By Jimmy Warden
It’s becoming harder and harder to focus and genuinely feel productive these days. While we all anticipate notifications pouring into our distraction machines known as smart phones and computers, our quality of focus and work suffers as a result. Not only that, but we often don’t take the proper actions to set ourselves up for being focused and productive. If you’ve ever found yourself feeling distracted and unable to sustain focus while at work or working on meaningful personal projects, you are not alone. The great news is that there are some useful and practical ideas you can try to help you tackle tasks and sustained focus attention.
Idea #1: Set your environment up to be one of focus and productivity
With a lot of people still working from home, it can be easy to fall into the habit of working at the kitchen table, or working on the living room couch with your pet by your side; especially if you don’t have any extra room to create an office space. However, if you have the luxury of an extra room in your place of living, I recommend dedicating it to some type of deep work, and structuring in a way that will foster that. Try to have a desk, maybe a lamp if extra lighting is needed, and any materials you need for your work. If space is lacking, that’s okay too, just carve out a space within a space. For example, you could put a mini work desk in the corner of your bedroom or living room.
While at work, try to keep the amount of items that you have in front of you to a minimum. The more items that you have out, the harder it will be to stay focused. This is due to the fact that your eyes will have more visual stimuli to choose from to focus on. When these items are not prioritized, our eyes tend to bounce around from item to item, trying to figure out which one to use. In sum, know what you need to do your work, and keep it to that.
This goes for people that are back in the office, too. Look around at the items on your desk. How many of them do you really need? How many things are just eye candy (or actual candy) for you to look at? Having pictures, numerous sticky notes, or snacks out in plain sight makes it much easier for our attention to wander because we’re giving our eyes something else to look at and look for, which makes our brain consider making decisions other than our work.
Idea #2: Focus on one thing at a time
This idea is a lot easier said than done. We live in a world where multitasking is glorified to the point where employers often list it as a preferred skill for prospective employees to have. The catch with multitasking is that our work actually suffers because our focus is divided. Trying to make phone calls while checking and answering emails is a recipe for disaster because important information has a high potential to be mixed up and forgotten altogether.
Not only that, but we end up completing less tasks by the day’s end when we multitask. Instead of finishing a few important jobs, when we’re multitasking, we’ll have half finished several, leaving us to tie up loose ends at a later point as new assignments get added to our plate. To quote the great Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation, “It’s better to full ass one thing than half ass a bunch of things”. Meaning, if we’re going to do something, we should put our full focus and effort into it until the job is done. We’ll be surprised how much more we’ll be able to accomplish and how much the quality of our work increases.
Idea #3: Minimize distractions
If we want to maximize our focus and productivity, there are some things that we should consider to minimize distractions during our work times. First, we should put our damn phones away. A lot of people (myself included) have a tendency to always have their phone in their pocket or have it out on the table of the desk that they’re sitting at. This habit is a precursor for a distracted mind. Even if you’re great at ignoring the “buzz buzz” of a text message, a ding of an email, or the whistle of a tweet, your focus will inherently turn to the noise, creating a distraction. At the bare minimum, we should at least silence our phones or turn off notifications if placing it in another location is too overwhelming.
Wherever our work space is, we should try to also make sure the location is quiet. A lot of noise in an environment creates more potential distractions for our focus because our brain will have difficulties balancing our focus and processing the noise. If we work in an environment that is naturally a bit noisy, I suggest a one time investment in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Yes, they can be a bit pricey, but our productivity, focus, and quality of work will be large returns on that investment. If we’re a person that feels like they actually benefit from background noise, try tossing on some tunes in your headphones or from your computer and get after it. I suggest checking out focus playlists, perhaps jazz or classical music, to help get in a flow state. However, if you’re someone that gets dialed in by blasting Metallica, by all means, rock on.
It’s also important to keep the surroundings relatively bland so our eyes aren’t wandering around the room at the pictures on the wall, books on a shelf, the neighbor mowing the lawn, or the runner on the street. With that said, our eyes should try to stay on our “target” for as long as they can without breaking the focus. Targets can be in the form of a computer screen, a book page, a blank piece of paper, a blank art canvas, or anything else we might be working on.
Idea #4: Set a timer
Setting a timer might seem a bit arbitrary, so bear with me. This idea can help us build our stamina to sustain focused attention. Everyone can sustain focused attention for different lengths of time, and those times vary tremendously, but at some point, everyone needs a brain break. By setting and using a timer during our work time, we are practicing a way to sustain unbroken focused attention. If we can set an intention (let’s say 10 minutes of unbroken focused attention) before we do our focused work, we are building neural circuits that are sending messages to our brain that are saying, “now that I’ve set this timer, it’s time to work”.
You’ll be surprised how much work you will end up getting done. I often set myself timers between thirty to sixty minutes and often get much more done within that time frame than I would during a distracted two hours. It correlates with the concept of quality over quantity. The higher quality of work minutes we can have, the less quantity of time we’ll need to complete our work as we become more efficient with our focus and productivity.
The best parts about this technique are: it is something tangible and it can be practiced. Often times we sit down to work without a real intention of how much time we’re going to spend working. This opens up the door for distractions. Without the intention placed ahead of time about how much time will be spent, we’ll feel as if we have all of the time in the world to complete our project. Setting a timer will give us a time when we can “punch out” for the day on whatever we’re working on. We can also play around with the duration of time we set for our timer and increase it as we see fit. The time increase gives us evidence to accept that our stamina for focus and productivity and our quality of focus and productivity is increasing.
Idea #5: Practice the mindfulness technique of noting
Noting is a technique that I’ve previously written about, but I’ll do a quick recap of its essence. Its essence is to create an awareness of when your mind is distracted from the present. The most common forms of distraction that we face are our thoughts and phone notifications.
For example, you might be focused on a work project and all of a sudden, your phone buzzes, and you look at it. Now your focus has been broken from your work and you have a decision to make. Do you look at the notification or return to your work? If you commonly make the choice to return to your work, you are already doing a great job noting. If you tend to pick up your phone, there’s work to be done. No worries though because noting can be practiced in meditation and in everyday life.
Some leading actions are to notice your thoughts or actions when they drift away from the present, and once you notice that that’s happened, mentally and physically return to the present with a deep breath or a mantra. One word that I like to use when I notice my thoughts have drifted from the present is “thinking”. I say that in my head and that is my anchor to return to what I was doing. This might sound like a piece of cake, but it is a lot easier said than done, which is why I recommend deliberately practicing this technique for small chunks of time in your day-to-day life or through meditation. In due time, noting can eventually become habitual to the point that your mind only wanders for a few seconds at a time.
This technique is extremely helpful to correct the misconception that we can “will” ourselves to focus. If only we tried harder to focus we’d be able to focus more, right? Not so much. In reality, focus usually takes more of a soft, relaxed concentration than a rigid, effortful focus. When we try too hard to focus, it creates resistance, which makes focusing harder. As I learned in a recent guided meditation, focus comes from awareness, not will.
The best part about all of these ideas is that they don’t all need to be implemented all at once. Instead, you can try them one at a time as you see fit. However, if you’re a person who likes to take things on all on at once, by all means, do what works for you. For starters, make sure your space is set up for focus and productivity. Make sure there aren’t too many visuals, keep out the bare minimum of what you need for your work, and the space is solely used for working purposes. Once that’s established, try to focus on one task at a time versus multi-tasking or task switching. Don’t forget to minimize distractions by turning notifications off on your phone or even put your phone away all together. Not only that, but minimize the noise in the environment and if you use background music, let it be music that helps you focus. After that, set a timer for how long you’ll be engaging in this deep work. This will send a message to your brain that it’s time to get cracking and stay focused. Lastly, practice noting. Distractions will inevitably pop up no matter how much we try to minimize them, so it is vital to know how to deal with them appropriately.
Give these ideas a go. You never know what you might accomplish.