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Published on January 18, 2021

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

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.

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 February 24, 2021

How To Create A Daily Schedule To Organize Your Day

How To Create A Daily Schedule To Organize Your Day

When I was young, I had a pink piggy bank on my dresser—and a very important goal to buy a shiny, red bike. Each time I earned money on chores, I ran to the piggy bank. Over time, thanks to my small, consistent habit, my coin collection wasn’t just spare change any more. I finally came up with enough money to buy the bike.

What my piggy bank was then to me, my daily schedule is today.

We all have a vision for the future, and it can feel overwhelming to stare it down from afar, especially without a plan. The best way to accomplish goals is to break them down into smaller, daily habits. That handful of coins might seem inconsequential today, but what you do repeatedly ultimately creates the quality of your life.[1]

Everyone’s personal routine will look different and are based on their individual goals and values. But applying a few general principles to your daily schedule can help maximize your effectiveness and productivity and, over time, help you accomplish your goals.

Here are five practices to help get you started in creating a daily schedule.

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1. Prioritize Your Values

“Success” is as unique as the person pursuing it. But all successful people have one important thing in common: They strategically design their lives to align with the things they care about the most.[2]

Practically, that means before you can create a daily schedule that helps you accomplish your goals and live the life you want to live, you have to define what you value. An understanding of these things will help you pinpoint priorities that make sense and, ultimately, organize your day accordingly.

As a first step, carve out some time to think about what’s important to you. Make a list, in order. Then, find ways to incorporate those things in your daily and weekly routines in time blocks that honor how important each value is.

For example, if your biggest goal is health and fitness, then you should prioritize working out and healthy eating before other, less important hobbies. If your top priority is family or friends, then you’ll want to make sure you carve out time each day to connect with people you love before you jump into work.

Defining your personal priorities prevents the things you value from slipping off your to-do list and into the margins. It also allows you to delegate and outsource the tasks that aren’t in accordance with your values.[3]

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2. Include a Morning Routine

It’s not uncommon for productivity gurus to boast of their 4 AM wake-up calls and elaborate pre-sunset routines. But there’s no perfect time to rise and grind—your morning alarm will depend on your own, individual rhythm. No matter when you start your day, though, there’s something to be said about including a morning ritual in your daily schedule.

Why is morning so important? The first thing you do after getting up ultimately sets the tone for the rest of your day. If you roll out of bed, half-awake, and jump right into your email, you’ll likely struggle to focus and engage, and you’ll run out of steam before too long.

If, on the other hand, you habitually make your bed, meditate, and eat a healthy breakfast each morning, your brain will learn to pivot from “rest mode” to “productivity mode” more seamlessly—and you’ll probably be in a better mood, too.

It’s up to you what you do in the morning. The goal is to kick off your day by doing the same thing—ideally, something that both aligns with your personal values and clears your mind and prepares your body for the tasks ahead.

3. Designate a “Most Important Task”

Your day will inevitably include essential tasks that don’t propel you toward your goals—taking phone calls, hopping into meetings, answering emails. To make sure these things don’t derail you, always define what you absolutely need to accomplish every day and incorporate them into your daily schedule.

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Every week, when you plan your schedule, consider your goals. What needs to get done to keep you on track? Then, choose an MIT (most important task) for each day.[4] When you know what you need to accomplish to stay on track, you’ll waste less time on non-essential work.

It helps me to schedule my most important tasks during the times I’m most focused and productive and focus on tasks that don’t require as much brain power when my energy wanes.

There’s plenty of research showing that our ability to function cognitively shifts throughout the day.[5] For most people, including me, peak productivity occurs between 9 and 11 AM, which is why I always reserve that block of time for MITs rather than less-demanding busy work like answering emails.

If your productivity levels heighten later on in the day, you can take the opposite approach. Either way, make an effort to understand your peak work times and schedule your MITs accordingly.[6]

4. Schedule Time for Things That Normally Distract You

If you’re anything like me, you end up in your inbox or on Twitter several times throughout the day (and end up staying there for far too long). There’s nothing wrong with taking breaks to check social media, and we all need to respond to emails to do our work. But these things can also be a significant distraction from the most important tasks.

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Instead of allowing yourself to mindlessly scroll, take a proactive approach by building blocks of time to engage with potential distractions. For example, your daily schedule could include time frames where you can “process” your email or social media accounts two or three times a day—once in the morning, again before lunch, and once more at the end of the day. The important thing is to treat these items like any other task—just another line item on your daily schedule—rather than allowing them to infiltrate your day.

5. Include Breaks

Every day, I schedule an hour-long lunch break and several 10 to 15-minute breaks to meditate or go for a walk. It might seem counterproductive to plan out time in your day when you’re not working, but remember that nobody has endless capacity to work at full steam, constantly. And if you try, you won’t be as productive as you want to be.

There’s scientific evidence that the occasional pause can actually enhance productivity.[7] For one thing, pausing from time to time can boost your ability to think creatively and strategically. Sometimes, the brain needs a change of scenery (and a break from constantly thinking) to come up with fresh ideas.

Scheduling breaks throughout your day also provides something to look forward to—an end in sight. When you know you’ll have a chance to rest or do something you enjoy at the end of a work block, even if only for five minutes, you’ll be much more likely to muster more energy—and focus—for the tasks at hand.

Final Thoughts

As author Mason Currey writes in her book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, a routine “fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.”[8]

Even the most successful people can fall prey to getting off track. Designing your ideal daily schedule ahead of time is an essential practice for preventing distraction and prioritizing what’s most important to you. Think of your schedule as an investment in your future. It may take some time to “save up” for the life you want, but little by little, you’ll see your goals come to life.

More Tips on Organizing Your Daily Schedule

Featured photo credit: Eric Rothermel via unsplash.com

Reference

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