Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

More Articles About Productivity

Featured photo credit: Studio Republic via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Dinnie Muslihat

Writer & content marketer who specializes in keeping people productive.

5 Techniques to Tackle a Busy Schedule (And Create More Time) How to Improve Concentration and Sharpen Your Attention at Work 7 Strategies to Increase Productivity in the Workplace How to Be Productive at Work: 9 Ground Rules How to Use Sticky Notes for More Productive Reading And Learning

Trending in Productivity

1 The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain) 2 What to Do When Bored at Work (And Why You Feel Bored Actually) 3 6 Effective Ways to Enhance Your Problem Solving Skills 4 How to Concentrate and Focus Better to Boost Productivity 5 15 Productive Things to Do When Bored (So Time Is Not Wasted)

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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]

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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!

More About Goals Setting

Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

Read Next