Our focus has been hijacked: here’s how to get it back
How to stay focused at work by overcoming distractions and improving your concentration habits
Why can’t I focus at work? We've all been there. You're sitting at your desk, trying to get some work done, but your mind keeps wandering. Maybe you're thinking about how to make tonight’s lasagne, or you’re getting distracted by the notifications on your phone.
One study analyzed the amount of time different groups could concentrate on something to test the idea that we’re collectively losing focus. The results?
Students could focus on a task for 65 seconds, compared with three minutes for office workers. While the office showed better results, three minutes isn’t a productive number.
By making a few simple changes to your routine and environment, you can train your brain to better focus on the task at hand.
So if you're ready to boost your productivity and get more done at work, read on for some helpful tips.
Why are attention spans getting shorter?
Are attention spans getting shorter? There have been years of debate on the rise and fall of attention spans, but some of the most recent research gives evidence on where and why attention spans are falling.
More content means more distractions
Research from the University of Denmark suggests that attention spans are narrowing on a global scale.
After gathering information from a variety of media sources, the group of researchers found that - compared to previous trends - topics become popular more rapidly, but interest is also lost at an increased rate.
Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, a lecturer featured in the study, says: “Content is increasing in volume, which exhausts our attention and our urge for ‘newness’ causes us to collectively switch between topics more regularly”.
To put it simply, more content means more opportunities for distraction.
Too much multitasking
While it’s common to think balancing lots of tasks at the same time is easy, this is actually a common misconception.
In fact, we can only truly focus on one thing at a time - and multitasking actually results in “juggling” between tasks, which is detrimental to our productivity.
This is called the “switch-cost effect”, and it gives the illusion of focus while actually making it harder by forcing you to retrace and remember the previous task each time.
Environmental causes are all around us
From Twitter to movie ticket sales, a range of media content is to blame, but also wider factors from the world we live in.
“Causes range very widely – from the food we eat to the air we breathe, from the hours we work to the hours we no longer sleep”, according to Johann Hari - author of the best-selling book “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention”.
Tips on how to focus better at work
In today's world, it's harder than ever to stay focused with these distractions around us. Whether it's social media, email, or even just general office chatter, eliminating distractions is crucial if you want to improve focus and concentration.
A study at Carnegie Mellon University found that students receiving text messages during a test performed, on average, 20% worse compared to those who had their phones switched off.
To concentrate on sticking to your important tasks try to:
- Turn off your phone if you don’t need it.
- Find a distraction-free place to work.
- Limit the number of tabs you have open.
Focus on the flow state and get “in the zone”
Have you ever been so “in the zone” that it felt like almost nothing could stop you? That feeling is scientifically known as the “flow state”, and it refers to a sense of being completely focused and productive with your task.
Three key factors are crucial to getting into this flow state, so keep them in mind to try and improve your ability to focus:
- Choose one goal: As we already mentioned, multitasking does not help us focus, so choose a goal and stick to it instead of regularly jumping between tasks.
- Make the goal a meaningful one: To truly get in the zone, the goal should be one that is meaningful to you.
- Work at the edge of your ability: Challenging yourself helps you stay focused and overcome distractions.
Reduce stress outside of work hours
Do you feel pressured to reply to work messages at home? As much as 35% of workers feel they have to be ready to respond to their boss at any moment because they might be contacted day or night.
This makes a lot of workers feel on edge and unable to sleep or switch off when their phone rings after work.
A lack of focus is linked with sleep deprivation, but there are some things you can do to help:
- Make free-time hours precious: Make things clear to your company about free-time hours to reduce your stress levels outside of work.
- Switch to do not disturb: Switch your phone to ‘do not disturb’ outside of work hours to make you less attached to your devices.
- Limit your screen time: Try to limit your screen time at home to improve your focus at work. Too much screen time is proven to harm your sleep, which in turn impacts your concentration.
Make a list & set a time limit
One of the best ways to improve focus and concentration is to have a clear plan of what needs to be done.
Before starting your project, take a few minutes to sit down and think about everything you need to accomplish.
- Make a list to help you focus: Making a list will help you focus on one task at a time to battle this “switch-cost effective” mentioned earlier.
- Use iLovePDF templates: Make your lists with the Create PDF tool - which offers creative ways to design, edit, and annotate your lists.
Once you have a list of what needs to be done, set a time limit for each task. For example, if you need to write a report that's due at the end of the day, give yourself two hours to complete it and make yourself stay focused.
As well as lists, the iLovePDF Create tool has planners to keep your time frame on track.
Remember to take regular breaks
It may seem counterintuitive, but taking breaks often can actually help improve focus and concentration. When we try to focus on something for too long without taking a break, our brains become overloaded and we start losing concentration.
Instead of working without rest, make sure to take five/ten minute breaks every hour or so. During your break, step away from your desk and do something relaxing such as reading or taking a walk outside.
This will help clear your head and allow you to come back feeling refreshed and ready to work again.
Alternatively, many people use the Pomodoro Technique to improve their focus. This is a time management method that helps you break up your work into rest blocks with 5 steps:
- Pick a task.
- Get a 25-minute timer ready and hit go.
- Work on your task until the timer stops.
- Give yourself a 5-minute break.
- Take a longer 15-30 minute break after repeating this x4.
Comment with your own tricks & tips
If you're finding it difficult to stay focused and concentrated at work, don't worry—you're not alone. Trends show that focus is falling!
By making a few small changes such as making lists and setting time limits, eliminating distractions, and taking breaks often, you can train your brain to better focus on the task at hand.
So put these tips into practice next time you're feeling overwhelmed at work—your productivity will thank you.
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