Top Concentration Tips to Increase Your Productivity
Blame it on what you like, but the ability to focus one’s attention seems to have become harder and harder at the same time as it’s also becoming more and more important. Below are some strategies to help us learn to concentrate and focus. Distraction comes in two forms, external and internal and it’s important to attend to both for productive focus.
1. Maintain a Comfortable Environment
Although it may not seem obvious, your environment is a significant player and can work for or against your ability to focus. Sometimes, even making small changes can create a big difference.
First of all, make sure you’re comfortable. Set up your desk and chair at the right height. I’ve found that a stand-up desk can be very helpful because when I get tired of sitting, I can just push a button and stand while continuing to work. Having water and perhaps a snack easily available means I don’t need to break away from my work to get them or try to focus while thirsty or hungry. Both dehydration and low blood sugar can wreak havoc with your ability to concentrate.
Second, clear your work area of clutter or distracting objects and keep your tools organized. Everything not related to your task should be put away. When the tools you need are easily available and distracting things are put away, focusing becomes easier. On the other hand, viewing a natural scene or watching wildlife can help improve concentration, whether it’s looking out of a window or at an image.
2. Monitor the Sounds Around You
The issue of sound is very individual. Some people work best with music and others with silence. Ambient noise, such as you might encounter at a coffee shop or co-working space, enables others to focus best. A study done on creativity and ambient noise shows that a moderate (70dB) level of ambient noise increases performance on creative tasks better than low (50dB) or high (85 dB).
3. Keep an Optimal Temperature
The temperature of your workspace is important. A study at Cornell demonstrated that test subjects had only a 10% typing error rate when the temperature was set at 77°F but had a 25% error rate at 68°F. The study didn’t discuss it, but I would imagine that this temperature range might fluctuate depending on a person’s tolerance for heat or cold.
4. Embrace Chewing Gum
Chewing gum can also be helpful in focusing. A study at Cardiff University showed that constantly, rhythmically exercising the jaw increases blood flow to the brain.
5. Bypass Internet Distractions
Finally, it’s important to avoid distractions from the internet, phones and other people. Do what you need to do. There are apps to limit your social media time. Open a new browser window with only work-related tabs open. Put your phone in Airplane mode and close your office door. If you can’t close the door, put on headphones (without music even) to signal to others that you’re not to be disturbed. The key to the success of this tactic is making the decision to prioritize avoiding distractions, and then doing what it takes to make that happen.
One of my students had a problem with people constantly interrupting her. Since she had enough authority to do so, she made everyone who wanted to talk with her schedule an appointment. This had a two-fold benefit. One was that she could maintain her focus on her important projects and later handle all of her interruptions at once. This system also diminished the number of people reaching out to her, because during their waiting time, they either found someone else to help them or they resolved the issue by themselves.
Other interruptions are internal, requiring a different set of tactics.
- When you’re worried about something it’s harder to focus. The best way to handle these worries is to write them down as soon as they come into your head and then schedule a “worry time” when you can deal with these issues. Be sure to write them down so you can move your concerns out of your head and onto paper.
- In a similar vein, any distracting thought can divert you from what you need to be doing now. Write those down, too.
- Is your caffeine buzz causing your attention to jump around? When you’re tired, rather than grab a cup of coffee, get some exercise. If you’re in the middle of your workday and can’t get away, just stand up and do a few exercises to get your blood moving, such as squats or jumping jacks. If you have a longer period of time, go for a run, bike ride or head to the gym. Making sure that you have enough regular cardio exercise can keep you more alert.
- Are you getting enough sleep? You may be able to get away with less sleep, but over the long run, lack of sleep will wear you down and lower your resistance to procrastination.
- Meditation is all the rage now. For good reason. It’s an excellent form of “focus training”. Meditation trains your mind to let those disrupting thoughts slide on by as you continually bring your attention back. Just like training your physical muscles, you can build up your ability to focus.
- Think positive. Positive thoughts can calm you down and make you feel more in control. When you find yourself distracted by negative emotions, take a short break to make them more positive. Make a list of all the things that have gone right for you today, starting with waking up with a new day in front of you. Then think of things you’re grateful for. From that list, pick your favorite and focus on that while you breathe deeply and feel your chest expand. For the longer term, it’s a good idea is to come up with a go-to positive thought and put a picture or symbol of it where you can easily see it. This could be a picture of your puppy or kitten, loved ones, or an image of your ideal vacation spot.
- Know where and when you focus best. What is your best time of day? What environment enables you to concentrate best? It may not be your usual working place. Again, both of these are very individual, so it’s a good idea to try out several times and places before selecting your ideal.
- When we focus intently, we don’t see anything besides the thing we’re working on. This is great, but hard to maintain over long stretches. Take breaks where you go from narrow focus to a broad, diffuse focus. Notice what you see in your peripheral vision. Let your eyes relax as you sit quietly, breathe steadily and think pleasant thoughts.
- Keep yourself motivated. If you find yourself losing focus in the middle of your task, or if you’re having a hard time getting into the zone, revisit just why you want to do it at all. Write a list of all the reasons why you want to get this task done, the importance of the work, what personal advantage you’ll get from doing a good job as well as the fun things that await the task’s completion.
- Don’t critique your job until you’ve finished it. This can help you keep perfectionism at bay. Creating and editing/evaluating are two different types of activities, and trying to do them simultaneously can inhibit the creative process.
And now for some general tactics.
- Prepare your brain. When you sit down to a task, spend a minute to make sure you know the parameters of what you’re doing, see the value in your work, and calm your mind using any of the techniques above. Putting in place a solid pre-work routine can set you off on the right foot.
- We all know that negative self-talk is detrimental to our focus and well-being. However, there are optimal ways to talk positively to yourself. Self-cheering doesn’t work nearly as well as giving yourself little instructions. For example, rather than telling yourself, “way to go!” tell yourself, “do this. Now do that.” When athletes tell themselves cue words, such as “push” or “heel” they run faster.
- Plan your reward for completing your allotted work. Know what your finishing point or time are and the details of your reward. Imagine yourself progressing towards getting your reward. (Thinking about how you will work is more effective than just picturing yourself enjoying the reward.)
- If you are intimidated by the size of your task, break it into smaller chunks and focus on those. Be sure to take a break between chunks.
- Noise canceling headphones can not only filter out distracting sounds, but when people see you wearing them, they’re less likely to interrupt you. (No one will know if they’re not connected to anything.)
- When you’re scheduling your day, allow some time between tasks, and especially between meetings. Use this time to process, reflect, and prioritize. When you’re scheduling out of town trips, give yourself a day after your return to settle back in, follow-up with your new contacts, and evaluate your next activities.
- Switch back and forth between high and low attention tasks. When you have been spending hours in heavy concentration, schedule something requiring less focus as your next task. This allows your mind to relax and regain its energy.
Lack of an ability to concentrate sets you up for procrastination. When following strategies isn’t enough, consider getting help through my course, Transform Your Procrastination. Learning to concentrate and re-direct yourself after a distraction is only one part of the procrastination puzzle. Address the whole picture and gain control over how you spend your time. I coach every learner through the Transformation Forum, making sure that each and every person is able to weed out their procrastination habits and focus on harnessing strong concentration tactics.