We all know that creating and maintaining focus is a tremendous challenge in our distraction-laden world. We’ve got notifications to the left, email to the right, and we’re in the middle trying to get stuff done. It’s often more than our brains can handle.
Now that we’ve thoroughly identified the problem in The Painful Truth Why You Can’t Focus, let’s get to solutions. After all, it does no good to highlight a problem if we don’t also chart the way forward.
Thankfully, it’s not rocket science. Get ready for numerous ways to create, strengthen, and maintain your focus even when you’re surrounded by a thousand random stimuli. Expect to develop true focus in a world that is begging you to be distracted.
Apply these 6 time-tested strategies on a consistent basis and soar in your ability to focus with the added benefits of greater productivity and peace of mind.
STRATEGY #1 – Stop Multitasking
Multitasking absolutely kills focus. You need to once and for all accept the simple truth that your brain can’t effectively process more than one thing at a time. I know it may hurt your ego, but get over it. Studies repeatedly show multitasking creates the illusion of productivity while actually lowering their effectiveness. It may feel good to do two things at once, but you certainly won’t accomplish much.
Additionally, studies suggest multitasking even lowers your IQ, effectively making you dumber. As Travis Bradberry, cofounder of TalentSmart writes:
A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.
Instead of trying to juggle multiple tasks, focus on a single task for short periods of time. Don’t spread your attention between several projects. Instead, put all your mental energy into getting a single thing done.
To avoid multitasking can be harder than it sounds. The reason: you don’t yet believe. You don’t yet believe that you’ll get more done by focusing on one thing at time. You believe something important will be missed. OK then, try it out for a week and see your results. Run an experiment on yourself. Prove the answer to yourself. I run experiments on me all the time.
Many people find the Pomodoro technique helpful in this regard. It helps you suspend the fear of missing something by giving you a specific time to take a break.
STRATEGY #2 – Prioritize Your Tasks
Many productivity experts suggest prioritizing tasks. Our tendency is to spend hours doing unimportant work, such as email, only to find at the end of the day that we haven’t accomplished anything meaningful.
Productivity expert James Clear writes:
We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. Wrong. Productivity is getting important things done consistently. And no matter what you are working on, there are only a few things that are truly important.
This is a crucial distinction. Every day, there are only a few crucial things you need to get done. Prioritizing these tasks allows you to laser focus on accomplishing what matters, rather than letting your attention be hijacked by ten thousand unimportant things.
BONUS: Prioritize your energy! Schedule those priority tasks at times when you have the most energy. For most, the morning works best. No sense in trying to focus on complex strategy when your brain is exhausted from fighting distractions all day.
STRATEGY #3 – Create The Right Environment
Resisting distraction requires your limited energy. Better to structure your world for focus. There are numerous actions you can take to optimize your environment for maximum focus:
- Close all unnecessary applications, such as email and chat
- Silence your phone
- Use an internet blocking software to block access to distracting websites like Facebook
- Use ambient background noise to drown out distracting sounds
- Set the temperature just cool enough so that you’re comfortable
I used to worry about being “unavailable” during periods of focus. Nonsense unless you’re a fireman or something. Just schedule a reasonable check-in period when you’ll check your phone for “emergencies” or authorize only 1 person to interrupt you if absolutely necessary. Remember, your goal is to create an environment with minimal distractions to maintain intense focus.
STRATEGY #4 – Take Breaks To Recharge
Studies have consistently shown that willpower functions like a muscle. Consistent and lengthy use depletes the strength of your willpower. Just like your arms get worn down by curls at the gym, your willpower and focus decrease the more you use it.
This means that in order to sustain focus for extended periods of time, you need to take recharge breaks. Breaks can be as short as 5 minutes, but I recommend 10-30 minutes, moving your body and getting some fresh air if possible.
University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras explains:
…Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused. From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!
STRATEGY #5 – Stay Fueled
The American Psychological Association suggests that low glucose in the brain can cause waning focus.
The brain is a high-energy organ, powered by a steady supply of glucose (blood sugar). Some researchers have proposed that brain cells working hard to maintain self-control consume glucose faster than it can be replenished. In a study lending support to this idea, obedient dogs made to resist temptation had lower blood-glucose levels than dogs who did not exert self-control.
In order to maintain consistent focus, you need to properly fuel your body. Consistently eating small amounts through the day allow your brain to have the necessary fuel to power through challenging tasks. Think of your brain like an engine, constantly requiring input in order to generate energy. However, eat a big meal and your body will be too pre-occupied with digestion to give your brain what it needs to focus. Remember the after-lunch coma.
Coffee and energy drinks can give you a short-term focus boost, but as soon as your body processes the caffeine you’ll find yourself crashing. Some more natural alternatives are:
- Leafy greens
- Popcorn with coconut oil
STRATEGY #6 – Completely Unplug For A Short Time
In our hyper-connected world, some people find this suggestion unreasonable, but you can achieve a miraculous amount when you completely unplug from all communication for a short time. This means shutting down email, completely turning off your phone, and closing out all unnecessary applications and windows on your computer. If you have an office, close your door and ask for no interruptions.
After a brief moment of panic, I enjoy the peaceful bliss of turning my phone all the way off! This doesn’t need to be a long period – no more than an hour. However, you’ll be amazed at the quantity and quality of work you can achieve when you’re not receiving incessant notifications.
As Jan Bruce, coauthor of meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, says
Even if you live and die by email, do yourself a favor and logout for 30 minutes either in the beginning of the day or for a period in the afternoon. You won’t believe how much you can get done when you’re not always interrupting yourself to return emails.
This kind of temporary digital detox is becoming increasingly necessary to get any meaningful work done. Beyond the productivity benefits, you leave your brain less depleted for whatever comes next.
Remember, you might be able to power through some deep work despite distractions for an hour or two. But, that you might leave yourself fried for the rest of the day. Your brain will have spent so much effort fighting distractions for that brief period, the rest of the day is a total waste. Don’t do it.
Sometimes You Need Tools
One of the few great things about a lack of focus is you’re not alone. It’s an increasing problem worldwide. That means researchers and entrepreneurs are working overtime themselves creating awesome tools and gadgets to help you increase and maintain your focus.
In the next and final post in this series, I’m going to give you a list to some powerful tools that you can use to boost and maintain focus for an extended period of time. These tools, combined with the above strategies, will allow you to hyper-focus on your most important work.