Have you been struggling to concentrate at work and wondering how to improve focus? You’re not alone in facing this challenge. A 2015 study revealed a startling fact – the average human concentration span has dwindled to a mere eight seconds, one second less than that of a goldfish. Yikes!
In today’s always-on world, sustaining concentration is a formidable task. Constant distractions, from smartphones and email notifications to lengthy meetings and even a colleague’s persistent pen-clicking, all contribute to chipping away at that precious and elusive thing we call “focus.”
Navigating the realm of attention and enhancing your brain’s staying power isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. However, some valuable tips and tricks can significantly impact your productivity. Discovering the impact of even a small change can be surprising. Let’s explore some strategies to reclaim and elevate your focus!
1. Listen to something
We’ve all been there: sitting in an office so quiet that every small sound becomes a distraction. Keyboard tapping, nose breathing, and the worst: gum chewing, all cut through the silence like a hot knife through butter.
Those particularly susceptible to background noise might well reach for the headphones and crank up the ABBA, but a word of caution: turning the music up full blast is not recommended.
A study from the University of Illinois suggests that while moderate ambient noise can help cognitive performance, it’s important to tailor it to suit you.
“We found that ambient noise is an important antecedent for creative cognition,” the study’s author said. “A moderate level of noise not only enhances creative problem-solving but also leads to greater adoption of innovative products in certain settings.”
He continues: “But when you start to go beyond that moderate level of noise, what happens is that distraction becomes so huge that it really starts affecting the thought process. You really can’t process information because the distraction is so pronounced. And that is what inhibits creativity.
“So a moderate level of noise produces just enough distraction to lead to higher creativity, but a very high level of noise induces too much distraction, which actually reduces the amount of processing, thus leading to lower creativity.”
Classical music is a popular ambient music option with writers and students because there aren’t any distracting lyrics. But if listening to Goldberg Variations on repeat fills you with fear, try a background noise app or website, such as Noisili. The great thing about Noisili is that it allows you to blend a mixture of ambient sounds (coffee shop, rain, white noise, and so on), adjust the volume, and choose an ambient background color to boot.
2. Hide your phone
A 2017 study found that the mere presence of your phone — even if it’s switched off and you’re successfully ignoring it — “reduces available cognitive capacity” because you’re dedicating a portion of your cognitive ability to resisting it. The study’s authors call this ‘brain drain.’
Simply turning off your notifications and putting it on airplane mode isn’t going to cut it. You need to put it out of sight, preferably somewhere that requires a little effort on your part to reach.
At first, you’ll feel the alluring pull of its presence. But this temptation will fade, and you’ll eventually forget about it as you become more engrossed in your task.
Stowing your phone away under lock and key is a little extreme. But it really is the only way to truly get focused and stay focused. Yes, you’ll be slightly anxious about all those notifications you’re missing, but it will get easier with time. You can do this!
3. Turn off the email
Apparently, the average worker spends up to 11.7 hours a week on email. That’s an entire working day a week — and then some.
We’re all tied to our inboxes. We check them first thing in the morning and last thing at night. We check them on holidays, despite setting an out-of-office. And we think the whole world will collapse if we miss just one little email. But in reality, no email is ever really that important.
While it’s true hanging around for days to receive a response is a pain in the butt, no one will think harshly of you if you take a few hours to respond. They’ll assume you’re busy working, in a meeting, going for a run, or partaking in any number of life’s necessities.
4. Out of sight, out of mind
Moreover, consider turning off your email notifications once in a while. Even if you’re not reading your emails, simply noticing that you’ve received one will divert your attention away from the task at hand. ‘Brain drain’ strikes again!
If you’re really worried your boss will think you’re ignoring everyone, just give them a heads-up and share your reasons. They’ll be impressed you’re committing yourself so fully to your work. Promise!
If you have an office chat app, just set your status to ‘do not disturb’ so you can be in the zone.
5. Pep up your post-meeting routine
Meetings can be a total productivity-sucker. There are many reasons your productivity suffers after a meeting, not least simple exhaustion combined with the effort of deciding what to do after the meeting.
Do you type up a list of minutes while they’re fresh in your mind? Do you reward yourself with an early lunch break? Or do you try and pick up what you were doing before the catch-up?
One way to overcome this is to hold a quick pre-meeting meeting, in which you note down a brief plan of actionable tasks to complete directly after the meeting. This will save you time once you’re back to work and help you stay focused on those tasks once you begin.
6. Block yourself
OK, so you’ve locked your phone away, turned off your notifications, and hidden in a quiet room, but you just can’t resist the allure of checking in on Facebook or doing a quick ‘What kind of sandwich are you?’ Buzzfeed quiz.
Allow us to introduce you to the world of website blockers. These clever little apps prevent you from visiting the websites of your choice for a predefined amount of time.
7. Get some space
Extroverts draw their energy from being around others. They thrive on it. Introverts, on the other hand, are people who draw energy from alone time. And they can really struggle in a busy home office or highly-social office.
This is especially true for open-plan offices. Especially open-plan offices that love brainstorming sessions, long meetings, and hourly Nerf dart tournaments. And for homes with children who may be home during the work day.
If this sounds like you, here’s a tip: don’t fight it. You need some alone time to get focused — so grab some. Many offices are starting to figure out that the open plan just doesn’t work for everyone and are installing quiet rooms and snugs for employees to get some P&Q.
If your office has something like this, book a regular time slot so you can settle down safe in the knowledge no one’s going to burst in and shatter your peace.
And if your office doesn’t have snugs, nooks, quiet rooms, or quiet corners? Speak to your boss and see if they’ll let you work from a coffee shop or library for a while. Failing that, really utilize your lunch break as a time when you can go somewhere quiet to recoup and regain your focus for the afternoon.
At home, you can try to align your heads-down time with your family’s. For example, schedule regular do-not-disturb blocks when kids focus on homework or other quiet activities, like reading time.
This advice is especially pertinent to introverts but is just as useful for extroverts who feel slightly frayed and distracted.
8. Be aware of social loafing
We’ve spoken a little about it before, but just to recap: social loafing is a phenomenon where larger groups of people slack off because they assume others will either do the work for them or not contribute as much because they assume everyone else is slacking off. And as you can imagine, it saps a team’s productivity.
If your post-meeting task involves breaking off into groups, try to work in smaller groups of around 5, and ensure each team member has a list of actionable tasks for which they alone are responsible.
9. Don’t send that email
First of all, let’s look at the reply-all email. Do you really need to reply-all? Really? If the answer is ‘well….’ then don’t do it. The same goes for ‘thanks!’ emails. While it’s true a little gratitude is nice — and there certainly are times when you should thank someone — if it’s not absolutely necessary, then just don’t do it.
While it may only take you 30 seconds to write, it could cost the recipient up to 25 minutes as they try to regain their focus after the interruption. Plus, you’re contributing email spam to their already rammed inbox. This may not directly help your productivity, but it’ll help your fellow colleagues no end.
10. Be vocal
Make improving focus a part of your team or company’s culture and lead by example.
Tell your boss or colleagues you’re switching off your email for a few hours to concentrate on your work. Doing this every day will make this a routine for you and, pique your team’s interest, and entice them to try it for themselves.
11. Try mindful breathing
Amidst the chaos of the workday, taking a few moments for mindful breathing can do wonders for your focus. Find a quiet spot, sit comfortably, and take slow, deep breaths. Focus your attention on each breath, letting go of distracting thoughts. This brief mindfulness exercise can help clear your mind and bring you back to the task at hand.
12. Break it down
When faced with an enormous, daunting task, break it into smaller, more manageable parts. Tackling one piece at a time makes the work feel less overwhelming and allows you to focus better on each aspect.
13. Incorporate short breaks
Working for extended periods without breaks can lead to burnout and a decline in focus. Embrace the power of short breaks. Whether it’s a quick walk, stretching exercises, or a brief chat with a colleague, these pauses can re-energize your mind and improve overall concentration.
14. Create a dedicated workspace
Establishing a designated and organized workspace can significantly impact your ability to concentrate. Minimize clutter, personalize your area with items that bring you joy, and ensure it’s well-lit. A comfortable and appealing workspace can enhance focus and productivity.
15. Explore focus-enhancing apps
Take advantage of technology to improve your focus. Several apps are designed to help individuals concentrate better. Whether it’s a Pomodoro timer, ambient noise generator, or task management app, find tools that complement your work style and boost your ability to stay focused.
You can get focused and stay focused
In the hustle and bustle of the modern work environment, concentrating on tasks may seem like an uphill battle, but remember, it’s a challenge that can be conquered. By implementing the right strategies and utilizing tools tailored to your needs, you can reclaim and enhance your focus. It’s not about making drastic changes overnight but rather finding minor adjustments that work for you. Backlog, our task management application, can be your ally in this journey, helping you organize tasks, set priorities, and stay on track. As you embark on this focus-boosting adventure, celebrate the small victories and remember that progress results from consistent effort. You’ve got this!
This post was originally published on December 25, 2018, and updated most recently on November 15, 2023.