Focus and attention can feel like a scarce commodity these days. Yet our ability to procrastinate, well that is next level – if there were a procrastination Olympics we’d all be vying for a medal position!
The pandemic may have opened doors and re-set the new normal of when and where we work, but it has also come at a price. Not least in our ability to focus, concentrate and tap into that deep workflow. Whether it’s putting on a load of washing, the 34th trip to the fridge, or the compelling draw of the time vortex of cats doing stupid things on YouTube, when we need to focus, we can find an infinite number of distractions to attract our now fragile attention.
There are key lifestyle factors which may impact our ability to concentrate. Knowing what these are can help us identify and navigate them in the future:
Lack of sleep
Lack of exercise
Sometimes it can be the simplest adjustments that can make the biggest difference. If we can begin to identify a pattern, then we can create a plan to resolve it. To identify what is going on when we lose our focus, next time you find yourself standing in the kitchen staring into the snack cupboard, take a couple of deep breaths and make a note of what is happening:
What is the time of day?
How did you sleep last night?
Have you exercised today?
Are you hungry?
How are you feeling?
What is the type of work you are avoiding?
What is your workload like right now?
Are you enjoying your work?
How do we get it back?
Once we understand what is triggering our distraction (and even if we can’t), there are plenty of tips and tricks to help us regain control of our focus. Like anything a bit of hard work at the outset will help us reap the rewards later!
1. Remove distractions - there are all too many distractions surrounding us to tempt us away from the work at hand. Minimising these temptations can take us a long way to helping us regain and maintain focus.
· Turn off all notifications on your computer and phone, remove those tantalising little red dots enticing you into the time sapping world of social media.
· Turn off auto email and messenger pop up notifications – that little carrot in the top right of your screen vying for your attention.
· Use the focus app on your phone meaning you cannot be contacted by texts or call, even better put your phone in another room.
· Turn the TV off if you are working from home.
· Don’t listen to music unless you need to block out external sounds, and then choose a slower beat of music.
Use apps such as Freedom which block the internet and social media on your phone/computer preventing you from accessing it, you can allow access to certain sites if you need them for your focus work.
2. Time block - the brain cannot multitask it simply does not have the ability; it just bounces back and forth between tasks at a rapid pace. But for every time it switches there is a time cost for it to regain focus, and it’s here where we get distracted.
Structure your day into hour time blocks and assign focus work to each of these time blocks, in these blocks close your emails and messenger apps down so you cannot be tempted away.
There is an excellent technique to help build these blocks, called the Pomodoro Method (named after the tomato timer that inspired the technique).
Start working on one task for a 25-minute interval, known as a pomodoro (these can increase as you get more accustomed to it).
After a pomodoro, take a 5-minute break, then repeat the process.
After completing four pomodoro’s, take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.
Put your out of office notification on during these time blocks to let people know not to expect an immediate reply.
Assign dedicated email checking time, for example 9am, 12pm and 3pm, open your email app, attend to emails, and then close it. If you don’t feel you can be off emails for that long, ask yourself the hard question of are you really that important someone cannot wait an hour or two for a reply?
3. Take a break - if you are tired or fatigued it is much harder for the brain to gain and maintain focus, as its constantly disturbed by the need for rest. It can be a false economy to keep ploughing through when we are tired, we make mistakes, things take more time and we do not produce our best work.
Give yourself permission to take a break or finish for the day, knowing you will come back tomorrow fresher and more productive.
Giving yourself permission removes the guilt, and the constant feel you ‘need’ to keep working.
Change your environment, go to different a desk space, a café, or the library, often the change in surroundings can be the break you need to find your focus again.
4. Overwhelm - when we have too much on our plate it can be hard to know where to start; the mountain feels just too big to climb. The temptation is to find something else to do, and the world of endless distractions opens up.
When you feel like you have an endless to-do list write down everything you need to do, get it out of your head and onto a piece paper, which can in itself help free up brain space.
Pick three key things for the day, do those three – once complete you’ve already had a successful day, anything else you achieve is a bonus.
If you have a big task that feels overwhelming break it down into seemingly tiny chunks, for example if you have a report to write start by writing its structure, then the structure of the introduction, then the first sentence, biting off small chunks as you progress.
Have a parking lot for those all enticing thoughts that inevitably crop up when you are focusing, tempting you away as ‘urgent to dos’, write them down so you don’t forget them and then move back to the focus task.
What one thing can you do today to help re-gain your focus?