If you ever feel it’s hard to maintain your focus, or have trouble concentrating, or if you feel you’re becoming ever more distracted, this one’s for you!
It seems we are collectively having an ever-harder time sustaining our attention, and given our distraction rich environment, it perhaps comes as no surprise. In this short piece, I want to emphasise why it is a problem, (your brain really can’t multitask) and then offer my top three tips to help you improve your focus.
Your Brain and multitasking.
Have you ever noticed that you turn down the car radio when you’re lost? Or maybe you’ve seen people stop walking in the middle of the street because their phone call suddenly required their attention? Your brain can’t multitask, it attention shifts.
Interestingly, studies also find that people who think they excel at multitasking are usually the ones who are worst at it. It’s been estimated that multitasking causes your productivity to drop by 40% and that you make up to 50% more mistakes. A study by the University of London found multitasking caused people’s IQs to drop by up to 15 points.
If you now think about your typical day, or consider your working environment, and how consistent the distractions are (notifications, pop-ups, noise, other people, your own thoughts…) it’s perhaps a surprise we ever get anything done at all.
What to do?
1. Manage external distractions
Turn off your alerts, especially your email alerts and batch process emails a few times a day. Each time you see or hear an alert (an email, a text, a ‘like’, status update, and so on), your attention is compromised. I accept some working roles demand immediate email response – but most don’t. And speedy responses become self-perpetuating because you create, and then reinforce an expectation. If something is urgent people can always call you.
Don’t think that all distractions are at work either. Do you ever find yourself ‘simultaneously’ watching television and flicking through your smartphone? It reminds me of James Clear’s assertion “Most people don’t have trouble with focusing. They have trouble with deciding.” The risk is you are training your brain to be distracted! You are cultivating a state of ‘continuous partial attention’; forever switching your cognitive gaze, is it any surprise you sometimes find it hard to focus?
Try to cultivate a more conscious relationship with your technology specifically. Think ‘would I recommend this behaviour to someone I cared about?
2. Manage internal distractions
To enable your mind to focus, you also need to manage the distractions that are in your head! For this you need to empty it regularly and the best way to do this is with a weekly ‘brain sweep. It is a simple exercise that helps you to empty all the unattended clutter and miscellaneous ‘to-dos’ that are in your head.
- Find a pen and paper (or if you prefer, a task manager or electronic notepad).
- Write down all the unattended stuff, tasks, things that are on your mind or that you need to do. Consider both work and non-work tasks; empty it all onto the page.
Personal – home, friends, family, admin, insurance, bank, holidays, events, birthdays, books, films, leisure, creative projects, learning, errands, to fix, to buy, to clear, to sort…
Professional – email replies, phone calls, meetings, things to follow up on, things you’re waiting for, stuff to chase, project next steps, projects to begin, business development, things to communicate, ideas to capture…
Do this exercise once per week. Don’t worry initially about emptying the list. The purpose of this exercise is not to create a to do list, but to clear your mind and enable to focus. When you do come to process the list, do it as you would any other inbox: for each task, either do it now (if it takes less than 3 minutes), delegate it, calendarise it, or defer it to a task management system you trust.
3. Train your brain to focus better with meditation
Meditation has been practised for many thousands of years, but it seems that only recently has Western culture woken up to the potential benefits of learning how to sustain your attention.
At first, like a lot of people, I was a little bit sceptical of the benefits of meditation. That’s before I discovered it’s not just some spiritual hocus-pocus, but it actually corresponds to measurable changes in your brain. I would now go as far to say that meditation offers the single best form of brain training there is.
Meditation is not about emptying your mind. Instead, it is a combination of two very natural things: physical relaxation and focused attention. Focused meditation is particularly good for improving focus and concentration,
reducing mind wandering, and falling asleep when your mind is too active.
A guided meditation.
To try this with audio guidance follow this link
- Get comfortable in a chair, give yourself a moment to settle, and close your eyes.
- Spend a few moments relaxing your body, ideally from your toes to the top of your head.
- Bring all your attention to your breath. Focus purely on the rise and fall of your chest, or the air as it enters and leaves your body.
- In your own time, start to count your breaths, silently. Count only as you exhale, from one all the way up to 21. When you get to 21, start again at one.
- Continue to count, in cycles of 21. Maintain your focus on your breath.
- If your mind wanders, that’s fine. Just bring your attention back to your breath, and the count.
- Try to make it to at least one full cycle without losing count or losing focus.
- When you want to finish, in your own time, open your eyes.
Have a go and don’t worry if you find these exercises difficult at first. These practices do take time to master, but have patience – your rewards will be rich and plentiful.
Best of luck,
3 point review
- Manage external distractions – turn all your alerts and notifications off
- Do a weekly brain sweep – empty your mind regularly and keep it clear
- Practise focused meditation to train your brain to focus better