July 16, 2020
Have you ever read the same paragraph over and over and still couldn’t remember what it was about?
How about tried to write that report, put the presentation together, or get anything done when you just can’t get your head in the game?
If you could just focus!
It escapes us all, and it feels like it’s nowhere to be seen when you need it the most.
The ability to direct your attention and dig deep into your work is something you can develop and strengthen – just like any physical muscle in your body. There’s not one specific tactic that works all the time. Rather, it’s the consistent practice of bringing your mind back to where it needs to be that does the trick.
How to improve your focus
If you’re struggling to wrangle your attention, here are 30 ways to improve your focus in a short amount of time:
- Napaccino. This is a term Daniel Pink coined. He said that the ideal combination to pep you up when your energy lags is a little shut eye combined with caffeine. Have a cup of coffee, set a timer for 25 minutes and then lay down for a nap. You’ll get enough sleep to feel refreshed, plus the caffeine will be kicking in when you wake up, giving you an added boost of energy.
- Get an accountability partner. Maybe it’s someone you check in with during the day, or even once a week. The key is that you have to be accountable for your productivity, which incentivizes you to focus. I’ve used Focusmate to schedule 50-minute working sessions when I need someone to hold my feet to the fire. It’s interesting how working in front of someone else makes a difference in where you spend your time.
- Cold shower. The freezing feeling you feel hitting your body instantly gives you a higher level of alertness. The cold also stimulates you to take deeper breaths (I think of it as gasping for air out of sheer pain and panic), cutting down on the level of carbon dioxide in your body, which helps you concentrate.
- Get physical. Do jumping jacks, pushups, run up a flight of stairs, anything that gets your heart pumping. If your mind’s sluggish, getting your adrenaline going wakes you up big time.
- Set a timer. I use the 25-minute pomodoro technique. Francesco Cirillo, a German software consultant, created the approach, which breaks bigger assignments into smaller chunks of work of 25 minutes. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for ‘tomato.’ This came from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used when he was a university student. Dividing work into smaller pieces makes it feel less overwhelming and easier to pay attention to.
- Unplug for 30 minutes. Sometimes what you need to focus better is a break from what you’re doing. But don’t take the afternoon off, and don’t create a social media recess. The intention with unplugging is to give your mind enough time to relax and regroup before you get back at it.
- Set your intention. Do you know why you want to get the work done in the first time? Knowing your end game came make all the difference.
- Doodle. A mental form of fidgeting, doodling gives your mind enough of a break that it can relax but attentive enough that you retain information. In fact, a 2009 research study found that people who doodled while listening to boring information actually retained 29% more information than those who didn’t.
- Ditch the squirrels. When you’re surrounded by distractions, you can’t help but feel your brain popping from one thing to the next. “I just need to finish writing this…hey I remember the day I picked this rock up off the beach!!!” and you’re off fiddling with something else. Clean up, tidy, sort, do whatever you need to do to get rid of things vying for your attention.
- Use headphones. One of the fastest and easiest ways to block out distractions and help your brain settle into the business at hand.
- Get narrow minded. It could be you’re struggling to focus because you’re trying to take in too much. Look at one small aspect of what you’re trying to get done and tackle that.
- Broaden your focus. On the other hand, it could be that you’re looking at so much minutia, you don’t get what it’s all for. Without knowing that your work will actually mean something, it can be hard to pay attention.
- Mind your own business. Practice being present in the work you’re doing. Mindfulness is a huge element of successfully focusing.
- Set BIC time. One of my first lessons as a writer was that nothing replaces butt-in-chair time. Sometimes you just gotta force yourself to do what you know has to be done.
- Take a walk. If you’ve been at it too long, then it could be you need some fresh air and a little movement. Get outside if you can. If that’s not possible, take the long way around your office floor or even give the stairs a go.
- Set a time limit. You can do almost anything if you know it’s only for a short amount of time. And, setting a timer also allows you to fully focus on your work because you know the alarm will tell you when it’s time to move on and you won’t worry about being late for the next task.
- Work up a schedule. This I know for sure…when I plan my day the night before, I use less energy trying to remember all that I have to get done. It leaves all of it for me to pay attention to what I want to accomplish. As soon as I check something off my list, I’m back to my schedule planner and moving onto the next thing. I’m a fan of the Panda planner, but there’s lots of options to choose form.
- Stock up on your Zzzzzzs. When you cut your sleep short, it’s almost the same effect as having too much to drink. You wouldn’t dream of trying to work efficiently if you’ve had a couple of drinks. It’s time to program your brain to think the same way about too little sleep.
- Go analog. I have two desks in my office—one is for digital devices, such as my laptop, extra monitor, phone and anything else that needs power. But when I really get stuck, I turn around and work on my analog desk. It’s a simple wooden one I found covered with gardening supplies in my grandmother’s basement. There’s no electronics allowed. For me, making the switch can be just the change I need to focus better.
- Chow down. You know the Snickers commercial that says you’re not you when you’re hungry? Maybe you don’t need an elaborate planning and tracking system to help you focus. Maybe you just need a handful of macadamia nuts and an apple.
- Tidy up. Productivity can be a funny thing. You can’t focus because things are a mess. But things are a mess because you can’t focus. Spend just 30 minutes making sense of your immediate surroundings and I guarantee you’ll be more alert immediately.
- Create a playlist. When we lived in Spain, I had a specific playlist of deep focus music I listened to every morning as I sat down to write. Now, whenever I play it I’m transported right back to that place and time and I’m able to take charge of my day.
- Find your happy (alternative) place. If I can’t focus in my office, I know I can at the library. I don’t have the luxury of as much surface area or my second monitor, but changing out my physical space does wonders.
- Stand. Sitting too long can make your brain feel baked. Standing introduces a mild dose of stress, just enough to juice up your brain, which sharpens your attention and gives you greater focus.
- Create a distraction to-do list. Often, your mind can’t focus because it’s trying to organize all that needs to be done. Moving tasks from your brain to paper (or another central repository) keeps you from worrying about forgetting something, which gets rid of one more distraction.
- Get curious. Knowing you have more options means you have more choices to make. That can pique your curiosity and you play the “what if…?” game. Think through the possibilities of each of your decisions as you make your way through the project you’re working on.
- Set small daily goals. Knowing how good you’ll feel when you look back on your productivity does wonders for maintaining attention.
- Play a game. Hopscotch, anyone? How about poker, bocce ball, or even a few rounds of hoops? Practicing concentration in different situations still helps build your attention muscles.
- Set zones of focus. It could be that you’re trying to get your mind to be serious when it’s in a place where it usually plays. Do you try and concentrate in front of the TV? Probably not going to be too productive. Keep work in your office, cooking and eating in the kitchen, kickback in front of the TV in another zone, and wind down, rest and sleep in yet another zone. By separating activities by physical space, you’ll see that your brain gets down to business faster, with less effort, and stays there for longer periods of time.
- Practice. Yep, that good old grit of practice. You’ll never get better at something without practicing—including focusing your attention.
What do you do to help your focus that you’d like to add to the list? Let me know in the comments below.
About Carla Johnson
Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.
Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.
In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds - Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking.
Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.