There is no doubt the last several weeks have wreaked havoc on our ability to cope with life.
I was in the grocery store among other mask-wearing customers and thought: “when did this — social distancing while shopping with a mask on — become normal? As we look ahead to what our new normal will physically look like — it’s also an excellent time to evaluate the effects of stress and anxiety on our focus and productivity.
Do you remember what it felt like to be focused and productive? If it’s been a while, you are not alone. Internet searches for “how to get your brain to focus” have increased 300% since February. The fact is, many of us are putting in more hours but getting less done, which only adds to our frustration.
This pandemic has affected our ability to focus. It isn’t because we are slacking off, but because of the way our brain is hardwired to respond to crisis and stress. Whenever we experience an extended period of fear and uncertainty, our brain’s prefrontal cortex — which is responsible for our decision making and critical thinking — shuts down to protect us by making us more reactive to danger.
It’s like we’re operating at a fraction of our full strength, and it is affecting our behaviors and decisions. Everything from our eating habits to the way we process our emotions to our ability to focus has felt the impact. While we can’t change the way our brains are wired, we can adapt by developing new habits and taking the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic. We can move forward to be more focused and productive, yet I think it will be vastly different from what we’ve been in the past.
Tips to Improve Focus
Maybe you want to focus on a single task but find you’re easily distracted. You find it difficult to concentrate because your mind keeps wandering, you’re worrying about everything, or maybe you just feel overwhelmed with all you have to do.
Here are some valuable tips on how to improve focus.
Try to set aside at least 30 minutes each day to meditate. If you can’t dedicate that much time, you can still do a short breathing exercise. Focus on your breathing, really focusing on the air, how it touches your nostrils and enters your lips. How does it feel as it escapes? Your mind may wander, but you can bring them back to focusing on your breathing. Continue this process for several minutes. Regulating your breathing relaxes your circulatory system and brings you a sense of peace.
Listening to music helps improve your focus. I really concentrate on the music. Try focusing on a single instrument. What are the words trying to say?
3. Bite-Sized Goals
Goals are great, but sometimes if they can feel overwhelming if they are too big or time-consuming. Try breaking your big goals down into bite-sized pieces. Steps you can reach within a day or two, giving you a sense of accomplishment, and building momentum to keep moving.
4. Internal Clock
Work within your body’s most comfortable time period. Maybe your best time is early in the morning, or late at night. Work when you are most productive when your internal clock helps you feel motivated.
5. Light Meals
Have you ever eaten a big meal for lunch only to feel lethargic and dragging all afternoon? Eating a heavy meal slows you down and makes you sleepy. Choose healthy food options that will keep your mind alert and your body in good physical condition.
Try finding ways to exercise your mind and body every day. I try to do one sudoku puzzle a day, but a crossword puzzle or an engaging discussion are also good alternatives. My husband has built a grow box in our yard and learned how to bake bread. Learning a new skill, or using your creativity, exercises your brain. We also try to get out and go on a bike ride or a simple 30-minute walk to keep our body healthy.
7. Use Resistance
The other day my trainer told me: “Think of all you could do if you just allowed yourself to do it.” It sounds odd, I know, but it is so much easier to give in and let things slip. When we feel resistance, we have two choices — we can allow it to stop us or start us. I’ve learned when I push past any resistance, I land on the other side feeling more energetic. Sometimes we do hit roadblocks. When you do, take some time away from the task. Give your mind a break before you sit down to get back at it.
Learning to improve your focus takes time. Be patient and begin implementing one or two of these steps into your routine to start changing how well you can become focused.
You’d be surprised by how many people lose track of where their time goes. We often think we are focused on a single task. But are we really? Keeping track of how you spend your time is one way to get a more accurate picture of where your time goes. You might discover you’ve been wasting time on little things like checking Instagram every hour.
Here are some of my strategies:
1. Track your time. Analyze the results after a week. Tweak and get rid of time wasters.
2. Plan your week. At the end of your week, find a quiet spot to plot out a plan for the next week. Write down key projects and the tasks associated with them. Don’t forget to add in family activities, meal plans, and anything else you spend energy doing.
3. Prioritize your list. Break down your tasks from most important to least important. Use a calendar to mark out blocks of uninterrupted time (anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes) to work on each one.
4. Eliminate what isn’t essential. Outsource what you can for things you need to do but aren’t a strength. It could be anything from mowing your lawn to hiring an assistant.
5. Set your goals. Break down big or long-term goals into smaller weekly or daily ones to make it easier to focus.
6. Set aside a specific amount of time each day for checking/answering email and social media. It could be the first 30-minute task of the day, the last 30 minutes of your workday, or maybe the 15 minutes before your lunch break. Only do it once a day, though. Don’t stop in the middle of a task to check your email. The same goes for social media as well.
7. Do away with multitasking. It takes a while to learn how to focus on one project at a time, but stick with it, and it will become a habit. Finish one project/task before moving on to the next one. Becoming laser-focused on one job at a time will increase your productivity.
8. Make a distraction to-do list. The Internet has made it easy for us to become quickly distracted. As soon as we want to look something up, we hop on the Internet to search for the answer. “I wonder what’s happening on Facebook.” “What was the name of the actor in that movie?” “How long will it take to drive to the zoo tomorrow?” Anytime we get distracted like this, it takes about 25 minutes to get back on task. So, next time you want to look something up or an idea pops in your head, jot it down on a piece of paper or in a notes app on your phone.
9. Learn to say NO. If you already have a full day, don’t feel like you have to take on another project for someone else. It’s okay to say no, and let the guilt go.
10. Create an environment that works for you. Do you need a quiet space, free from people, phones and television noise? Set up your office, so it works for you. If you work best in a neat and clean area, make sure you keep things put away. Get rid of clutter. If you focus better while listening to music or need a little background noise, be sure to have a way to make that happen.
11. Take a break. Short breaks help break up boredom and burnout when you’re working on a big project. Get up and walk around, do some yoga stretches, or a couple of squats and push-ups.
12. Break up or Chunk it. Break your list of things to do down into smaller, more manageable chunks of time with short breaks in between. For example, work on a task in 15-minute chunks. For example, let’s say you’re writing an eBook. Don’t try to do the whole thing at once. Break it down. Take 15 minutes to write out your outline. Take a short break. Then 15 minutes to research the first chapter. And so on.
The strategies for becoming more focused are endless. Make lists. Remove distractions. Set up your ideal environment. You need to find what works best for your style of working.
Exercises to Improve Focus
When TV newscaster Diane Sawyer was asked the secret to her success, she said, “I think the one lesson I’ve learned is there is no substitute for paying attention.”
Did you know there are simple exercises to improve your focus? Something as simple as putting in a workout or chewing gum can improve your brain function, which leads to better focus. Most of the time, focus exercises take less than ten minutes to do.
Here are a few to get you started:
- Mutter to yourself. It might seem like you’re crazy, but talking to yourself helps you pay attention, calms you emotionally, and keeps you in motion.
- Trade your caffeine for cardio. Caffeine gives you a boost, which makes it easier to concentrate. But you might find it harder to focus when you don’t have caffeine in your system. A better way to keep your mind stimulated is with physical exercise. Exercise triggers the release of chemicals in the brain that affect our learning and memory, which in the end, are what help us focus.
- Drink more water. Mild dehydration can lead to distraction. Being even as little as 2 percent dehydrated can affect your ability to concentrate on cognitive activities.
- Get plenty of sleep. Getting at least seven hours of good quality sleep each night helps your body and mind rejuvenate and leads to better concentration and focus during the day.
You can increase your productivity and accomplish more in less time by using a technique called Applied Focus. It helps you avoid the little distractions that often derail our efforts to be productive.
How It Works
Applied focus is a strategy that helps you multiply your productivity. Each session is 45 minutes long, with a 15-minute shift in focus. Or you can do 90 minutes, followed by a 30-minute change in focus. In other words, you stop focusing intentionally on your task and do something completely different in the shift focus period. During your session, don’t allow anything to distract you — no phone calls, emails, texting, or social media.
Here are some guidelines (be sure to adjust as necessary for your situation):
1. Only open one browser or application window at a time.
2. Keep your sessions timed. Don’t go over your allotted 45 or 90 minutes, no matter how focused you are.
3. Get away from your task. Leave your desk, walk around, get a drink or snack. Give your mind a break.
4. Be prepared. Do your research, planning, and prep-work so you can focus on one task.
Applied focus sessions can increase your productivity but getting used to the routine takes some practice. Gradually schedule one or two sessions a day. Once you become used to the method, you will notice an improvement in your concentration and productivity.
Learning how to focus on one task at a time takes commitment. We are pulled in so many different directions. Start by gradually implementing some of these tips and strategies.
Remember, focus is an essential part of productivity. Try focusing on one task for a set amount of time — you’ll be amazing at how much more you can accomplish.
Remove distractions to improve your focus. Create an environment you feel comfortable in and accommodates how you work. If you’re a morning person, then focus on your most important tasks first thing in the day, and vice versa for night owls.
Be sure to eat healthy and nutritious foods to keep your brain active and to improve your concentration. Daily exercise, meditation, and time to enjoy nature and your family are essential to a more focused and productive mind.