4 Ways to Increase Your Focus at Work
You've heard the claim about human attention spans versus those of goldfish. It's not true. But maintaining (human) focus is still a problem.
Ever feel that you’re being pulled in a million different directions at once at work? Do all of the tools designed to keep you connected and productive sometimes seem to be conspiring to keep you from fully devoting your attention where it’s needed most?
You’re not alone.
True, the oft-cited statistic that the attention span of the average human is now lower than that of a goldfish appears to have been debunked. But there continues to be plenty of data to suggest that, far from making you a more effective worker, multitasking has a seriously detrimental effect on productivity.
Study after study has shown that when people think they’re multitasking well, what they’re really doing is merely task-switching. Rather than simultaneously work effectively on several tasks at once, "multitaskers" actually alternate among their various tasks, at considerable cost to their effectiveness at any one of them.
Still, if you’re a hardcore multitasker, you may be skeptical that focusing on a single task until it's completed -- call this approach "monotasking" -- is a more effective use of your time. Cognitive psychologist Yana Weinstein, co-founder of The Learning Scientists, devised a simple but powerful test to illustrate the costs of task-switching. It requires only a few minutes of your time and involves three easy actions. Want to take it? Time yourself doing each of the following:
- Count from 1 to 26.
- Recite the alphabet from A to Z.
- Interleave numbers with letters, 1-A-2-B-3-C, etc. That is, switch back and forth between Tasks 1 and 2.
If you’re like me -- and the subjects of Weinstein’s study -- Task 3 will take considerably more time than 1 and 2, combined. If your brain has trouble alternating between even these simple tasks, imagine how it will fare switching among the far more complex functions you need to accomplish every day. After all, every entrepreneur knows that the building blocks of a business’s long-term success are the day-to-day accomplishments we persistently attend to.
Related: Why Smart People Don't Multitask
The fast-paced world we live in often seems to demand that our attention be divided among many places at once, but there are steps you can take to limit distractions and boost your effectiveness.
Here are four ways to increase your focus while getting work done.
Block out distractions.
Turning off digital notifications and putting your smartphone on silent for extended periods are time-honored and effective ways to limit distractions. But, if you’re like many of us and spend much of your working day in front of a computer screen, your smartphone is only one source of diversion. As elucidated by BrainWorld, the human brain thrives on novelty, and while neophilia -- a strong affinity for new things -- may have its upsides (see this New York Times article), those of us who find ourselves compulsively checking our social media or news feeds when we should be focused on a demanding task know that this can be an-all-too-potent distraction.
Not surprisingly, there are numerous tools that can help save us from ourselves when attention begins to waver. For many, Facebook is one of the worst culprits for stealing valuable time and focus. News Feed Eradicator is a Chrome extension that eliminates your Facebook feed and replaces it with a single quote, such as, “True freedom is impossible without a mind set free by discipline.” New Feed Eradicator is especially useful if you use Facebook Groups or Pages for business and need to access those features without the constant distractions of the news feed.
StayFocusd is another Chrome extension which -- you guessed it -- helps you stay focused by allowing you to block websites you specify during specific times of day or durations. Alternatively, you can allot a daily limit for how much time you can spend on a website. For example, you might give yourself 30 minutes total to keep up with events on the New York Times website per day, after which the site is blocked.
Freedom is another powerful website-blocking productivity tool for MacOS, Windows and mobile devices. While none of these apps is a substitute for self-discipline, they can certainly give you a push in the right direction and help build the habit of checking your feed less frequently.
I’ve written previously about how former President Barack Obama carved out at least one hour a day for reading while he was in office. Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, has famously advised students preparing for a career in investing to read 500 pages a day. Not only does reading help knowledge “build up like compound interest,” as Buffet says; the act of focusing on a book without distractions for at least 30 minutes a day may significantly boost your ability to concentrate and improve other brain functions, according to Psychology Today.
Another tip: Reading on your Kindle or iPad may offer the benefit of convenience, but not only does reading on a tablet increase the chances you’ll get distracted, it also encourages “skimming” instead of “deep reading.” UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield found that the result of skimming is that "less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age.”
It may come as little surprise to you that physical exercise has multiple benefits for your mind as well as your body. What may come as a shock is how instantaneous those effects can be. Wendy Suzuki, professor of neural science at New York University and author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life, shared in her recent TED Talk that her lab had shown that, "A single workout can improve your ability to shift and focus attention, and that focus improvement will last for at least two hours.”
The effects of long-term, regular physical exercise on the ability to focus are even more profound. Suzuki found that “the most common finding in neuroscience studies, looking at effects of long-term exercise, is improved attention function.”
Best of all, you don’t need to train for a marathon to realize the cognitive benefits of exercise. Dr. Suzuki recommends a minimum of 30 minutes aerobic exercise three to four times a week.
Long perceived as a spiritual practice, meditation -- or mindfulness -- and its benefits on productivity have become of increasing interest to individuals and organizations seeking to increase their focus, cope better with stress and improve their overall performance. Apple, Nike and Google are just three of the companies that now offer mindfulness training to employees.
A recent survey of 4,000 studies of mindfulness that appeared in the Journal of Management found that “research in such disciplines as psychology, neuroscience and medicine provide a wealth of evidence that mindfulness improves attention, cognition, emotions, behavior and physiology,” according to Science Daily.
Maintaining concentration while building a business amid modern life’s many distractions is no easy feat, but by following the steps outlined above -- minimizing distractions and engaging in deep reading, exercise and mindfulness -- you’ll be better able to focus on whatever vital task you have at hand.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor