Do you have trouble concentrating? Most of us do.
It’s a busy world and there’s a lot competing for our attention at any given moment: chatty co-workers, buzzing phone notifications, and increasing workloads, not to mention the stress of everyday life right now. It can all be overwhelming.
“We’ve all been under a lot of stress and anxiety for the past year,” Northwestern University professor of neurology Borna Bonakdarpour told the Washington Post this summer. “That, by itself, affects our focus.”
Luckily, there are a few life hacks for staying focused that are backed by science from the world’s top researchers, and they are relatively easy to incorporate into your daily routine or workday.
Scientists estimate that it takes about 30 to 60 seconds to refocus when you get sidetracked by a distraction or second task.
That means every time your phone buzzes or an email pops up at the top of your screen, you’re likely to be derailed from any progress you were making before the distraction.
If it happens too many times during a primary task, all focus is out the window. It may have happened to you once or twice while you were reading this!
To combat this, limit distractions as much as possible. It’s a life hack that’s so simple by principle but can be the hardest to execute.
- Setting your phone to airplane mode or even ditching it in another room can ensure that you aren’t tempted to pick it up every time you have a few seconds of wait time.
- Closing any programs with notifications on your computer helps too. Several apps are available for computers that make limiting distractions easy.
- If you’re especially tempted, try to do as much work as you can without any internet at all. Writing in a Word document, without access to social media or browsing limits, virtually all of those troublesome distractions and helps you set a mindset that is focused.
Prioritize your tasks
It’s difficult to focus on one task when you have so many, but there’s a simple way to figure out where to start and how to prioritize for max efficiency: the Time Management Matrix.
The Time Management Matrix is a graph that divides tasks into four different quadrants:
- Quadrant 1: Urgent and important
- Quadrant 2: Not urgent and important
- Quadrant 3: Urgent and not important
- Quadrant 4: Not urgent and not important
Tasks that are neither urgent nor important can be dropped off the list for now or delegated to somebody else.
Urgent and important, however, move to the top of your priority list.
Things that aren’t urgent but are important probably require more time or brainstorming, so remember to keep those moving.
Urgent but not important often take less time and focus to complete, so you may want to try grouping those together (like emails, or returning phone calls).
The great thing about the matrix is that it can apply to all parts of your life, whether it’s work goals, creative projects, or a day of running errands.
We are often so inundated with information and ideas that we forget to organize them, and move from one thing to the next without putting too much thought into the efficiency. That’s a recipe for losing focus, but making a plan helps.
Set a timer
There’s an easy way to help you focus: break up your time into 25-minute chunks separated by 5-minute breaks. Called the Pomodoro Method, this system helps to limit distractions and energize you.
Our brains are not wired to sit at desks for hours at a time, so we shouldn't expect them to work at 100% without stopping for 8 hours a day, right?
“You don’t need to stack four Pomodoro sessions on top of each other like the technique prescribes, although it helps,” writes author Bryan Collins for Forbes. “One or two Pomodoro sessions a day sets a tone whereby you feel more focused and productive, even if you’re not up against a self-imposed timer.”
Essentially, the method embodies the idea that sprints are more effective than marathons. You’re less likely to get distracted if you know you only have a limited amount of time, plus a break is just around the corner.
If the 25/5 method doesn’t work for you, change it up! 15/5, 30/10 - if it helps you feel productive and focused, it doesn't have to be what anyone else does!
And all you need is a good timer to make it work.
Use selective attention
Chances are you aren’t a very good multitasker. Nobody is.
“A majority of people in the office spend their time bouncing back and forth between tasks, believing their multitasking is making them more efficient,” say researchers at the University of Southern California. “New studies, however, have found that multitasking is no longer a skill to brag about, but to worry about.”
A University of London study found that multitasking lowers IQ similar to those who have stayed up all night. The reason is because human brains are built to do one thing at a time (it’s a method of survival that’s stuck with us all these thousands and thousands of years), so switching between multiple tasks at once slows your brain down in an attempt to correctly complete a task.
Instead, researchers believe that your focus is better served on what they call “selective attention,” focusing on just one stimulus and putting the rest on hold.
You may turn all of your attention to one task by doing all of the things we’ve already talked about, turning off distractions, prioritizing and setting a timer. But it could be even simpler, like only checking your email at designated times to prevent task switching.
How many times have you been in the middle of important work, see an email alert pop up, and you leave your work to reply "real quick"? It happens all the time! And you wouldn't believe how much it's reducing your productivity.
It can be hard to get out of the habit of multitasking, but experts say the proof is in the pudding.
It’s been shown that folks who ditch multitasking in favor of focus are more innovative, complete more work, and have more alert brains, which means more brilliant ideas and fewer errors to fix later on.