April 04, 2017
If you’ve resolved to make changes this year, whether in your work or personal life, learning to focus better will help you achieve your goals.
Be it learning a new skill, finally writing that book, hitting a work target or simply better managing your time, minimising distraction is crucial.
Whatever you hope to achieve, here are 10 tips to help you stop wasting time and increase your productivity this year…
Tidy your desk
Tidy desk, tidy mind. Visual clutter can be very distracting, especially if there’s piles of paperwork that needs to be dealt with, such as bills to be paid and reports to be read. While these are things you don’t want to forget about, when you need to focus it is important these items aren’t scattered all over your desk. Allocate a drawer for ‘live’ paperwork or set up an in-tray where they can be neatly stored to one side.
Make a to-do list
Writing things down is a great way to move distracting thoughts from brain to paper, clearing space for the task at hand. If you have a lot on your plate and are struggling to prioritise try a project management tool like Trello.
You can create a ‘card’ for each task, which can be dragged and dropped into different lists you set up such as ‘Urgent’ or ‘Not Urgent,’ ‘In Progress’ or ‘Complete’. Once you have everything clearly laid out in front of you and can see where everything is at, you can relax and place your focus elsewhere.
Take a break from social media
For many of us, social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat represent a huge distraction. A ‘quick check’ can easily turn into 20 minutes of scrolling, while notifications popping up and pinging can instantly avert our attention from other tasks.
To re-focus, a social media detox can work wonders. Try to go at least one week without checking any social media source – delete bookmarks from your browser and apps from your phone to help you avoid temptation. Learning that you can live without social media (and that FOMO anxiety passes) is hugely freeing. You might decide to never go back!
Re-train your brain
The constant bombardment of information we face these days and our constant connectedness makes it hard to switch off. Our brains are always busy and, according to studies, our attention spans are shorter than ever before. It is therefore necessary to teach our brains – used to continual stimulation – to be still again.
Learning to meditate has been proven to improve cognitive ability, but if meditation is not your thing, try any form of quiet activity (or inactivity!). Simply spending your commute not doing anything, without any form of stimulation, such as music or reading, can be therapeutic. Yoga and Tai Chi are other great ways to quiet the mind and find focus.
Focus is impossible if you are trying to do several things at once. Think about it like trying to fire an arrow – you need to concentrate only on the bullseye to stand a chance of hitting it. In a study of 100 university students, those who identified as media multitaskers performed more poorly in tests examining memory capacity and attention span.
As such, when you wish to have a period of concentration you need to set aside the time to do so. Block it out in your diary, put your out-of-office on, shut down your email and switch your phone to silent. There are lots of distraction-blocking apps available, such as Freedom, which can prevent you accessing online timesucks if you doubt your willpower.
It’s usual to deal with emails and daily tasks first thing to get them out of the way before we try to tackle anything requiring creativity, however this might not be as helpful as we think.
According to David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, we should focus on creative work first thing, before our energies have been drained by anything else. “An hour into doing your work, you’ve got a lot less capacity than at the beginning. Every decision we make tires the brain,” he says.
Take a break
If you need to focus on solving a problem or need to brainstorm creative ideas, taking a break from the office can stimulate the grey matter. Any type of passive activity that does not require your full attention, such as walking, running or driving a familiar route, can give your brain the space to think clearly. Try a lunchtime walk in the park or short gym session to boost your afternoon productivity.
Find a quiet place to work
If you need to focus, silence really is golden. Noise such as colleagues on the phone or the radio on in the background is probably distracting you more than you know. Try to find a quiet area to work, perhaps by taking yourself off to the meeting room, or if this is not possible, use noise-blocking earmuffs.
Do explain to your team what you’re doing so they don’t think you’re being antisocial (it will also deter them from disturbing you). If you find the silence a little too deafening, try some music for concentration.
Look after your body
A healthy mind requires a healthy body so make sure you’re fuelling yours with everything it needs. Hunger or thirst can significantly reduce the ability to concentrate so stay hydrated by sipping water throughout the day. Keep healthy brain-boosting snacks to hand too, such as bananas, nuts and seeds.
It’s an obvious one, but being hungover is the enemy of a clear head. If you know drinking a couple of glasses of wine in the evening is likely to give you a headache in the morning, try to say ‘No’ until the weekend.
Get enough sleep
Tiredness is a productivity killer. Not only does it make you feel de-motivated, studies show it actually interferes with your ability to think. A consistent sleep routine will greatly enhance your capacity to cope with stress, retain information and increase your concentration.
Even when you can’t get as much sleep as you’d like, make sure the sleep you do get is as high quality as possible by reducing caffeine and alcohol intake. Save coffee for the morning when it can give you the boost you need to get your brain into gear!
With so many demands on our time and so much on our minds, finding focus can seem incredibly hard, but often it’s just about making the conditions conducive. Follow the 10 steps above to create room to think, become more productive and at the same time, improve your overall wellbeing.