Learn how to focus better (starting with these 12 tips)

August 10, 2021 - 21 min read

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What is focus?

Internal forces

External forces

The myth of multitasking

How to concentrate: ways to improve focus

How to focus better: get working on your concentration skills

It's crunch time, and you can't concentrate on the presentation you have to give in the morning.

You're sitting at your desk, facing a blank screen and kicking yourself. Instead of studying the material, you've spent the past two hours trying to get your email inbox down to zero.

The report is due at the end of the day. Yesterday, during the sixth Zoom meeting at 6 p.m., you zoned out. The thoughts in your head were bouncing like ping-pong balls as you surreptitiously checked your emails from the phone on your lap.

You missed one-third of the information that would have helped you write your report. So, you frantically plunge into the internet for material.

Plus, last night, you missed your daughter's soccer game. Yesterday, you consumed a total of five cups of coffee, a family-size package of M&M's, and two slices of pizza.

You can't concentrate. You're exhausted. Procrastination has become a pattern.

"Come on," you scold yourself. Focus!

Don’t worry. There is a better way.

What is focus?

The inability to concentrate seems to be rising to an all-time high.

Understanding the dynamics of focus may help you to:

  • Put practices in place to help you be more present
  • Perform effectively
  • Use your body to support your ability to concentrate

Merriam-Webster dictionary describes focus as:

"A state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding."

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It is "the point of concentration."

The most common factors that affect concentration can be divided into two categories. Recognizing the internal and external forces at play will enable you to focus better and not succumb to debilitating distractions.

Internal forces

Factors that influence our ability to focus may be emotional, mental fitness, or physical.

Understanding how your behaviors in each of these domains contribute to your ability to manage distractions is critical. You need to be a good observer of your behavior and triggers at work.

From an emotional perspective, fear of failure, anxiety, and lack of confidence can be effective saboteurs. They contribute to your inability to concentrate and your tendency to procrastinate. They have an amazing ability to steer us off course, whispering things like, "I don't know enough."

You hear the whisper, so what do you do? Pile up books and articles on your desk and start scanning through them with no particular game plan? You’ll get even more confused.

Now for the good news. By observing when negative feelings trigger you, you employ practices that will help you plow through them. That's the beauty of self-awareness!

From a mental perspective, technological tyranny invades our lives, taking many different forms.

Take cell phones, for example. Checking email every 10 minutes seems to be commonplace. The compulsion to answer our mail immediately sets up the expectation that we will be on call anytime and anywhere.

The result? While you should be watching your son's touchdown, you’re missing it because you just had to reply ASAP.

You know you're stepping into distraction danger when Google, Siri, or Alexa become your BFF.

We rely on the information access the internet provides. It's a wonderful thing. Still, when studying, we can easily fall into a rabbit hole of information overload, wherein it becomes impossible to focus.

“One look at an email can rob you of 15 minutes of focus. One call on your cell phone, one tweet, one instant message can destroy your schedule, forcing you to move meetings or blow off really important things like love and friendship." —Jacqueline Leo

Let's talk about physical well-being. Our inability to concentrate can stem from a lack of sleep hygiene, inattention to good nutrition, and reluctance to exercise. If we made our bodies our BFF, we'd be able to cross that marathon finish line.

We can develop strategies to use our emotions, intellect, and bodies to support our ability to focus. One simple way is to take a digital detox.

External forces

External pressures are much more difficult to manage.

Commitment to your personal relationships and giving them the attention they deserve can be hard to do. Managing them while working from home can be even harder.

Professionals are running rat races through mazes of projects and programs, people to lead, and plans to execute. Things have to get done. The demands and ensuing delivery on expectations can lead to distraction.

Meeting overload

The shift to online meetings has enabled people to become more efficient with their time. People who used to have to travel between offices now can meet with the push of a button. For virtual workers, this can be a nightmare.

What happens to the travel time? It becomes an opportunity to squeeze in another meeting! You find yourself holding your financial report in one hand while clutching your sandwich in the other.

Multitasking becomes a way of life. In one survey, over 92% of meeting attendees admitted to multitasking during meetings. That sounds about right. It's difficult to process the information coming at you when you have six or seven meetings in a row. As a result, expectations and commitments make it hard for you to prioritize.

“Many people feel they must multitask because everybody else is multitasking. but this is partly misleading because they are all interrupting each other so much.” — Marilyn vos Savant

Ad hoc unnecessary meetings and "urgent" phone calls from others make it hard to address your priority.

The myth of multitasking

MIT neuroscientist Dr. Earl Miller has studied the science of multitasking. He reports that "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself."

He argues that, while you think you're attending to two things simultaneously, what you're really doing is switching from task to task rapidly.

"A person who is interrupted while performing a task takes 50% more time to complete it and make 50% more errors." — David Brooks

How many times have you been successful in writing an email while having a productive phone conversation on an entirely different subject? Because those functions use the same part of the brain, you can't do them simultaneously.

Though you may not even realize it, you are briefly putting one task on hold while attending to the other. This is how embarrassing "reply alls" happen!

These intellectual machinations go on in the frontal lobe, the parts of the brain controlling the executive system that coordinates the switches. Fortunately, we can use that executive system to focus, blocking out stimuli that distract us from our task and devising strategies and practices to get and maintain focus.

How to concentrate: ways to improve focus

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Here are 12 ways you can improve your focus:

1. Track your mood

Record triggers that derail you and negatively affect your mood. Note what's happening in your body when you start down a path that doesn't serve you.

  • Does your heart race or is it steady?
  • Do you clench your teeth, or is your mouth relaxed?
  • Does your body cave in on itself, or are you standing strong?
  • Do you feel light or heavy?

Notice what environments make you more stressed. If you’re happier and more productive, it means that you are more focused.

Devise some strategies to help you manage your triggers.

Mapping your moods can help you to see patterns in your thinking and behavior. Daylio is an app that allows you to track your feelings using visual imagery. The app shows you videos that represent different moods. You can match your mood to the images, and the app records them.

Here’s a low-tech way to adjust your emotions. Make playlists of your favorite "feel good" music and play them at intervals during the day, especially when you are in low-energy, low mood mode.

A word of caution: If you find that your moods and emotions are overwhelming and immobilizing, don't wait to ask for professional help.

 2. Assess your mental focus

Take a week to notice the times of day when you are most productive. Attend to your most important tasks during that time. Notice those low-energy times.

Practice mental exercises on a daily basis. The app Lumosity helps you to exercise your mind with scientifically validated tasks while making them fun.

You can target the skills that matter most to you by taking a Lumosity lunch break.

3. Eliminate distractions

Take control of your technology. Disable your phone at certain times a day. That means turn off notifications and block distractions from the likes of social media.

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Freedom is an app designed to block distractions on all your devices. There will be no checking Instagram on your device while you're writing that report because the app won't let you.

Reward yourself with 30 minutes, tops, to indulge in surfing.

4. Give meditation and mindfulness a try  

Just a few minutes of sitting in silence, listening to calming music, and connecting to your breath will help you become centered.

You'll return to your work calmer and less reactive to negative emotions, pressures, and demands.

The app InsightTimer is a great tool for guided meditations, courses, meditative music, and yoga practices to support your well-being.

The app Headspace reminds you to move and breathe at intervals during the day. It also has guided meditations. Like InsightTimer, Headspace has a list of "sleepcasts" designed to help you sleep.

A pre-recorded mindfulness meditation or sleepcast can be a great way to add background noise that doesn’t become a constant distraction.

"When you connect to the silence within you, that is when you can make sense of the disturbance going on around you." —Stephen Richards

5. Notice your sleep patterns

A good night's sleep is one of the best ways to maintain focus.

Do you maintain a healthy schedule for going to bed and getting up? Are you steering away from foods and drinks that keep you awake? Watching the news can be one of the worst things to do before going to bed. When is it ever good news?

Again, there are many apps out there to help you track your sleep. They are especially useful in helping your doctor treat your difficulty sleeping.

The Sleep Foundation recommends WHOOP, WithingsSleep, and Fitbit Versa.

A few other quick tips for improving your sleep patterns include:

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  • Reading before bed
  • Using a guided meditation app just before you sleep
  • Reducing your caffeine intake  

6. Get your body moving

Take active breaks. Get up and move. Take a walk. Leave the building.

It’s also important to take time to stretch your neck, shoulders, arms, and legs. Set a timer on your phone for five minutes, at least five times per day, to stretch. Get yourself a standing desk. Sit on an exercise ball while you work.

Schedule a walk or run with a friend. Do laps around your block or around your house. Smartwatches are great ways to record miles, times, and distances. But don't use lack of technology as an excuse!  

Exercise to your favorite songs. That means making more playlists!

7. Pay attention to what you put in your mouth

Nutrition plays a huge role in maintaining focus. 

While caffeinated drinks can raise your energy level for the short run, you’re likely to crash when the high is over. Better to eat snacks with complex carbs and fiber found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts for sustained energy and concentration.

"Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four-hour days.”—Zig Ziglar

8. Set boundaries around your time

At what time of day do you have the most energy? Set time on your calendar for "white space" during that time.

When you have a large project to do, block off a substantial amount of time that will be distraction-free. This is beneficial even if you can only manage to do it once or twice per week.

Set boundaries and expectations.

Let people know when you are not available and let them know when you will respond to requests. Create blocks of time between meetings to reflect and regroup. Be clear about what's realistic for you to commit to.

Set time aside for a short break in between deep work projects, and you’ll find that you’ll have better focus when you’re working on a single task.

9. Reduce your number of meetings when possible

Consider alternative solutions to meetings.

Ask whether you really need to meet. Is there another way to get information that is not time-intensive but still effective?

Ask for an agenda for meetings. Determine whether your presence is needed if your organization allows for the option. Give agendas before meetings that you’re running. Stick to a designated amount of time.

"Focus is about saying No." —Steve Jobs

10.  Practice active listening

Develop your listening skills by paying active attention to what others are saying during meetings.

Rather than zone out, ask questions. Engage in the discussion in a way that brings value to the meeting or call.

11. Turn off work at the end of the day

Leave each night with a to-do list, then revisit it in the morning.

Determine your top three priorities. Decide what goes in your "parking lot" of tasks that don't meet the criteria. You can determine when you can do those things, perhaps assigning them to non-peak times during the day.

12.  Make time for your social connections

Don't let social connections take a backseat to work.

You need downtime to be able to bring your best-focused self to all that you do.

Play. Schedule it. Make a commitment to your social well-being. Ask others to hold you accountable.

How to focus better: get working on your concentration skills

Follow the steps outlined above, and you’ll be able to improve your focus and breathe a new level of productivity into your professional life.

Let’s recap the 12 steps:

    1. Track your mood
    2. Assess your mental focus
    3. Eliminate distractions for better concentration
    4. Give mediation and mindfulness a try
    5. Notice your sleep patterns and lift your cognitive function
    6. Get your body moving to improve your brain function
    7. Pay attention to what you put in your mouth
    8. Set boundaries around your time — focus on that important task
    9. Reduce your number of meetings when possible
    10. Practice active listening
    11. Turn off work at the end of the day
    12. Make time for your social connections

Follow these steps, and you’ll improve your brainpower and concentration skills.

Need a little motivation? Why not see how BetterUp can help you out? We help leaders improve mental fitness and organizational health.

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Published August 10, 2021

Meredith Betz

Betterup Fellow Coach, M.S.Ed, M.S.O.D.

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