Before you go on to read this, I want to ask you one thing.
Are you giving me your full attention?
Unfortunately, the answer is probably no.
Studies at the University of California suggest that our ability to focus has dropped dramatically over the last decade, particularly at work. And it looks like technology is the main culprit.
But do we really need studies to tell us that we’re struggling to concentrate?
I definitely don’t. I’ve struggled with focus for a long time.
As a freelancer and a Millennial, there seemed to be all the time in the day to get things done, and all the entertainment in the world to make sure that they weren’t going to get done immediately.
Every day distractions kicked in and they could easily turn 4 hours of work to 8. I always felt like I was behind on projects, staying up late trying to finish pieces that could have been done and dusted before lunch.
But at some point I just decided that wasn’t the way things were going to be anymore. I don’t remember exactly when I made the decision or why I did. I probably stumbled across an article similar to this one, took a concerted effort to turn the advice into action, and through trial and error, drastically improved my ability to focus in a matter of months.
I don’t really have the problem anymore. And neither should you. To be honest, what I learned about concentration is pretty simple to put into practice.
Improving my concentration has been a product of two things; structuring my routine to minimize sensory distractions, and strengthening my ability to focus to reduce emotional distractions.
These two factors: sensory distractions—such as your Facebook tab flashing while you’re trying to write a report—and emotional distractions—such as anxiety, fear, worry, or anger—are the biggest obstacles that prevent us from concentrating.
What I’ve composed here are 5 ways you can skyrocket your ability to concentrate at work, simply by working on breaking down these two factors:
Remind yourself of the rewards and consequences
Going back to the basics of motivation and thinking about rewards and punishments is actually very beneficial. Most of us forget why we are doing things on a day to day basis, and that leaves our attention open to other avenues.
If you have your mind focused on why you are doing the work, whether it be to reach a larger goal, to feed your family, to move up in the company, or to travel at the end of the year, you will keep your motivation level high enough to stop you from being swayed by simple distractions.
Likewise, negative reinforcement can often be even more effective. What will happen if you don’t finish the job on time; will you miss spending time with your family? Will it stop you from the chance of a promotion? Will it mean you’ll have to skip going out with friends?
Write a list of both the rewards and consequences down on two separate post it notes, and keep them on either side of your desk.
Set email, text and social media windows
These three are the biggest time killers in your life. And unfortunately, you can access them all directly from your computer.
What you need to do if you are to be productive at work, is to set specific windows for when you can and can’t use them. Email is best reserved for the morning, say between 9:30am and 10:00am, and the afternoon, say between 4pm and 4:30pm. Text and Social Media should be used sparingly, no more than 20 minutes per work day. Give yourself 2 x 10 minute blocks, or 4 x 5 minute blocks. But outside of that have your phone on airplane mode and your social media accounts off (or blocked).
Use web apps to keep you on track
When it comes to webs apps to boost productivity, there are dozens to consider. These can make a huge difference to your habits. I generally look for three types:
- One to block websites for a pre-specified time, such as Self-Control or Focus
- One to time my work with the Pomodoro method, such as the Marinara Timer
- One to sync my documents, I find Evernote works well for me.
Strengthen your focus muscle with exercises
Meditation is the quickest way to strengthen your ability to focus, and research suggests that it takes as little as 8 weeks to see measurable improvements. However, there are other ways to increase your attention span. Here are some practical ways to improve your concentration:
- Practice mindfulness throughout the day
- Memorizing facts or quotes
- Exercise/stretch your body
- Take cold showers
- Read difficult books
Remember, much like in the same way you’d build your body in the gym over time, you don’t want to overexert yourself, but you also want to increase the mental weight.
Listen to the right type of music
Music has been found to be a very powerful tool for workplace productivity. And that’s great, because there has never been an easier time to listen to music while you work. It’s important to know however that we’re not talking about just any type of music. Some types of music are better for energy, some for focus, and others for creativity.
For repetitive tasks that require little cognition, you want positive, up beat tunes—think Pharrell Williams: Happy. If you want to boost your creativity, leave out songs with lyrics, as your brain will instinctively try to comprehend them (unless they are in a foreign language), and this saps extra energy. For focus you want something repetitive, without many peaks or troughs.
As technology makes it easier to become distracted, your ability to concentrate will become an increasingly valuable professional asset.
Improving concentration doesn’t take a genius, it just takes someone who’s willing to focus on routine and consistent practice. Work on the tactics above and you’ll start to see your concentration at work skyrocket in no time.
Do you want to take the next step to consistent and longer-lasting concentration?
Grab a free copy of our new eBook: MORNING MASTERY: The Simple 20 Minute Routine For Long Lasting Energy, Laser-Sharp Focus, and Stress Free Living.
Ben is a freelance writer, and the co-creator of Project Monkey Mind—a new blog for the 21st century solopreneur and young professional who wants to lead a more free and fulfilling life.
How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.