I sat down to write this blog on ways to focus and found myself twenty minutes later—after completing multiple random tasks that pulled my attention in different directions — returning to a blank screen and wondering where I got derailed from my original intention.
Sometimes our minds wander and find ways to distract us from focusing on a single task. Attention implies singularity. While multi-taking is an important skill and we may feel like a champ when we are doing it, it’s actually making us less productive because we aren’t dedicating our entire attention to one task—which could lead to mistakes, or allow us to miss subtle cues.
Luckily, focus is a learnable skill. Like most skills, it takes practice and it takes experimenting with different methods, but you actually can improve your ability to do it.
Here are four simple approaches to get you started:
- Focus on one task at a time. The average length of time students at a California State University study could pay attention to a specific task was three minutes. The major culprit: their smartphone and laptop were providing constant interruptions. Every time when alerted by a beep, a vibration or a flashing image the students were compelled or drawn to attend to that distraction. Practice concentration by turning off your notifications on your devices and committing your attention to a single task. Start small, maybe five minutes per day, and work up to a larger chunk of time. If you find your mind wandering, just pause and return to the task at hand.
- Group Similar Tasks. Instead of bouncing from one task to another, do all related tasks in a set amount of time. By “batching” the work you have to accomplish, you don’t have to constantly shift gears and lose time by having to refocus.
- Do Creative Work First. Typically, we do mindless work first and build up to the toughest tasks. According to David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, “that drains your energy and lowers your focus. An hour into doing your work, you’ve got a lot less capacity than (at the beginning),” Rock says. “Every decision we make tires the brain.”Rock suggests reversing that order. Check off the tasks that require creativity or concentration first thing in the morning, and then move on to easier work, like deleting emails or scheduling meetings, later in the day.
- Take a Break. Don’t forget to give yourself a break. We’re not robots. There’s a mountain of research out there that shows taking regular breaks from mental tasks improves productivity and creativity. One simple way to spend your breaks and refocus is by walking. A 20-minute stroll can increase blood flow to the brain which can boost creativity, give renewed energy and give the task a new sense of purpose.