Your ability to focus on a task until it’s complete is one of the greatest skills you can master.
It’ll serve you at work, at home, in your relationships. But we live in an always-connected world where our focus is under attack. We’re constantly being bombarded by distractions and notifications, all offering mini dopamine rewards for very little effort.
Our brains aren’t equipped for so much stimulation, and the effect is that it’s harder to concentrate than ever before. We’re becoming the slaves of our brains instead of its master.
We’re constantly being bombarded by distractions and notifications, all offering mini dopamine rewards for very little effort.
Luckily, this can be turned around.
Focus is a lot like a mental muscle. The more you work on building it up, the stronger it gets. For sustainable success, you’ll need to make changes to your daily habits, and avoid falling into those distraction-filled holes that can soak up hours of your time (we’re looking at you, Netflix recommended page.)
Start the day right
Beginning your day with some gentle exercise energises your body, but also your brain. Studies have shown that just 20 minutes of exercise can help you to focus, while also giving you all the other benefits of exercise. Even a few minutes will help! And can set the groundwork for developing a daily habit.
For a further boost – take it outside. Being out in nature has been shown to reground the mind and improve people’s ability to focus.
Write out your daily goals
Using a notepad to physically write down your goals is better for your brain and can improve your ability to remember things. It also has the added benefit of being distraction-free! (compared to phones and laptops, which are filled with diversions).
Before work, write down everything you want to achieve, alongside a loose timeframe. Adding timing will add a sense of urgency and give you less room for procrastination. Working through a list is one of the easiest ways to refocus your thinking and provide your day with ‘anchor-points’ that you can repeatedly return to.
Working through a list is one of the easiest ways to refocus your thinking and provide your day with ‘anchor-points’ that you can repeatedly return to.
A productive workspace is one where distractions are eliminated or controlled.
Science has shown that constant interruptions can have the same effect on the brain as the loss of a night’s sleep. So turn your phone on silent, disable your computer’s notifications and inform co-workers that you want to focus on a task for a time.
It might seem counterintuitive, but allowing your mind to wander (as opposed to being dragged from its focus by distractions) is one of the best things to do if you’re struggling to focus. Daydreaming acts as a miniature reset to our system.
The frontal cortex is the ‘concentration’ part of the brain, and it’s responsible for resisting distractions and controlling our natural impulse to do something more fun. This part of the brain requires a lot of energy so, when we daydream, we’re actually refuelling and improving our focusing willpower.
Daydreaming is only unhelpful when it happens at the wrong times, so why not try scheduling ‘zone out’ time? Deliberately letting your mind off the hook now and again can pay serious dividends.
Whoever said multitasking was a productivity superpower? This performance-killing behaviour not only reduces the quality of your work, it can also lower your IQ!
Instead, focus on doing one single thing at a time. This is also where the list you wrote earlier comes in handy, structuring your day with a linear list of tasks to work through.
When you’re up against it, taking a break might be the last thing on your mind. But there is a huge amount of evidence to suggest it can actually help you get more done.
Take a break
Similarly to your daydreaming, don’t feel bad about taking a break (as long as it’s not a spontaneous three hour GoT marathon...).
Chaining yourself to your desk when you’re just not feeling to will only harm your work performance and mental health. Sooner or later, this will turn into burnout.
When you’re up against it, taking a break might be the last thing on your mind. But there is a huge amount of evidence to suggest it can actually help you get more done. The challenge is working out when to take a break, for how long, and what to do with that downtime.
As we talked about in our last wellbeing post, meditation is a perfect option if you’re wanting to give your brain a mini-holiday. There’s also growing evidence that experienced meditators have better control over their attention resources than non-meditators and are much better at noticing when it’s time for a break.
Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep deprivation can really affect our ability to focus, as well as seriously impacting other areas of our health.
You should be aiming for at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night and get into a routine of waking up at the same time every day. Staying away from screens and other electronic devices for at least an hour before bed will improve the quality of your sleep.
These simply 'sleep hygiene' rules will become effortless, daily routines in no time, and you’ll see the benefits in your productivity and energy levels.
Mastering that elusive thing we call ‘focus’ is not an easy task.
Humans didn’t evolve to cope with the huge number of distractions we face in our daily lives. Our caveman forebears never had to deal with trending pages or Instagram stories. Their concentration wasn’t being constantly niggled at by 101 little apps, each with their own icon and jingle.
By properly fueling and stimulating your brain through exercise and rest, and eliminating distractions wherever possible, you’ll be able to transcend the difficulties of our times and become a productivity boss.
However, by making sure that you’re properly fueling and stimulating your brain through exercise and rest, and eliminating distractions wherever possible, you’ll be able to transcend the difficulties of our times and become a productivity boss.
“The more we know about the brain, the clearer it is that stress is the enemy of concentration” - Christian Olivers of Vrije University, Amsterdam.
Come back next week to see Three Whiskey People Officer Jo Olsen’s best advice for dealing with stress in the workplace.
Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash