Since February of this year, there’s been a 300% increase in Google searches for ‘How to get my brain to focus’. If you can relate to that, or you were one of the individuals typing it into your search bar, here are 5 tips to help you improve your focus at work and get more from your time each day.
Tip 1: Eliminate or manage external distractions.
Notifications. Turn off alerts and notifications. It sounds stressful, but research demonstrates it takes our brains 20 minutes to refocus after a distraction. So, if you get more than three alerts an hour, your brain may never be properly focused throughout the day. Try to regaining some sense of control over your attention. If you have notifications on, and someone sends you an email, a WhatsApp or a text, and your phone or laptop buzzes, it’s as if you’re living your life under the rule that if someone wants your attention, it’s up to them when they get it. I don’t know if that’s sustainable.
Email. Following that same first principle, check your email less. Research suggests that we’re checking our email, on average, every half hour, and it may be even more frequent than that. Your brain needs time to create a depth of focus, so the more you can do to eliminate distractions, the more likely your brain will find .
Smartphone. How about your relationship with your mobile phones? Data suggests that we check our phone 150 to 200 times a day. And this is not simply a problem we can blame on work based digital communication. Do you watch TV with your phone in your hand? Think about that for a moment. What you’re doing is training your brain to be distracted.
So, do an inventory, of all the key distractors in your environment. Whatever it is, manage them or eliminate them to the best of your ability, and put your environment into a position where your brain is more likely to focus.
Tip 2: Eliminate internal distractions.
We often forget that many distractions come from inside rather than outside our brain and there is a simple exercise that helps, called a brain sweep. Once a week, spend 5 or 10 minutes emptying your mind of all unattended tasks, e.g. errands, to-do’s, admin, and outstanding emails… it’s usually home and personal stuff. Get it out of your head because the last place you want to keep this miscellany is inside your brain.
Although you might not feel it, on an ongoing basis, that’s also inhibiting your ability to focus externally. So from now on, once a week, do a brain sweep and try to keep your mind empty. Don’t hold on to tasks, get them out, and then at least your brain will be in a more resourceful position.
Tip 3: Take regular breaks.
Having a break every 60 minutes enables your brain to recover and return to work fresh. The research is pretty compelling on this and it’s due to ultradian rhythms, the idea that your brain oscillates in roughly 90-minute cycles. A recent large scale analysis found that the most productive 10% of people work for approximately 52 minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Don’t take that too literally; the point is to have more breaks and when you do have a break let it be longer. Do something different, don’t just switch tasks but take the time to shift state and come back fresh. Having more breaks creates blocks of time and deadlines that give you a perceived sense of urgency and help you focus.
You’ve now turned your alerts off, you’ve emptied your mind, you’re working in sprints of 60 minutes. Already, you can see how this will create laser focus, knowing that in 60 minutes, you can stop and re-engage.
Tip 4: Do your most valuable work in the morning.
This strategy as really more about mental energy than attention, but it can transform your productivity.
One of the reasons you wake up, aside from the alarm clock and the light, is what’s called internal your cortisol waking response. Your body has certain biomarkers that enable you to increase your subjective alertness, and so typically you’re more productive in the morning than, say, just after lunch when you become sleepy. So the first couple of hours of the day should be spent doing your most valuable work. Spend the first 60 minutes of your day at work in a non-reactive state, on your highest value work (probably not email).
Tip 5: Focus on the right things.
There’s no value in increasing your laser-like focus and then spending that cognitive asset on low-value tasks. So how do you get better at prioritising? That’s really what we’re talking about here. Get clarity on your objectives, your goals, your key projects, and then do an 80/20 analysis.
According to the 80/20 rule (or Pareto’s Principle) 20% of what you do generates 80% of your results, your impact, and your value. So you need to understand what your 20% is. What are your highest value tasks and activities on an ongoing basis? Do this analysis and you’ll have clarity on your most valuable tasks. My advice would be, every day, plan to do one, two, or possibly three of these high value tasks. You can’t focus on much more than that.
You’ve now created conditions where, not only will you focus better, but you’ll be working smarter, be more effective, and consequently feeling less busy. Inevitably, as you get more focused throughout the day, you’re likely to permit yourself to switch off when you get to the evenings and weekends, so you get a double the benefit.
1: Eliminate external distractions. For most people, that’s just turning notifications and alerts off. Do that and you’ll remember what it’s like to sustain your attention for more than 20 minutes.
2: Eliminate internal distractions. Just as important but easy to solve. Once a week do a brain sweep and get it all out and keep it as empty as you can.
3: Every 60 minutes, have a 10 or 15-minute break and then re-engage. Work in sprints, and have more breaks.
4: Own your mornings. Spend the first hour or two dedicated on your highest value work, not necessarily your hardest tasks, but the ones that generate the greatest value.
5: Prioritise better. Do an 80/20 analysis and get better at prioritising your 20%, that is, the things that generate the greatest value.
Do these five things and I promise you, you’ll be better at focusing and, you’ll be better at switching off. This new relationship with work that you will gain will put you in good stead not just for the coming weeks and months, but hopefully for the coming years too.
If any of that has been interesting or valuable and you think you’d like to go deeper, I have created an online course called, The Working Smarter Programme.
If you want to hear more, just get in touch and I’ll be delighted to have a conversation with you.