I’m sitting at my desk, researching an article on how to stay focused at work. As I open up a PubMed study, I realize I have 87 emails in my inbox. Then the buzzer rings—Greatist’s monthly supply of pistachios has arrived. I get up to answer the door right as my mom texts me. I answer the door, put away the nuts, text my mom back, and return to my research. Derek starts singing.
For the average person working in an office or from home, it’s easy to become distracted. Yet finding focus—being able to completely concentrate on a specific task or tasks—helps people get sh!t done effortlessly. So learn how to zero in, avoid distraction, and stay super-productive all workday long.
Not From Concentrate?—The Need-to-Know
Attention span varies widely between people, but 20-somethings may be at a particular disadvantage Human variation in overriding attentional capture. Fukuda, K., Vogel, E.K. Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon. The Journal of Neuroscience, 2009 Jul 8;29(27):8726-33. . With the explosion of the Internet and text messaging, many Gen Y’ers may be dealing with shorter attention spans Encouraging alternative forms of self expression in the generation Y student: a strategy for effective learning in the classroom. Arhin, A.O., Johnson-Mallard, V. School of Nursing, Florida A & M University, Tallahassee, Florida. The ABNF Journal, 2003 Nov-Dec;14(6):121-2. . And hey dudes, listen up: Some research suggests men have a harder time focusing than women and are more likely to suffer from attention span issues.
Turns out brain structure might be to blame for a wandering mind. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that regulates attention span and handles our emotions Long-range neural coupling through synchronization with attention. Gregoriou, G.G., Gotts, S.J., Zhou, H., et al. Department of Basic Sciences, Medical School, University of Crete, Heraklion, Crete, Greece. Progress in Brain Research, 2009;176:35-45. . So any strong sentiment, from frustration with a boss to being angry with a significant other can be a case for distraction. Still, people aren’t born with a mind in complete disarray. The brain works hard to stay attentive: One study found that when listening to boring people, the brain prevents us from losing focus by “rewriting” speech so it sounds more interesting and we’re more apt to pay attention Brain 'talks over' boring quotes: top-down activation of voice-selective areas while listening to monotonous direct speech quotations. Yao, B., Belin, P. Scheppers, C. Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK. NeuroImage, 2012 Apr 15;60(3):1832-42. Epub 2012 Jan 28. . (So that’s how we survived lectures in college…)
Zoom In—Your Action Plan
It’s possible to find flow—or effortless concentration on and enjoyment of a task—by tackling a challenge that’s meaningful and manageable. Having a job you love with a reasonable workload makes achieving flow a lot easier. Whether at home or at the office, there are lots of useful tips that help people stay focused at work and make the most of the day.
- Pinpoint the problem. What causes you to lose focus? Is it fatigue, hunger, or a Twitter addition? Figuring out the issue is the first step towards trying to fix it.
- Plan ahead. Envision what the workday will look like before it happens. Write down what things need to get done or what you want to accomplish. (Even in the shower!) Setting goals can help people stay on track.
- Eat a good breakfast. Eggs Benedict may do more than jumpstart metabolism. Studies have found that eating breakfast can improve attention and concentration, too Breakfast eating habit and its influence on attention-concentration, immediate memory and school achievement. Gajre, N.S., Fernandez, S., Balakrishna, N., et al. National Institute of Nutrition (Indian Council of Medical Research), Hyderabad, India. Indian Pediatrics, 2008 Oct;45(10):824-8. . For starters, try a tasty berry parfait!
- Meditate. Scientists have discovered that meditation may enhance certain brain functions linked to attention Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention. MacLean, K.A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S., et al. Psychological Science, 2010 June; 21(6): 829–839. . It can’t hurt to try shutting everything off to get more done in the long run.
- Work offline. One survey found nearly 60 percent of disruptions at work come from email, social networks, and cell phones. So for tasks that don’t involve the Internet, try using old-fashioned paper and pen—perfect for brainstorming! Put your phone on silent and only check email occasionally (try once every hour). Limit time on social media too. You can “like” your friend’s cute picture of his dog later…
- Do smaller tasks. Some psychologists suggest our brain works way too hard to process incredible amounts of information. So working on one large project can be overwhelming—like trying to plan a whole event at work in one afternoon. Split up projects, like ordering food and booking plane tickets and hotels, so they’re easier to accomplish.
- Time box. Work on one project for a specific amount of time, rather than working until something is finished. (Write emails until 2 pm, instead of stopping at inbox zero). This way we know we can work hard until a certain time, and then be able to take a break.
- Clean up. Anything from post-its to pretzels and family photos can become a distraction. Clear off the workspace and only have out what’s needed (laptop, notebook, water-bottle—check!) to help stay in the zone.
- Try an app. Discard any distractions with a little help from technology. Certain apps can block websites (so long, Pinterest) or black out computer screen backgrounds so only one program is in view at a time. There are web tools that can calculate how much time is spent on websites, too. (Now that could be scary…)
- Reward yourself. A little motivation can go a long way. Say, “After I finish this page, I’ll go buy a cookie!” (Try these vegan delicacies.) Watch that to-do list vanish in no time.
- Take little breaks. Getting to the office early, working through lunch, and staying late doesn’t necessarily mean getting more stuff done. Short bursts of hard work followed by quick breaks can be more beneficial than never taking a breather, since the brain may just burn out.
- Wear headphones. At Greatist we practice the “headphone rule”: No one’s allowed to talk to someone who’s wearing ear gear. It’s a great way to show you’re working on something important and don’t have time to chat. (Sometimes I don’t even have music playing!)
- Try caffeine. Coffee or tea may help people feel more alert and able to concentrate in the cubicle The effects of caffeine on simulated driving, subjective alertness and sustained attention. Brice, C., Smith, A. Centre for Occupational and Health Psychology, School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK. Human Psychopharmacology, 2001 Oct;16(7):523-531. . If iced coffee isn’t your cup of… coffee, try chewing gum, which may help increase alertness too!