Amidst the busyness of day-to-day life, it can sometimes be tricky to focus on one particular task. Whether you’re trying to concerntrate on work or pleasure, with our minds constantly churning over everything else on our to-do list, it can feel near impossible to keep your attention fixed. So how can we shake of distractions and stay focussed?
Whether you’re trying to concentrate on work or pleasure, at times it can feel near impossible to keep your attention fixed on one thing. So how can we shake off distractions and stay focused?
1. Understand why your focus is compromised
If you’re feeling annoyed at yourself for being unable to concentrate, it’s important to remember that you’re certainly not alone. An inability to focus was one of the most common challenges people faced during lockdown. There was a 300% increase in online searches for “how to get your brain to focus”, and a 110% increase in “how to focus better”. For many of us, disruption of our daily routines suddenly made everyday tasks feel like enormous responsibilities – and it’s totally normal to still be feeling the aftermath of this upheaval months later.
In fact, there’s actually a scientific reason why so many of us have been finding it hard to focus since the start of the pandemic. The part of the brain that processes critical thinking and the ability to focus is called the prefrontal cortex. When it encounters stress chemicals, the prefrontal cortex weakens in order to make way for the more instinctive parts of our brain that might be able to protect us – like the fight or flight response. While we may not be in any acute danger right now, our stress and worry means our prefrontal cortex may be consistently impaired and our ability to focus is affected.
It’s important to understand this, because blaming yourself for not being able to focus can actually make things worse. Feeling guilty about losing concentration and then beating yourself up about it can make your prefrontal cortex connections even weaker, making it even harder to focus, in a reinforcing cycle. Struggling to focus during stressful times is completely normal. So be kind to yourself. Your brain is only doing what it’s wired to do.
2. Protect yourself from distraction
Another reason it’s so hard to focus is because we live in a world of perpetual distraction. Whether we work from home or not, interruptions are all around us. How many times have you sat down to work only to be distracted by a notification flashing on your phone, or by reading a new email that’s just arrived? During stressful times it’s understandable that you might spend more time reading or watching the news, but this doesn’t only distract us from what we should be doing – it can also make us feel more stressed, which in turn makes it that bit harder to focus when we do return to the task in hand.
That’s why it’s important for us to create our own boundaries. If you’re trying to focus, try turning your phone off, or putting it on ‘do not disturb’ or ‘airplane’ mode. You might even want to log out of your email, turn off any instant messaging apps and if you’re at home, consider unplugging the house phone. Try to find a calm, quiet space where it’s easier to focus. If you’re at home, a private room is usually best for this, but if you don’t have one, try to find a quiet corner where you can minimise distractions of people walking past. If you’re back at work and aren’t able to find your own space, you could always consider buying some noise cancelling headphones, or listening to music that’s specifically designed to boost focus. YouTube has a great selection of concentration music, as does Spotify.
It can also be helpful to tell people that you’re going to be working for a certain period of time and would prefer not to be disturbed. That way, you won’t be distracted by coworkers coming over, or, if you’re at home, family members or friends calling you, or popping in to chat.
If you’re someone who finds it hard to resist checking your phone, or you regularly get distracted reading news stories or articles online, you might want to consider downloading an anti distraction app, which blocks out certain websites for set periods of time, or silences notifications on your phone. This can help you stay present and focused on what’s actually important. The best free anti distraction app is Cold Turkey, which blocks certain websites within specific times, and can be downloaded for both Mac and Windows. If you want to have more control and more customisation features – and you’re happy to pay – FocusMe is worth checking out. It’s only £5.99 a month and can save you enormous amounts of time. You can try a 14-day free trial if you want to see if it’s for you before buying. You can read more about anti distraction apps here.
3. Create time for focus
If you really want to enjoy some uninterrupted focus, minimising distractions isn’t always enough. It’s helpful to actively prioritise and create space for focus and make it part of your routine. Whatever you’re trying to focus on, whether it’s an important task at work, looking for a new job, or even just reading, try to factor it into your day ahead of time. You could tell yourself that from 11am to 12pm you’re going to spend one hour dedicated entirely to a specific task, and from 2pm to 3pm you’re going to focus on something else. Giving yourself tighter parameters can help you feel more disciplined.
Productivity expert Cal Newport also suggests that writing a to-do list can be helpful for improving concentration. He believes that having a list of all the jobs you need to do can make you feel on top of things and help you stay focused on what you’re doing at present. If you have a tendency to worry about outstanding tasks, simply making a note of them can make a big difference.
4. Take proper breaks
If you’re struggling to focus, it can be tempting to tell yourself that you’re going to sit at your desk until you’re done – but taking a break is often one of the best ways to improve your focus. Multiple studies show that when you try to focus on one thing for a long period of time, it becomes harder and harder to concentrate – and not only that, but your performance can actually suffer. There are two types of breaks you should try to thread through your working day: deep breaks and short breaks.
Deep breaks can be considered ‘proper’ breaks. They’re an opportunity to step away from what you’re doing and let your brain relax. It’s really important not to spend your break doing things like reading up on the news, replying to emails or checking social media, as these types of actions can introduce new stresses and make it harder to focus when you get back to work. Instead, try to use these breaks to recharge: you could go for a short walk, make yourself a nice drink or snack, listen to some music, read a few chapters of a book (unrelated to work), or do some exercise.
Short breaks (also known as microbreaks) are a bit different. Many studies show that taking brief breaks for just a few minutes helps re-energise our brain and makes it easier to focus for longer. Something as simple as getting up to get a glass of water, or doing a bit of stretching, shifts your attention away and can dramatically improve focus. So if you find you just can’t concentrate, try getting up and doing something else for a few minutes, just to get some respite.
When planning out your breaks, you might want to consider trying the Pomodoro Technique, a time management system that splits your day up into 25 minute chunks of work time, each separated by five minute breaks. Because research suggests that the human brain just isn’t wired to focus on anything intently for more than half an hour, this technique can help you use your time more effectively. You can find out more about the Pomodoro Technique by watching the video below.
5. Get moving
We all know how beneficial exercise is for our physical health – but it’s just as beneficial for our mental health too. Exercise promotes brain health, which is obviously integral to focus, and multiple studies suggest that cognitive function is significantly improved after exercise. If you’re not an especially active person, the good news is that just going for a short walk can have an incredibly powerful effect on your focus.
Whether you’re working from home or not, try scheduling a walk into your day. You might want to go for a mid-morning walk when you feel your focus beginning to fade, or use your lunch break to go for a stroll. Some of the team at Rest Less have taken to going for a walk during either business or personal phone calls, and even switched from video calls to telephone calls to ensure we manage to fit in some regular exercise whilst staying connected. We’ve been amazed how quickly this has simply become the new routine.
There are lots of different types of walks you can do (have a read of our article on 10 different walks to enjoy this summer if you want to get inspired), but for boosting focus, few things are more beneficial than a mindfulness walk.
Mindfulness is a technique that’s aimed at bringing you into the present moment, helping you become aware of your emotions, and improving your focus. Going on a mindfulness walk is a great way to restore your sense of focus and stop you worrying about things you can’t control, and when you return to your task you might find it considerably easier to concentrate. To find out more about mindfulness walks, you might want to watch this YouTube video, or listen to a guided mindfulness walk on the Mindful website. The good news is that these walks are often only around 10 minutes, so if you’re busy, it won’t take a big chunk out of your day. This is a small action that can have a very big return.
6. Introduce novelty into your day
Another small action that can make a big difference is to introduce some form of novelty into your day. Feelings of monotony or boredom can slowly chip away at your focus, and if you’re working from home without outside stimulation or colleagues around, you can feel this more acutely. Feeling as though you’re stuck in a stagnant environment can be terrible for your ability to concentrate, and when you’re bored it’s no surprise that your mind likes to wander and you find it hard to focus.
To counter these feelings of monotony, try to introduce novelty and fresh ideas into your day. If you’re at home, something as simple as switching up your working space can make a difference, because a change of scene acts like a mental refresher, and can help encourage new thinking patterns. If you feel your focus waning, try getting up and moving elsewhere to work – the living room, the garden, or even the local park.
If you’re back at work and unable to move to different locations, there are still plenty of ways you can inject novelty and boost your focus. Some easy things to try at your desk are putting up different pictures or even a vision board around you. If you’re sitting at the kitchen table, just switching to a new seat around the same table can make a difference and change your perspective a little. If you listen to music while working, you could try some new soundtracks or playlists that you haven’t heard before. If you don’t listen to music, you could try working to some focus playlists or classical music for a change.
If you walk to work, you could try taking a different route each morning – you never know what you might come across on a walk that will inspire you. Plan a different lunch break activity each day – perhaps one day you could get food from a cafe with a coworker, and another day you could bring your own lunch and eat it while reading a book, or listening to a podcast. The trick is to ensure your days don’t become entirely predictable or monotonous, so your brain doesn’t go into autopilot mode.
Focus is essentially like a mental muscle, and the more you work on it, the stronger it gets. This means that by structuring small amounts of focus time initially, you’ll probably find it easier and easier to concentrate as you go along. Then, you can gradually increase your focus sessions over time and keep your attention fixed for longer durations. To see how well you’re focusing, you might want to set yourself goals for each focus session – for example, reading 20 pages of a book, or writing 1000 words. Your focus goals can be anything, but being able to measure them makes it easier to keep track.
One of the best ways to train your brain is by practicing meditation, or mindfulness. Multiple studies show that people who meditate are better at focusing and controlling their impulsivity when compared to people who don’t meditate. Not only does meditation help you bounce back from distractions, but it also helps curb stress levels – which, as we’ve seen, can significantly harm your ability to concentrate. You can find out more about mindfulness by reading our guide.
Feeling like you’re unable to concentrate can be extremely frustrating, and if it happens regularly it’s easy to feel annoyed with yourself, or like you’re letting yourself down. But remember, many of us are in the same boat here, and finding it hard to concentrate is a common challenge.
Focusing is like any other skill – the more you practice it, the better you’ll be. Building up your mental focus can take time, but it’s absolutely worth the effort. The easier you find it to concentrate, the more you can achieve, and the more time you can devote to the things that truly matter in life.