming can have the opposite effect.[4]

So, the best way to leverage a wandering mind is to use it as a strategic tool. For example, if you’re struggling to stay focused, take a break to do another problem-solving task, then go back to your original project. Along with gaining a fresh perspective on the task at hand, you’ll also free up mental space by checking a separate item off your to-do list.

2. Stop for a Break

Breaks don’t always come naturally to me, especially if I’m buried in work. (Ask my wife, who’s been known to tantalize me away from my desk with a delicious meal.) The problem is, working for a long time without stopping isn’t always as productive as it sounds. Your brain needs the occasional break to stay sharp.[5]

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you can sneak away from the office any time the desire strikes you. What it means is that being intentional about when and how you take breaks can drastically improve your alertness and focus.

Studies show that alertness occurs in cycles, and most people can’t concentrate for longer than 90-minute increments without requiring a 15-minute break. Scientists agree that the key to a focus-inducing break is to totally distract your mind from what you were doing before.[6]

Instead of pivoting to another work task or even scrolling through your emails, do a puzzle, take a walk outside, or hop on a phone call with a friend.

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3. Train Your Brain

The good news about your brain: It’s malleable. If something doesn’t come naturally, including focus and alertness, you can train yourself.

Focusing on cognition-enhancing activities (translation: playing games that require strategic thinking) is one way to do that. According to one 2015 study, adults who spend 15 minutes a day, five days a week, on brain-training activities such as crossword puzzles experienced improved concentration.[7]

Practicing mindfulness and meditation is another way to train your brain to focus. While scientific research confirms it comes with a slew of health benefits, a 2011 review suggests mindfulness can improve attention, focus, and memory.[8]

If getting away with a yoga mat for full-blown meditation practice isn’t realistic, start small. I like to take a few deep breaths at my desk while I focus on the sensations in my body. You could also simply notice your surroundings with all five of your senses—smell, touch, sight, and so on. Even micro-mindfulness exercises like these can equip your brain to keep your brain alert and focused when it matters most.

4. Get Some Exercise

Your brain and body are intimately connected, which means that what you do physically has a direct effect on how you feel mentally. Routine exercise—even going for a brisk walk or practicing yoga a few times a week—is a fast and simple way to improve your brain function so you can stay sharp at work.

Research consistently shows people who exercise routinely and are more physically fit are also more effective at completing cognitive tasks that require sustained attention.[9] Another study found that older adults who exercised more than 75 minutes per week had better attention spans and abilities to focus.[10]

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But those aren’t the only ways exercise equips your brain for productivity. The endorphins released when you work out can also help you get better at controlling your impulses, which in turn can help you block out distractions. You’ll also notice that staying active boosts your overall physical energy levels, so you can dodge falling asleep at your desk.[11]

5. Declutter Your Office Space

If I’m having a tough time staying engaged and on a task at work, one of the first things I do is look around me. More often than not, the cluttered state of my desk and office directly reflects the cluttered state of mind.

A few minutes spent tidying up your surroundings could make a big impact on your cognitive abilities, according to scientific research. One group of researchers found that having too much clutter in one’s environment actually decreases the brain’s capacity to focus and process information by creating an additional distraction.[12]

Next time you catch yourself fighting to focus, consider your immediate surroundings. Don’t worry—you don’t have to overhaul your entire office. Instead, equip your brain to stay on task by minimizing visible clutter. You might be surprised about the impact of spending 10 minutes cleaning up!

6. Improve Your Sleep

A poor night’s sleep is a surefire way to sabotage your alertness, no matter how many cups of coffee you consume. According to one study, even one night of sleep deprivation can interfere with self-control and attentiveness.[13]

Cutting out of work early to get some rest might not feel productive to you, but ensuring you get ample sleep will only benefit your brain and work in the long-run. Remember that a well-rested body is a well-rested brain. So, if you want to stay sharp on the job, don’t burn yourself out logging hours that interfere with your ability to rest.

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If a full eight hours simply isn’t possible, sleep for a bit during the day. Studies show short power naps can improve focus and energy, which contribute to your ability to stay sharp.[14]

7. Don’t Rush

We’re all guilty of powering through our piles of work, myself included. But if you have a lot on your plate, rushing through your to-do list won’t do you any favors. To effectively work through everything that needs to get done, be as deliberate and slow as you can. Not only will you save time on cleaning up mistakes, but you’ll also sustain your ability to stay focused.

The scientific case for slowing down traces back to basic neuroscience. Our brains have two systems for thinking: an automatic and fast one, along with a slower, more logical system. As you can imagine, the faster way is linked with a more anxious state.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s adaptive to be frantic when you’re being chased down by a saber tooth tiger, but hurrying away from your predator also compromises your ability to focus.[15]

On the other hand, slowing yourself down activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which alleviates those anxious feelings and turns on the logical part of your brain.[16] So, you’ll not only be able to focus on the task at hand when you intentionally slow your mind and body down, but you’ll do a better job at coming up with creative ideas and solving problems, too.

Final Thoughts

If you’re struggling to stay sharp, alert and focused, don’t be discouraged—even the most productive people find themselves in a rut from time to time.

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The important thing is to catch yourself veering off track so you can intervene as early and effectively as possible. By implementing science-backed strategies to stay sharp, you’ll not only become more effective in your work, but you’ll also reap mental and physical benefits that could improve your entire life.

More Tips on How to Stay Sharp and Focused

Featured photo credit: Battlecreek Coffee Roasters via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Johns Hopkins Medicine: 9 Reasons Why (the Right Amount of) Coffee Is Good for You
[2] BBC WorkLife: Five Ways Science Can Improve Your Focus
[3] Nature Communications: Controllability of structural brain networks
[4] ScienceDirect: Individual variation in intentionality in the mind-wandering state is reflected in the integration of default-mode, frontoparietal, and limbic networks
[5] BBC WorkLife: Five Ways Science Can Improve Your Focus
[6] PubMed.gov: Brief and rare mental “breaks” keep you focused: deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements
[7] PLoS One: Enhancing Cognitive Abilities with Comprehensive Training: A Large, Online, Randomized, Active-Controlled Trial
[8] PubMed.gov: Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings
[9] PLoS One: Cognitive Performance and Heart Rate Variability: The Influence of Fitness Level
[10] PLoS One: Dose-Response of Aerobic Exercise on Cognition: A Community-Based, Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial
[11] Psychology Compass: A Sustainable Formula to Improve Concentration and Focus
[12] Princeton Alumni Weekly: Your Attention, Please
[13] NCBI: Interactions between sleep habits and self-control
[14] Wiley Online Library: Benefits of napping in healthy adults: impact of nap length, time of day, age, and experience with napping
[15] NCBI: Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function
[16] Psychology Compass: A Sustainable Formula to Improve Concentration and Focus

More by this author

Aytekin Tank

Founder and CEO of JotForm, sharing entrepreneurship and productivity tips at Lifehack.

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Published on October 22, 2021

The Flowtime Technique: A Pomodoro Alternative

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The Flowtime Technique: A Pomodoro Alternative

Today, there are countless productivity techniques that claim to help you work at peak efficiency. Among them, few are more widely known and widely used than the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a time management system that suggests that you break down your work tasks into 25-minute chunks and take breaks in between them.

The idea revolves around the notion that most people begin to lose focus after 25 minutes of continuous work and will need a reset to remain productive. But there’s a problem with that idea: no two tasks are the same. And for that matter, neither are any two people! That means a one-size-fits-all productivity system can’t possibly be the best fit for everyone.

But there’s an alternative that provides more flexibility and allows you to customize it for your specific use cases. It’s called the Flowtime Technique, and here’s everything you need to know to use it and start getting more done.

What Is the Flowtime Technique?

The Flowtime Technique, while not as well-known as the Pomodoro Technique, has been around for some time. In many ways, it’s a direct descendent of Pomodoro. It’s the brainchild of Zoe Read-Bivens, and she thought it up as a means of dealing with some of the shortcomings she experienced while using the Pomodoro technique.[1]

She found that sticking to 25-minute work segments often interrupted her flow—the feeling of being immersed in a particular task—and ended up harming her productivity rather than enhancing it. To fix the problem, she sought to create a system that retained the beneficial aspects of the Pomodoro Technique while allowing her to get into a positive flow and stay there.

The Basics of the Flowtime Technique

To start using the Flowtime Technique, the first thing you’ll need to do is create a timesheet to help you manage your daily activities. You can do this with a spreadsheet or by hand, whichever you find most convenient. At the heading of your timesheet, include the following column headings:

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  • Task Name
  • Start Time
  • End Time
  • Interruptions
  • Work Time
  • Break Time

Your timesheet will be the primary way you track your daily tasks and establish a flow that works best for you. Once you have it set up, here’s how to use it:

1. Choose a Task

To get started, choose a task you wish to get done. It should be specific, and something you can reasonably complete in the amount of time you have. In other words, don’t choose a task like “paint my house.” Choose something like “paint the front door of my house.” If you select a task that’s too broad, you’ll have difficulty sticking with the work. So, try and break down what you’re doing into the smallest manageable pieces.

2. Begin Working on Your Task

The next step is to start working on your task. Begin by listing the task you’re going to work on in the appropriate field of your timesheet. Then, list the time you’re starting work. Once you’ve gotten started on your task, the only rule you must observe is that there is no multitasking allowed. This will help you to focus on what you need to get done and minimize any self-imposed distractions.

3. Work Until You Need a Break

You may then keep working on your listed task for as long as you like. If you feel yourself getting fatigued after 15 minutes, take a break. If you get into a productive groove, lose track of the time, and end up working for an hour straight, that’s fine, too.

The idea is to get to know your own patterns and work in segments that fit you best. If you don’t focus well on certain tasks, work on them for shorter durations. If you get absorbed in other types of tasks, maximize your output by working for as long as you feel capable of staying focused.

You’ll likely find that the longest period you’ll be able to sustain is around 90 minutes or so. This corresponds to your Ultradian Rhythm, which are the alternating periods of alertness and rest that our brains experience throughout the day.[2]

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There are plenty of case studies that demonstrate how taking regular breaks improves productivity. It’s one of the reasons that mandatory breaks are a part of the Pomodoro Technique. But there’s evidence that the less-structured Flowtime approach to breaks works just as well. One technology company that recently directed its employees to take breaks every hour as they saw fit saw productivity levels rise by 23%—with no mandate required.[3]

4. Take an Appropriate-Length Break

When you decide you need to take a break, go ahead and do so. Just make sure to write down your stop time on your timesheet in the right place. You can take a break that’s as long or short as you like, but don’t abuse the privilege. Otherwise, it won’t be long until your breaks eat up the majority of your time.

As a general rule of thumb, try taking a five-minute break for each 25-minute work period, and increase your break time proportionally for longer work periods. You should use a timer to make sure you get back to your task in the right amount of time. And when your break ends, don’t forget to record the time you’ve resumed work and list the length of the break you took.

5. Record Distractions as They Happen

While you’re working, there are always going to be times when you’ll get distracted. It may come in the form of a phone call, an urgent email, or even the urge to use the bathroom. When these things happen, record the occurrence in the interruption column on your timesheet. Do your best to keep distractions short, but don’t try and block them out.

The reason is that you’re unlikely to succeed and sometimes, the things that distract you will be a higher priority than what you’re working on. So, it’s important to deal with distractions as you see fit instead of trying to simply work through them.

6. Repeat Until Your Work Is Complete

All you have to do next is to repeat the steps above until the tasks you’re working on are complete. As you complete each task, be sure to record your final stop time. If you wish, you can calculate your total work time (and fill it in) when you finish a task, or you can do all of the math at once at the end of the day.

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All that matters is that you don’t leave any gaps in your time tracking. Your timesheets, once complete, will become an asset that improves your ability to create a work schedule that maximizes your daily output.

What to Do With Your Timesheets

Although the act of recording your work periods and break times will help you remain on-task each day, there’s another important reason you’re doing it. It’s that your timesheets will gradually begin to reveal to you how to craft an ideal daily schedule for yourself.

So, at the end of each week, take some time to compare your timesheets. You may see that certain patterns begin to emerge. For example, you might notice that your longest work periods typically occur before lunch or that there are specific parts of your day that tend to be filled with distractions. You can use this information to plan subsequent days more effectively.

In general, you’ll want to cluster your most important tasks at your most productive times. So, if you are reviewing detailed property records, for example, you can set aside time to do it when you know you’ll be able to focus without interruption.

Conversely, you should schedule less critical work at the times when you’re most likely to be interrupted while working. So if you need time to respond to emails or return phone calls, you’ll know just when to do it. This will not only make you more productive but will also eliminate mistakes in your work.

Key Similarities Between Flowtime and Pomodoro

If you’re familiar with how the Pomodoro Technique works, you may have noticed some similarities with the Flowtime Technique. As we’ve discussed earlier, this is intentional. The Flowtime Technique is specifically designed to retain three critical features of the Pomodoro Technique, which are:

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1. Precise Time Tracking

One of the reasons that the Pomodoro Technique is so effective for many people is that it creates a rigid system to facilitate time tracking. By having to split your work tasks into 25-minute segments, you become acutely aware of the tasks you have in front of you and how you’re using your time. That alone helps you to avoid wasting precious work time because you have to account for every minute. The Flowtime Technique provides this benefit, too.

2. Eliminating Multitasking

With the Pomodoro Technique, you have to choose a task to work on and use a 25-minute timer to measure each work period. This does an excellent job of keeping you on-task because you know from the moment you set the timer what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’re therefore not likely to stray onto another task.

Even though you don’t need to use a timer with the Flowtime Technique, the very act of writing down your task accomplishes the same task. Because you know you’ll be tracking your time spent working on a particular thing, you’ll tend to stick with your task until it’s complete or time for a break.

3. Facilitating Breaks

One of the biggest killers of productivity is exhaustion, and there’s plenty of data to prove that taking breaks is essential to maintaining peak work performance. That’s the real secret to the Pomodoro Technique’s successful reputation—it makes breaks mandatory and unavoidable.

The Flowtime Technique, by comparison, also insists you take breaks. It just doesn’t force them upon you until you’re ready to take one. In that way, some additional self-discipline is required to succeed using the Flowtime Technique. But if you can obey a timer, there’s no reason you can’t learn to obey the signals your body sends you when it needs a time out.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, you may find success using the Pomodoro Technique. There’s a reason it’s so popular, after all. But if you’ve been using it for some time and find yourself straining against its rigid structures, you’re not alone. So, consider giving the Flowtime Technique a try for at least a week or two. You may find it’s a much better fit for your work style and that you get even more done than you ever have before.

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Featured photo credit: Fakurian Design via unsplash.com

Reference

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