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Stay Focused At Work With These 10 Tips

Stay Focused At Work With These 10 Tips

Staying focused at work is a constant challenge. If it’s not a coworker wanting to chat, your phone beeping at you, or a hundred emails filling up your inbox, it’s your own mind’s tendency to wander. Here are ten tips to help you deal with distractions and stay focused on your work.

1. Be honest.

Revolutionary, I know.

But maybe you should try it, as long as you can remember that being honest doesn’t mean being rude. It means simply telling people the truth, in a courteous way. For example, try being honest when the chatty coworker stops by and says, “Got a minute?” Or when you get a text from your drama-loving friend. Or when your mom sends an email wanting your help “real quick!” with booking a hotel for her next visit. To all these requests, you need to speak the truth: “I can’t right now. I’m working.”

Feel free to follow up with an alternative:

  • Try asking so-and-so.
  • Check with me after work.
  • I’ll do this at my next break.
  • Remind me on the weekend.
  • Let’s talk about it next time I see you.

2. Put a mind map right in front of you.

Not any mind map. One that shows a visual progression of you staying focused at work and how that leads to your goals.

What are your goals at work?

To be the mediocre employee who does a half-hearted job? I think not.

Even if this job isn’t your dream job, doing your best at it will open up more opportunities for you, gain you more skills, and lead you to better places. So map it out and then put that map where you can see it and remind yourself that, yes, staying focused really does matter.

3. Make a bet.

Surely some of your co-workers or friends also struggle with staying focused and being productive.

It’s time to make it matter where it hurts: in the wallet.

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Make a friendly bet over who can accomplish more in the day or week. Of course, you don’t even have to bet money. You can bet on who has to clean out the office fridge or be the designated driver next weekend.

4. Wear headphones.

Even if you don’t listen to anything, putting headphones on signals to other people that you are not available.

So bring a pair of those giant headphones, put them on, and get to work. Take them off during breaks or when you’re free for a chat. If you can do your work while listening to music or podcasts, do it. It will help you ignore the ambient noise and background conversations which can so easily break your concentration.

5. Use a timer.

Go to the nearest dollar store and get a cheap kitchen timer. Sure, I know; you could use the one on your phone or computer. But the point is to stay focused, and opening up another app or tab is just going to give you an opportunity to check Facebook real quick, or answer that text, or look up that one thing…

You know where that goes.

Instead, buy a timer that does one thing and one thing only: times you as you work. Put it in front of you at your workspace, set it for 15 minutes, and ask yourself to focus on your work until the timer goes off.

When the timer goes off, you can either take a 2-minute breather, or you can keep plugging away.

Every day, increase your “focus time” by a couple of minutes until you work your way up to focusing for 45 or 50 minutes at a time. Be sure to take a 5-minute break after your longer focus time so your brain can recharge and be ready to go again.

6. Be stupid-simple about what you’re doing.

Here’s where most of us get hung up on focusing at work: we ask ourselves to do some big, hairy, enormous task. Our brains freak out and want to run away, which we do by playing Candy Crush or answering pointless emails.

Your brain needs specific tasks to accomplish, not big, huge, vague, intimidating mountains to climb.

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Start telling yourself what you’re doing in the simplest of terms. Dumb it down until you feel a little silly about it.

  • “I’m going choose one color for this design scheme.”
  • “I’m going to write two sentences of this blog post.”
  • “I’m going to file one paper.”

What this does is give your brain a specific, understandable, and easy starting point.

And once you get started, you can keep going.

7. Use the 5-10-40 rule.

Okay, this isn’t really a rule. It’s just a thing I made up that works.

Feel free to steal and use.

Here’s how it works.

You need that timer. Remember, the one you bought? Right. Set it for five minutes. Now spend five minutes figuring out what it is you need to focus on next.

Next, set the timer for 10 minutes, and spend 10 minutes figuring out exactly what needs to be done in that area you need to focus on. Make a list, brainstorm, create a mind map, check your research or project emails, do whatever you need to and create a guideline of the specific (stupid-simple) tasks that need to be accomplished and in what order.

Next, set your timer for 40 minutes and start working your way through those actions, one at a time. If you only get one accomplished in 40 minutes, that’s okay. Scratch it off, take a five-minute break, and then come back and tackle the next one.

8. Write a single sentence about your day.

For this to work, it’s best to do it at the beginning of the day.

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That’s right. You’re not writing a progress report or a log of your work day. You’re simply taking a couple of minutes, at the beginning of the day, to write a single sentence.

And that single sentence should say exactly what your day will have looked like if you stay focused.

  • “Today I wrote 3,000 words and researched two new articles.”
  • “Today I finished that report and turned it in.”
  • “Today I created a great design mock-up for my biggest client.”
  • “Today I landed two new customers.”

What does your day look like, how much do you accomplish, when you stay focused?

Remind yourself of that possibility at the beginning of the day, and you’re much more likely to do it.

9. Keep a progress meter.

You know those poster board signs with the badly drawn graphics people use when they’re fundraising for some worthy cause?

Make one of those.

It doesn’t have to be on poster board, of course. You can use a Post-It. An index card. The back of your hand. The sketchpad on your phone or tablet. A document in your computer.

Whatever.

Break down your current big project into steps. Then draw that representation of a ladder or gauge or arrow, mark different spots for each step, and fill it in as you accomplish those steps.

There’s something really powerful about seeing your progress toward a goal in a simple, visual way.

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10. Use the index card method.

Sometimes we have so much to do that we simply get too overwhelmed to start.

To help yourself focus on a few important tasks, get an index card. Look at your long, long list and your calendar, and choose three things. The most important three things, the highest priority out of all the stuff you really need to do.

Write them down on your index card.

Now flip the card over, and on that side, write down at least one of the following:

  • a reward of some kind (gourmet coffee, chat with a friend)
  • a work task you really like to do
  • a task which you really feel good about accomplishing, but which isn’t one of the top priorities

Your top three tasks are your focus for the day.

If you do them, you get to flip the card over and get/do whatever is on the other side. (So be sure it’s something you like.)

Here’s the final trick to making this method awesome: save your index cards. That’s right. Don’t throw them away.

Stick them in a drawer, and when you’re feeling distracted or discouraged, pull them out and look at all those scratched-off items. You did that. You. You focused on a few important things, accomplished them, and reaped the rewards.

And you can do it again.

Featured photo credit: hang_in_there 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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