Imagine if everyone had the ability and motivation to concentrate for long periods of time. Large work projects, reading, and absorbing massive amounts of information – it would all feel like a walk in the park.
But the reality is we are all human, so you can’t maintain your focus forever, and it is especially harder as the world becomes more and more saturated with distractions and notifications, all constantly battling for your attention.
The bottom line is, your ability to focus is one of the greatest indicators of your future success. Most key work skills like problem solving, efficiency, organisation, perseverance (the list goes on), all heavily depend on your ability to stay focused.
If you’re suddenly thinking about how you constantly refresh your social media feeds at work, or completely zone out in most meetings, don’t lose hope. If you’re like the average person, your attention span actually sucks. According to a study conducted by Microsoft in 2018, the average human being now has an attention span of 8 seconds, a sharp decline from 12 seconds in 2000, most likely due to the introduction of smartphones.
But that’s no reason to give up! There are ways to instantly improve your concentration and focus.
If you’re desperately trying to study, finish a book, complete a task at work, or just strive to have laser-like focus, then take charge of your mind by trying these 10 hacks that will help you do just that.
1. Notice what makes you lose focus
Noticing what makes you lose focus is the first step in improving your ability to concentrate. This practice is actually quite similar to meditating, where you notice your thoughts and accept them, but then simply bring the mind back. So, when you notice yourself becoming distracted at work, the first step is to recognise it, and then choose to come back to the task at hand.
The most important takeaway is that we can’t eliminate all the distractions that go on around us, but we can choose to recognise when our focus drifts and then choose to come back to what we were doing, and that’s the important thing.
This cycle of focusing on a task, having your attention wander, recognising it has wandered and then choosing to return is natural and normal, and the more you’re consciously aware of it, the longer the original focus will become.
2. Set small daily goals
While it’s great to have huge goals and a big vision for yourself and what you want to achieve, this can’t be accomplished in a day’s work. Small daily goals will not only set you up for your longer-term goals but they will also be much more digestible to the mind.
Imagine coming into work with the goal to reach 500k subscribers on your email newsletter. That’s great, but it’s not something that can be achieved overnight. Setting daily goals or tasks like completing new blog posts to include in your newsletter, or setting up a spreadsheet to track your analytics, are much more achievable.
Besides, once you accomplish these goals during the day you will trigger the reward mechanism which releases dopamine in the brain, and is much more motivating than leaving work feeling unaccomplished and guilty that you still haven’t reached your bigger vision.
3. Eliminate distractions
It’s impossible to eliminate all distractions, because the world is full of them, but there are some things that we can do to reduce the temptation to go off task (AKA eliminating pointless distractions).
Of course your smartphone is a big one, but it’s not usually feasible to have it out of sight for an entire work day. Block out a time in the day where you have let your colleagues and family know you won’t be contactable, and turn your phone on aeroplane mode. Or turn off notifications for apps that aren’t work-related.
Sleep promotes wellness in multiple ways, so a lack thereof can be seriously detrimental to your cognitive performance at work and in general life.
Good quality sleep helps us think clearly, remember information, and make well-thought decisions, faster. Plus, when you’re well-rested you probably won’t need to rely on numerous cups of coffee during the work day to stay alert and focused.
You need sleep to feed your creativity, innovative thinking, and enhance your ability to synthesise new ideas, so if you’ve created poor sleep habits it could be seriously affecting your focus and performance at work.
5. Don’t multi-task
The ability to multi-task can be a great skill to have, but for long periods of time, such as a work day, it’s just not viable.
Because your brain is rapidly switching back and forth between tasks, it becomes exhausting, and most likely ends up taking more time to complete the tasks than it would if you simply did them one after the other. In fact, researchers estimate that you can lose up to 40 per cent of your productivity if you multi-task.
When your boss throws you numerous tasks at once, prioritise what needs to be done first, and work through the tasks one-by-one, so when each is finished you can start fresh on the next one.
Taking short breaks in between can help refresh your brain before starting a new task too, and will activate the reward mechanism in the brain which in turn releases dopamine.
6. Take a break
When you’re drowning in work and trying to meet deadlines, taking a break can seem like the worst thing to do. But as you have probably discovered at some point, our brains are not made to focus on one thing for long periods of time.
If you have just smashed out a lot of work, and think your brain is completely fatigued and done for the day, you probably just need a break and a chance to think about something else for a while before you can get back into the swing of things.
Famous neuroscientist and productivity expert, Mark Waldman, offers great advice: “Our research has found that taking two to three breaks during each hour to consciously relax, stretch, meditate, or do something pleasurable – even for 10 seconds – will reduce stress, enhance your awareness, and significantly boost your concentration and productivity.”
So before you bury yourself in your work, set some reminders to take short breaks (emphasis on short!). Your brain will thank you at the end of the day.
Participating in exercise, preferably before you start your work day, can really set you up for a productive and efficient day.
You don’t need to wake up before the sun’s up and hit the gym for two hours (although if that’s your style, then go for it!) – all you need is 20 minutes to get the blood flowing.
Switch up your commute and briskly walk to work where you can, or cut out your morning wait in the coffee line if you’re feeling short on time. Just 20 minutes of exercise in the morning will do wonders for your brain and overall wellbeing, and is the perfect way to spark your mind and allow you to focus better throughout the day.
8. Check your diet
When work gets hectic, you often make poorer food decisions, resulting in one too many nights of takeout, fast (and generally unhealthy) lunches in the office, and probably find yourself often skipping breakfast. But no matter how busy work gets, we should never compromise our eating habits, because these actually have a massive impact on our brain’s ability to concentrate.
Since the human brain is made up of 60 per cent fat, the fastest way to improve cognitive function through our food choices is to increase our intake of good fats. This means that people on low fat diets may suffer from slower cognitive function, even though they aren’t eating unhealthily.
Avocados, eggs, nuts, coconut oil, fish and chia seeds are just some great foods to add to your diet, and will also keep you feeling satisfied for longer.
9. Reduce clutter
Clutter is the devil when it comes to improving your focus. A 2011 study that monitored the brain’s reaction to organised and disorganised stimuli concluded that clutter significantly decreases your ability to concentrate.
Only keep what is absolutely necessary on your desk (don’t be afraid to add other minimal touches such a plant or motivational quote though), and use draws or other space for everything else.
Keep what you have on your desk tidy, even if that means staying back at work an extra 10 minutes to file paperwork and get things in order for the next day. If you keep on top of it, it’s much less likely for things to get out of control and you’ll be able to navigate it more efficiently, and you should see an improvement in your focus too.
10. Listen to music
While this doesn’t work for everyone, try listening to some music while you work. Music without lyrics is preferable as they can be distracting and, in turn, make you lose focus, but it really is personal choice.
Especially when completing menial tasks, having some music can really motivate you to complete tasks fast and without the constant stopping and starting due to distractions. Plus, simply having a pair of headphones handy on your desk is so useful, especially if you have chatty desk neighbours, construction near the office, or just a noisy workplace.
This article was written by Laine Fullerton and originally published on A Girl In Progress.