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Last Updated on May 21, 2019

How to Improve Concentration and Sharpen Your Attention at Work

How to Improve Concentration and Sharpen Your Attention at Work

Keeping focused and paying attention are core competencies needed to excel and stay productive at work. But we all have those moments when our mind starts to wander and all of a sudden we find ourselves scrolling endlessly through Twitter instead of working on the tasks that are due at the end of the working day.

According to a Microsoft study, humans now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish.[1] Where a goldfish can hold their attention spans for 9 seconds, ours starts to decline after 8 seconds. This comes as no surprise considering the climate of information overload that we currently live in.

With notifications buzzing left, right, and center, our focus on a task is so easily pulled away by the lure of a bit of new information. So much so that a study from UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, found that people, on average, checked their smartphones every 12 minutes while awake![2]

And not only do we have phones, but when we’re at work—for those of us who work in an office that is—we also have access to computers and tablets as well. So, it’s not hard to understand why it can be difficult to keep our attention sharpened and focused.

In this article, you will learn how to improve concentration and sharpen your attention; so you will stay focused and get stuck into the task at hand instead of being distracted.

1. Do One Thing at a Time

With so many duties to take care of and deadlines to meet, it’s easy to think that multitasking would be the best solution to get things done. While it may appear that we’d be more effective and efficient tackling more than one task at a time, it actually makes things worse.

Trying to do more than one task simultaneously is not an ideal option for staying concentrated. In fact, research suggests that our brain can’t actually do multiple things at once, instead it just switches tasks quickly.[3] This means that every time we switch tasks, the process stops and restarts in our brains.

So, to stay focused, it’s best to stick to completing one thing at a time.

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2. Switch off Notifications

Notifications are a great way to keep informed of the world going on around you. Many of us are signed up to countless apps and are involved in numerous group chats just so we’re not left in the dark when it comes to new information; whether it’s a breaking global news or something that happened to one of our friends.

But the constant buzz of accumulating notifications can be distracting. Your best bet on how to improve concentration and sharpen your attention at work is to turn off all your notifications. This includes your smartphone, tablet, and even on your work desktop.

If you’re worried about friends and family not being able to get a hold of you in case of an emergency, make sure they have your work number.

3. Increase Your Concentration Step by Step

The Pomodoro technique is a time management philosophy created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo. The technique aims to stop you from falling prey to procrastination and equip you with optimal focus through a method of incremental task management.

The idea is that you work on your tasks for 25 minutes then take a five minute breaks. This is considered one pomodoro.

You repeat this process 4 times (100 minutes of work and 15 minutes of breaks) and then increase your break time to 15 to 20 minutes. Taking regular breaks can keep your mind refreshed and your attention sharpened.

It’s advisable to keep track of your progress by marking an “X” for every pomodoro you complete, as well as recording the number of times you were inclined to procrastinate. That way you can compare your development.

4. Keep a Distraction List

With the internet and search engines available at our fingertips, it’s easy to succumb to the questions that run through your heads while you work. Keeping a distraction list can help keep any impulses at bay.

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A distraction list is a list where you write down unrelated questions, thoughts, and ideas that run through your head while you work. Once you finish your task or have the opportunity for a break, then you can look up the answers to those questions or research the thoughts and ideas you had.

This list acts as a barrier against distraction. Instead of looking up the answers to the things that fill your head while you work and interrupting your workflow, by writing them down, your thoughts won’t be forgotten and you know at the back of your mind that you can action them later.

5. Exercise

We already know that exercise is important for keeping our bodies healthy, but did you know that it can also have a significant effect on your mental health? A study by Dr Stewart Trost of Oregon State University discovered a link between exercise and improving concentration, behavior, and memory.[4]

If you find it difficult to focus on everyday tasks at work, try engaging in at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Whether it’s participating in a team sport, doing a training program at the gym, or simply walking around the block; as long as you keep your body moving, it can help to enhance your mental health and well being.

6. Meditate

When most of us think of meditation, we probably think of it as something exclusive to gurus and yogis on retreats somewhere out in the middle of the forest. But in fact, it’s something that everyone can engage in regularly, even in the comfort of your own home!

Meditation is known to be great for freeing your mind from clutter which is why it’s a great option if you’re asking yourself how to improve concentration and sharpen your attention at work. It recharges your brain and can leave you in a restful and restoring state.

Along with clearing your head, other benefits of meditation include recovering from distractions, handling stress better, and helping to overcoming Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD).

7. Listen to Music

Working in an office can get noisy. From the phone ringing, to people chatting, to the sound of the coffee machine or kettle going off every minute, it can get distracting.

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Listening to music can help drown out the noises from your surroundings and keep you concentrated on your tasks.

According to Dr Masha Godkin from Northcentral University, listening to music can activate both the left and right brain simultaneously, and the activation of both hemispheres can optimize learning and improve memory.[5]

Genres such as classical, ambient, and new age electronic music are recommended as they don’t usually contain lyrics that can distract you. The tempo and volume are also aspects to keep in mind. You want something that’s 60-70 beats per minute and not loud enough so as to overpower your thoughts.

Here’re some music recommendations to help you stay productive: Enhance Focus with Productivity Music (Recommended Playlists)

8. Handwrite

Nowadays, when it comes to written communication, going down the digital route has eclipsed writing things down with a pen. But even something as simple as writing out the letters of the alphabet can help sharpen your attention.

Handwriting has been known to enhance memory and learning skills.[6] Think about it, when you are writing something down, it requires you to focus on the task at hand. You have to concentrate on forming the letters as they turn into words which eventually turn into sentences.

So the next time you have to remember something important, opt for writing it down on a sticky note instead of typing it out on an online document or your digital planner.

9. Stay Hydrated

One of the many benefits of drinking water is that it can improve your cognitive abilities and energy levels, which is why staying well hydrated is important. In contrast, dehydration can deplete short term memory skills.

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The ideal daily intake of water is dependant on the individual. Factors such as age, sex, weight, and health conditions can influence the amount, however, the average adult should aim for something between 1.5 to 2.5 litres a day.

If you find that you keep forgetting to drink enough water, a good tip is to keep a bottle on your desk. Not only will water be easily accessible when you feel thirsty, but having it in front of you can act as a reminder to drink it!

Another tip, for those who find the taste of water a little bland, is to spruce it up with fruits such as lemon and cucumber for added flavor.

The Bottom Line

The ability to focus on a task and attentively observe are important elements for staying productive at work but, living in this world of information overload can make it difficult.

There are so many things that can prove to be distracting, from the noises in the office, to the incessant buzz of notifications. Yet here’s hoping that the aforementioned tips can help with keeping them in check.

While you shouldn’t deny yourself the luxury and convenience of smartphones and the internet, it’s probably best to keep it aside while you’re in the office so as to improve concentration and sharpen your attention at work.

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Featured photo credit: Studio Republic via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Dinnie Muslihat

Writer, content marketer & productivity enthusiast

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Last Updated on February 25, 2020

How to Create a To-Do List that Super Boosts Your Productivity

How to Create a To-Do List that Super Boosts Your Productivity

It’s 6:00 am. You have just woken up and are ready to take a shower. After the showering, it’s time to eat breakfast, catch the news by reading the morning paper, and then start your work.

You are feeling wonderful, relaxed, and happy. You have very high expectations for the day and you want to be as productive as possible.

Fast forward to 2 pm the same day. You are working in a rush and you barely had a chance to take a lunch break.

You start to feel a bit stressed and tired because of the busy schedule. Besides, it seems that you have to go back to certain tasks and fix them, because you didn’t have time to focus on them properly.

The day which started so fine has turned into a stressful one. You just jump from one task to another – as quickly as possible – without doing anything properly.

You wish you’d find a reset button, so that you could start your day from all over – with a different strategy.

What you probably experienced was this: you planned your day the night before and you felt you were on top of your tasks.

However, things started to go wrong when you kept adding tasks after each other to your list and finally your task list was many miles long. Your to do list also contained tasks which were pretty much impossible to get done in one day.

The other point which contributed to your hectic and stressful day was not understanding how much time completing a particular task would take and when to execute the task. If you had this information, it would have been easier to figure out the right timing for executing the task.

Finally, there really wasn’t any flexibility in your plans. You forgot to add a buffer between tasks and understand that certain tasks are much larger than what they seem outside.

But you know what – these reasons alone weren’t the main reason for your stress and busyness …

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What People Are Wrong About a To-Do List

Do you really know what you are supposed to do?

How much time did you actually spent on planning your day – was it just 5 minutes while the television set was distracting you?

If so, then this was probably the biggest reason why your day became so stressful.

When you plan your days, you should truly understand the tasks you are about to do – and what it takes to accomplish them. This is necessary especially with important tasks, because you are able to make progress with the tasks that matter the most.

The lack of time spent on planning will also be shown as too many big tasks stuffed to your daily list. If you haven’t broken down the task into smaller pieces, it’s probable that you are not going to get them done during the day. This in turn makes you to beat yourself for not completing your task list.

Finally, don’t treat creating a task list just like some secondary thing that you try to do as quickly as possible. In fact, when you pay more attention to your next day’s task list, the more likely is the list going to be realistic and less stressful for you.

Components of a Good To-Do List

When I talk about a good task list, I consider these characteristics to be part of it:

Balanced

The task list contains both important and less important tasks. Let’s face it: although we all would like to work on just important tasks ( e.g. goal related ones), we have to take care of the less important tasks as well (like running errands, taking care of your household or other everyday stuff).

Enough Flexibility

What happens when you have planned a task, but you are unable to take care of it? Do you have a plan B in place? If not, try to figure out the alternative action you can take in these scenarios.

Time for Transitions

Understand that transition times also eat your time. Make sure that when you plan your task list, this time is also included in your plans. Adding some extra buffer between tasks will make your list more flexible and realistic.

Not Too Many Tasks for One Day

Giving you an exact figure on how many tasks you should have on your daily list is difficult. It depends on your situation. But I’m willing to say that anything between 5-10 tasks should be enough for a day.

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Understand that certain tasks are very quick to take care of, so it’s easier to include more tasks on certain days. Just make sure that there are also important tasks on the list so that you are able to move on with your bigger projects.

Shield of Protection

Build a shield of protection around your task list, so that as few tasks as possible can land to your list and that the number of items on your list won’t increase during the day.

In the first case, try to eliminate the sources for your tasks. This is done by reducing your commitments and limiting the projects you have. The fact is that the more commitments (or projects) you have, the more likely they are going to end up as tasks for your daily list.

In the second case, make your list a closed one. I learned this concept by reading Do It Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management by Mark Forster. In order to create a closed task list, all you have to do is to draw a line under the last task on the list. When you have done this, you are not allowed to add any new tasks to your list during the day. This ensures that the number of tasks is actually decreasing as the day goes on.

How to Create a To-Do List That Boosts Your Productivity

To make a list that you can actually accomplish the next day, do the following:

1. Eliminate the Tasks

Go through your commitments and decide if you really need each one.

For instance, I was an active member of our local computer club in my hometown, but then I realized that I don’t have enough time for that activity anymore. Although I’m still a member of the club, I don’t participate in its activities anymore. This has eliminated the tasks related to that commitment.

2. Take Your Time to Plan the List

Don’t rush creating your task list – spend some time on the planning phase. If required, “isolate yourself” for the planning part by going to a separate room in your home (or even going outside your home). This way, you can actually think the tasks thorough before you enter them onto your list.

Try to spend at least 15 minutes with your list when you plan it.

3. Move Important Tasks to the Beginning

When planning your day, make sure that the important tasks are at the beginning of your list. This ensures that you get those tasks done as quickly as possible.

For instance, as a blogger, I make sure I have the content creation tasks at the beginning of my list. As soon as I wake up, I attack those tasks immediately and they get done before I go to work.

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4. Track the Recurring Tasks

You might have recurring tasks on your list, but do you know how much time they take to accomplish?

If you don’t, make sure you do some time tracking to figure it out. This helps you to plan your day better, as you know how much time a task takes and if there is a certain time slot in your daily schedule, when the task could be executed.

5. Batch Similar Tasks

Look at your list and find out if there are similar tasks that you can batch-process. This way, you can get certain tasks off your list faster and easier.

6. Define the Tasks in More Detail

Don’t just include a task like “build a website” on your list; make sure you have broken the task to smaller pieces. The smaller the tasks are, the easier it is to take accomplish them.

7. Do Some Prep Work in Advance

Make sure that you prepare for certain tasks in advance.

For instance, I write the outlines for my guests post on Sundays, so that it’s easier (and faster) for me to start writing the actual posts when I wake up. With a little bit of prep work, I speed things up and make sure tasks get done when the right day comes.

8. Automate the Maintenance

Naturally, you could use a pen and paper approach to your task list, but try to take advantage of technology too. In fact, try to find a tool that takes care of the maintenance of your task list for you. My preferred tool is Nozbe, but there are other task management applications that you can try too.

9. Know Your Task Types and Your Schedule

Finally, when you plan your day, ask yourself these questions:

What else do I have on the schedule?

This question refers to your personal schedule. For instance, if you are traveling, make sure that your list reflects to this fact. Don’t try to “overstuff” your list with too many tasks, since it’s more likely you get only a fraction of them done.

Is the task a gatekeeper?

This question asks if the task is blocking other tasks to be executed.

Every once in a while, we might have a task, which has to be taken care of first. After you have done that, only then you can take care of the sequential tasks.

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When you focus on creating your task list in a focused manner, you’ll be able to spot the gatekeepers easily.

Do I have icebergs on my list?

This question asks if your task is actually much bigger than what it seems. Sometimes when you start working on a task, you’ll soon realize that it’s much bigger than what you initially thought (compare them to icebergs, where only the tip of the iceberg is above the sea level, but the majority of the ice is below the water).

Once again, when you focus enough on your task list during the creation phase, it’s easier to spot these “icebergs” and split the tasks into smaller, much more manageable chunks.

Is the task distraction-proof?

This final question asks if the task is distraction-proof. Not all the tasks are created equal: some tolerate more distraction, while others require your full attention.

For instance, I can check my Twitter stream or do simple blog maintenance even when I’m around my family. These tasks are distraction-proof and I can take care of them – even if I don’t have my full attention on them.

The Bottom Line

If you still have a hard time of achieving your daily tasks, make sure that you analyze the reasons why this happened. If anything, do not beat yourself up for not finishing your task list.

No one is perfect and we can learn from our mistakes.

It takes a bit practice to create a “smiling” task list. However, once you learn to put all the pieces together, things are going to look much better!

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Featured photo credit: Jacqueline Kelly via unsplash.com

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