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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

4 Ways to Focus When Your Mind's Not in the Mood

Attention implies singularity. As in, if you’re paying attention to lots of things—that’s not truly paying attention. It’s an understatement that focusing on one thing at a time can be difficult. But it’s kinda the big key to succeeding at work and in life. It’s hard to do anything, let alone do it well, if you can’t concentrate on it.

The good thing about focus is that it’s a learnable skill. It takes practice and it takes experimenting with different methods, but you actually can improve your ability to do it. And you can do it without downloading any apps or studying up on hacks.

You can start teaching yourself by checking out these four surprisingly simple approaches.

1. Do One Thing at a Time

What’s Stopping You: Technology

A study done by Larry Rosen, PhD, at California State University looked at how long students could pay attention to a specific task. The average length of time they could concentrate on what they were studying? Three minutes. The culprit? Technology. Every time something bings, beeps, or flashes, you’re no longer 100% focused on what you were doing.

The Fix: Turn Off Your Notifications

With that in mind, the next time you sit down to focus, turn off your notifications for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, email, Dropbox, Tinder—that’s right, every last one.

In the two years since I’ve killed all notifications on my devices (except phone calls—but thankfully those rarely happen), I’ve managed not to miss or forget anything. Your likes, tags, comments, and messages will all still be there when you’re ready to look.

Try it, even for a day or just a few hours. Turn off anything that breaks your attention, including your Wi-Fi if possible. And then (hopefully) you’ll notice that the world didn’t stop when the notifications did. But you did happen to get a lot more accomplished.

2. Group Similar Tasks

What’s Stopping You: Your Job Involves a Variety of Tasks

Let me guess: You wear a lot of hats at work. That’s the norm now. Tom DeMarco, co-author of a book about productivity called Peopleware: Productive Products and Teams, states that it can take 15 minutes or more to regain the same intense focus or flow as before the interruption.

So, every time you switch tasks, your brain needs at least that amount of time to get back into the work. If you switch tasks just four times in a morning, that’s an hour of total focus you’ve lost.

The Fix: Batching Your Work

“Batching” builds off the idea of only working on one kind of task at a time. Rather that jumping from one project to another, you do all related tasks in a set amount of time. By “batching” the work you have to accomplish, you don’t have to constantly shift gears.

So, grouping all the writing I have to do into a morning means I can write five to six articles in one fell swoop. Perfect. Then I’ll typically spend the afternoon programming websites for clients, moving my brain into that mode for hours at a time.

3. Focus on the Present

What’s Stopping You: Daydreaming

Paying attention to the work at hand, instead of daydreaming about what will come of that work, is always a challenge. Too often, we get sucked into imagining that what we’re working on will become the next big thing or go viral or make us millions. While it’s a nice thought, it’s also not getting you any closer to making it a reality.

The Fix: The Pomodoro Method

The Pomodoro method is the notion that short, but laser-focused, bursts of attention lead to much greater productivity. It’s simple—you set a timer for 25 minutes, you turn off or silence all other distractions, and you work on a single task. When the time’s up, you can take a short break (for daydreaming) before moving onto another task.

The more attention I pay to what I’m working on, the faster (and better) it gets done. Instead of thinking about all the items on your list and getting stressed or simply getting lost in thought, try to think about just the one at hand.

4. Give Yourself a Break

What’s Stopping You: You Think You’re a Robot

Too many productivity tips don’t take this into account: We need to sleep, eat, take breaks, and move. As humans, our attention spans need variety, and we can’t always control our thoughts or motivations. No matter how motivated or focused you are, you can’t stay that way forever.

The Fix: Act Like a Human

It might seem counterproductive, but I’m much more likely to get my work done quickly (and well), if I take breaks away from my desk. Studies back this up. Whether you’re taking nature walks, doing five minutes of stretching, or sitting on the porch and drinking coffee (instead of slurping it while compulsively working), all of those breaks contribute to being able to focus better.

That’s it. No special programs, secret life hacks, or pricey apps. You simply need to give your brain a task, space, and rest—it will reward you for it by gifting you with productivity.

Photo of woman lost in thought courtesy of Shutterstock.