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.
In fact, 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 struggled with focus for a long time. As a freelancer and a millenial, 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 done immediately.
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 if your Facebook tab is flashing while you are trying to write a report, and emotional distractions – such as anxiety, fear, worry or anger – are the biggest obstacles that prevent you from concentrating.
What I’ve composed here are 5 ways you skyrocket your ability to concentrate at work, simply by working on these two barriers:
1. Emphasize your why
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 a company, or to travel at the end of the year – you will keep your motivation high enough to stop you from being swayed too easily 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 any chance of promotion? Will it mean you’ll have to skip out on going out with friends?
Try writing a list of both the rewards and consequences down on two separate post-it notes, and keep them on either side of your desk.
“Finding WHY is a process of discovery, not invention.” – Simon Sinek
2. Set email, text and social media windows
These three are the biggest time killers in your life. And unfortunately, you can access all of them right 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 in the afternoon, say between 4pm and 4:30pm.
Text and Social Media should be used very sparingly, no more than 20 minutes a 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).
3. Use web apps to keep you on track
When it comes to web apps to boost productivity, there are dozens to consider. These can make a huge difference to your habits. I generally look for three.
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.
4. 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
Memorize facts or quotes
Exercise your body
Take cold showers
Read difficult books
Remember that in the same way you’d build your body for the gym over time, you don’t want to overexert yourself – but you also want to increase the mental weight over time.
5. 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 not just any type of music works. 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, you want to leave out any songs with lyrics, as your brain will instinctively try to comprehend them (unless they are in a foreign language), and this takes an extra level of 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 be an increasingly valuable professional asset.
“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” – Plato
Improving your 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.