Are you having a hard time staying focused on work, especially in these high-stress days? Some simple techniques can make a big difference, psychologist Traci Stein explains in a recent Psychology Today post. Give her techniques a try and see how your own focus improves, and build them into daily habits to keep that benefit going into the future. You can find the full list here. These are some of her best tips.
1. Take care of your physical needs.
“Of course, the most basic foundation for focusing is to take good care of yourself,” Stein writes. This means getting regular exercise, which has been shown to help you increase focus later on, as well as other cognitive benefits. A few minutes a day of meditation — which Bill Gates does — will also enhance your ability to stay focused.
Beyond that, make sure you’re getting good nutrition which also supports brain function. Most important of all, get plenty of sleep. Sleep has fantastic benefits for both your brain health and your overall health. And when you’re tired, it’s much harder to focus on anything.
2. Plan for your “escape behaviors.”
What are escape behaviors? Stein defines them as “those things you do to alleviate the stress or boredom that crops up whenever you have to work on a specific task or assignment.” They vary from person to person but can include things like mindless snacking (I do that), getting sleepy, checking your email (guilty!), checking social media, or suddenly getting very sleepy.
The key to dealing with escape behaviors is to anticipate them because you know yourself well enough to know which are likely to crop up during any given workday, Stein writes. If you’re liable to get sleepy, try switching to a standing desk for a while (I find upbeat music helps too). And have tea or water on hand because sleepiness is often dehydration in disguise. If you’re liable to snack, prepare a reasonable portion of a healthy snack to keep by your desk for that day. If you’re tempted to read email or check social media, anticipate that by turning off notifications. Consider signing out of your email program while you’re focused on other work, and/or putting your smartphone someplace out of reach.
3. Plan regular breaks.
It’s often difficult to stay fully focused for lengthy periods of time and trying to force yourself to do that will only work against you. So plan for frequent breaks. One popular approach is to use the Pomodoro Technique, which calls for 25 minutes of focused work followed by a 5-minute break, with at least a 15-minute break every two hours. Or, work for 52 minutes and then take a 17-minute break, which one experiment showed is the ideal rhythm for maximum productivity.
Whichever approach you use, it’s important that you don’t skip taking a break once you’ve worked for your allotted time. Those breaks can be a good time to indulge in your escape behaviors so you don’t feel too deprived when you deny them to yourself during work times.
4. Give binaural beats a try.
“Binaural beat technology is a type of brainwave entrainment that uses auditory tones to shift one’s predominant brainwave state into something more appropriate or relevant to the task at hand,” Stein explains. It works by playing different frequency tones in each ear. “The brain will hear the difference between these tones, rather than hearing each one separately,” she explains.
With your brain listening to the frequency difference between the tones, you can calm and relax your mind with a lower-frequency difference, or improve your alertness and focus with a higher-frequency difference.
You can find binaural beats in many places, including YouTube and Spotify. For obvious reasons, you need to listen to binaural beats through a headphone for them to work properly.
5. Forgive yourself for losing focus.
These are stressful times. Most of us are stuck at home more than we’d like to be, and we may be working remotely, sometimes with school-age children around. So you can’t expect yourself to maintain the same level of focus and productivity that you would in a more normal era — it’s unrealistic and it’s unfair. “Understand that it’s normal to feel fatigued, and scattered, and wish things were different right now,” Stein writes.
However productive or unproductive you are at any given moment, getting angry or upset about it will only make things worse. So accept the fact that you won’t always live up to your own expectations of focus and productivity. Those expectations were probably unrealistic anyhow.
Instead, praise yourself for whatever level of focus you are able to maintain, and whatever work you manage able to get done. That will make the workday more pleasant. And being happier may help you get more done.