10 Proven ways to improve focus and reclaim a wandering mind

Staying focused is tough. A 2015 study revealed the average human concentration span is down to a measly eight seconds — that’s one second less than that of a goldfish’s. Yikes!

It’s tough to hold your concentration in this always-on world of ours. Everything from smartphones and email notifications to extra-long meetings and your colleagues incessant pen-clicking all chip away at that precious, elusive thing we call ‘focus.’

And while there’s no right or wrong way to reign in your attention and boost your brain’s staying power, there are a few tips and tricks that are well worth knowing. You’d be surprised by how much of a difference one small change can have on your productivity.

1. Listen to something

We’ve all been there: sitting in an office so quiet that every small sound becomes a distraction. Keyboard tapping, nose breathing, and the worst: gum chewing, all cut through the silence like a hot knife through butter.

Those particularly susceptible to background noise might well reach for the headphones and crank up the ABBA, but a word of caution: turning the music up full blast is not recommended.

A study from the University of Illinois suggests that while moderate ambient noise can help cognitive performance, it’s important to tailor it to suit you.

“We found that ambient noise is an important antecedent for creative cognition,” the study’s author said. “A moderate level of noise not only enhances creative problem-solving but also leads to greater adoption of innovative products in certain settings.”

He continues: “But when you start to go beyond that moderate level of noise, what happens is that distraction becomes so huge that it really starts affecting the thought process. You really can’t process information because the distraction is so pronounced. And that is what inhibits creativity.

“So a moderate level of noise produces just enough distraction to lead to higher creativity, but a very high level of noise induces too much distraction, which actually reduces the amount of processing, thus leading to lower creativity.”

Classical music is a popular ambient music option with writers and students because there aren’t any distracting lyrics. But if listening to Goldberg Variations on repeat fills you with fear, try a background noise app or website, such as Noisili. The great thing about Noisili is that it allows you to blend a mixture of ambient sounds (coffee shop, rain, white noise and so on), adjust the volume and choose an ambient background color to boot.

2. Hide your phone

A 2017 study found that the mere presence of your phone — even if it’s switched off, and you’re successfully ignoring it — “reduces available cognitive capacity” because you’re dedicating a portion of your cognitive ability to resisting it. The study’s authors call this ‘brain drain.’

Simply turning off your notifications and putting it on airplane mode isn’t going to cut it. You need to put it out of sight, preferably somewhere that requires a little effort on your part to reach.

At first, you’ll feel the alluring pull of its presence. But this temptation will fade, and you’ll eventually forget about it as you become more engrossed in your task.

It’s a little extreme to stow your phone away under lock and key. But it really is the only way to truly get focused and stay focused. Yes, you’ll be slightly anxious about all those notifications you’re missing, but it will get easier with time. You can do this!

3. Turn off the email

Apparently, the average worker spends up to 11.7 hours a week on email. That’s an entire working day a week — and then some.

We’re all slaves to our inbox. We check them first thing in the morning and last thing at night. We check them on holidays, despite setting an out of office. And we think the whole world will come tumbling down around us if we miss just one little email. But in reality, no email is ever really that important.

While it’s true hanging around for days to receive a response is a pain in the butt, no one will think harshly of you if you take a few hours to respond. They’ll assume you’re busy working, in a meeting, going for a run, or partaking in any number of life’s necessities.

4. Out of sight, out of mind

Moreover, consider turning off your email notifications once in a while. Even if you’re not reading your emails, simply noticing that you’ve received one will divert your attention away from the task at hand. ‘Brain drain’ strikes again!

If you’re really worried your boss will think you’re ignoring everyone, just give them a heads-up and share your reasons. They’ll be impressed you’re committing yourself so fully to your work. Promise!

Oh, and if you have an office chat app, then just set your status to ‘do not disturb’, so you can truly be in the zone.

5. Pep up your post meeting routine

Meetings can be a total productivity-sucker. There is a multitude of reasons as to why your productivity suffers after a meeting, not least simple exhaustion, combined with the effort of deciding what to do after the meeting.

Do you type up a list of minutes while they’re fresh in your mind? Do you reward yourself with an early lunch break? Or do you try and pick up what you were doing before the catch-up?

One way to overcome this is to hold a really quick pre-meeting meeting, in which you note down a quick plan of actionable tasks to complete directly after the meeting. This will save you time once you’re back at your desk and help you stay focused on those tasks once you begin.

6. Block yourself

OK, so you’ve locked your phone away, turned off your notifications and hidden in a quiet room, but you just can’t resist the allure of checking in on Facebook or doing a quick ‘what kind of sandwich are you?’ Buzzfeed quiz.

Allow us to introduce you to the world of website blockers. These are clever little apps that prevent you from visiting the websites of your choice for a predefined amount of time.

StayFocused is one option, but there are loads to choose from, each with their own set of features — some more extreme than others.

7. Get some space

Extroverts draw their energy from being around others. They thrive on it. Introverts, on the other hand, are people who draw energy from alone-time. And they can really struggle in a highly-social office.

This is especially true for open-plan offices. Especially open-plan offices that love brainstorming sessions, long meetings, and hourly Nerf dart tournaments.

If this sounds like you, then here’s a tip: don’t fight it. You need some alone time to get focused — so grab some. Many offices are starting to figure out the open plan thing just doesn’t work for everyone and are installing quiet rooms and snugs for employees to get some P&Q.

If your office has something like this, book a regular time slot so you can settle down safe in the knowledge no one’s going to burst in and shatter your peace.

And if your office doesn’t have snugs, nooks, quiet rooms or quiet corners? Speak to your boss and see if they’ll let you work from a coffee shop or library for a while. Failing that, really utilize your lunch break as a time when you can go somewhere quiet to recoup and regain your focus for the afternoon.

This advice is especially pertinent to introverts, but it’s just as useful for extroverts who are feeling a little frayed and distracted.

8. Be aware of social loafing

We’ve spoken a little about it before, but just to recap: social loafing is a phenomenon where larger groups of people slack off because they assume others will either do the work for them or not contribute as much because they assume everyone else is slacking off. And as you can imagine, it really saps a team’s productivity.

If your post-meeting task involves breaking off into groups, try to work in smaller groups of around 5, and ensure each team member has a list of actionable tasks which they alone are responsible for.

9. Don’t send that email

First of all, let’s look at the reply all email. Do you really need to reply all? Really? If the answer is ‘wellll….’ then don’t do it. The same goes for ‘thanks!’ emails. While it’s true a little gratitude is nice — and there certainly are times when you should thank someone — if it’s not absolutely necessary then just don’t do it.

While it may only take you 30 seconds to write, it could cost the recipient up to 25 minutes as they try to regain their focus after the interruption. Plus you’re contributing email spam to their already rammed inbox. This may not directly help your productivity, but it’ll help your fellow colleagues no end.

10. Be vocal

Make focus a part of your team or company’s culture and lead by example.

Tell your boss or your colleagues you’re switching off your email for a couple of hours to concentrate on your work. Doing this every day will not only make this into a routine for you, but it’ll pique your team’s interest entice them to try it for themselves.

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