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5 Ways To Focus Your Mind And Super Boost Your Productivity

5 Ways To Focus Your Mind And Super Boost Your Productivity

Every day, you are presented with a set of tasks to accomplish and, often, an even longer litany of distractions, time wasters and other pieces of to-do list white noise that can derail you from accomplishing your goals. How does one navigate the productivity minefield that is modern life, with its Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, emails and the like. Here are 5 ways that you can keep your focus and kick your productivity into overdrive.

1. Set Reasonable Expectations For Yourself

Often when people first try to increase their productivity, they start by jam-packing their to-do list with every possible project they could ever hope to accomplish, many of which are big, long-term endeavors. You are smarter than that. You know that an overloaded docket of activity can be counter-productive as it begins to appear daunting and insurmountable. Unreasonable expectations are a recipe for failure.

Instead, set attainable goals for yourself and recognize that you will, from time to time, fail in carrying those goals out. Break big projects down into manageable chunks and tackle them one at a time. Keep your to-do list nice and short, and don’t put anything on it that you won’t be able to check off in less than a week from now, anything longer term than that should be broken down into smaller sub-tasks.

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Build failure into your plans. Do not schedule activities for every waking moment of the day, be sure to include some much needed downtime and leave yourself a little breathing room between tasks.

2. Define Your Expectations of Others

No man is an island, we all rely on others to varying degrees in our work and personal lives. When it comes to our focus and productivity, those around us can easily span the range from absolutely instrumental to catastrophically detrimental.

Adopt a policy of tactful honesty. Let those that you interact with know exactly what you expect of them, bearing in mind that these expectation must be reasonable given your relationship, there are things that you can say to an employee that you would be wise not to utter to your spouse and vise versa. If you are working on a project with one or more people, do not be afraid to clearly outline what everyone’s responsibilities will be,right from the outset. You can save yourself a lot of distractions and time taken fixing mistakes by outlining exactly what you expect of those that you work with. Remember, you teach people how you want to be treated. Let others know that you are a man on a mission.

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3. Stop Trying To Multitask

You’re not good at it… period. Don’t feel bad, it’s not just you, it turns out that no one is good at it. Compelling research on the topic has shown somewhat conclusively that humans are poor at multitasking, in fact, as it turns out, attempting to do multiple things simultaneously often results in a lot of wasted time when you factor in errors due to insufficient attention and unnecessary context switching.

Instead, focus on one thing at a time and devote to it your full and undivided attention.

4. Create a Distraction Free Zone

Are you old enough to remember a time when the mail came once a day and you couldn’t listen to an answering machine message until you got home from work? How did any of us survive back then? How it is possible to function in a world where we aren’t constantly being updated on the comings and goings of our friends? All sarcasm aside, the constant updates and push notifications that we receive on a minute by minute basis are hurting our productivity. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there, checking our email and somehow getting sucked into an hour long time vortex without even realizing it.

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Create a distraction free zone. Turn off push notifications. Close Facebook and Twitter. 99.9% of the time, your messages can wait and be responded to after you are done working. If there is an emergency, odds are, you will get a phone call.

If you lack the self-control to keep out of your inbox or social network feeds, consider using a distraction blocking tool like FocalFilter to manually block certain websites while you are working.

5. Keep Yourself on a Timer

Being productive requires the judicious use of your time. You need to know how long to work on each task in front of you and when to pivot and move on to something else. Using timers are a good way to keep a single task from using up a disproportionate amount of your time and eating into other things.

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Try assigning yourself a set amount of time for each portion of a project, setting a timer and sticking to it. When the alarm goes off, move on. In this vein, many people have had success with the Pomodoro technique, which employs set periods of work and rest.

 

With some planning and a little effort, it is easy to improve your focus and productivity in nearly any endeavor.

Featured photo credit: Bethan via flickr.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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