At this moment, do you have 25 tabs open? Are you reading this article while toggling to and from your email, purchasing an item off of Amazon, sending a text message to your friend, and humming along to your favorite song on the radio? Are you in the bathroom? Sorry to get so personal, but if you’re like 75% of Americans in a recent survey, you probably are. And, now things are awkward.
Living in the Age of Information is not without its awkward moments.
Sure, it’s great to live in an era where you have instant and unlimited access to information and the options that will make your life better. The problem comes when you try to do everything at the same time. Gone is the notion of dedicating yourself to a single pursuit. These days, your self-worth is calculated by the amount of balls you can keep suspended in the air without them falling.
If you’ve tried to get a job this century, you know that multi-tasking is a top requirement. Try getting a job after saying, “I only like concentrating on one thing at a time.” Not only will the interviewer–who’s simultaneously checking off a list and eating lunch while interviewing you–quickly usher you out the door, you probably won’t get a return call.
Because multi-tasking is so revered in the workplace, what I’m going to say in the course of this article will be considered blasphemy: multi-tasking is evil. It’s the insidious type of evil that appears to be good, but all the while, robbing you of your time and effectiveness.
Focus, however, is the exalted ideal. It’s what all great people require to build something useful and enduring. We all do so many different things in our lives, but that doesn’t mean we should do them all at the same time. By truly being in the moment and focusing at the task in front of us, we are undoubtedly putting forth our best effort. What can be better than that?
To further illustrate, let’s take a cue from the humble spider. Every spider you know steadily builds a web. Once the prey is captured, the spider steadily goes on to the next task of trapping the victim and stinging it with venom. Let’s try to be more like the spider, although decidedly less psychopathic. Focus allows us to complete one task efficiently before moving on to the next.
Now that I have your attention, let’s discuss 17 ways to acquire laser focus. Caffeine free.
1. No More Multitasking
“Most of the time, multitasking is an illusion. You think you are multitasking, but in reality, you’re actively wasting time switching from one task to another.” -Bosco Tjan
Multitasking isn’t as effective as we think it is. You may think that doing 5 things at once is an incredible use of time and mental resources. You’ll be done 5 times faster, right? Think again.
What we commonly refer to as multitasking is really considered task-switching, and it actually decreases our efficiency. According to the American Psychology Association, switching tasks can degrade our productivity by up to 40%. Each time you switch tasks, it requires your brain to change modes. Although it only robs us of a few tenths of a second, it can add up quickly.
If you must do more than one thing at a time, limit yourself to two tasks. A 2010 study conducted by the French firm Inserm found that we can do one task per hemisphere–making that a whooping two tasks for all of my fellow two-hemisphered brains out there.
2. Listen to Classical Music
“If I’m doing a task that’s very left hemisphere … that means my right hemisphere doesn’t have much to do and it gets bored. I find that if I have music going in the background while my left hemisphere is consciously concentrating on the work I’m doing, my right hemisphere can just kind of enjoy itself by listening to the music.” -Stephen Christman
Did you know that one side of your brain can get bored?
Let’s talk a brief look at the brain. The left hemisphere is better at concentration, logic, and reasoning. The right hemisphere is better at complementary attention, such as responding emotionally and listening to music.
So, while you’re deeply focused on the task at hand, give your right brain something to do, too. Listening to classical music, like Mozart or Beethoven, can improve your spatial reasoning and help you concentrate (while you’re listening).
Classical music not your thing? Try other instrumental music, but avoid anything with lyrics. Lyrics invite your left brain to listen, too, which is counterproductive.
3. Take a Nap
It may seem counter-intuitive, but taking a nap will do wonders for your focus. Harvard researcher Robert Stickgold says naps help people separate important information from extraneous details. Naps allow you to focus on what really matters.
If you find yourself losing concentration, take a nap. You’ll probably wake up with a better grasp on what you need to do. They don’t call it a power nap for nothing!
Be sure to keep your naps to 20-30 minutes. This prevents you from entering the deeper REM sleep zone, which can make you feel drowsy and irritable upon waking.
Yet another reason to get your burn on. The May 2013 edition of Harvard Men’s Health Watch indicates that exercise improves concentration. And no, surfing the web does not count as exercise.
Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days a week. Raise your heart rate by 70% of your maximum. To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Elevate your heart rate to 70% of that total.
Sometimes it’s best to exercise prior to a period of intense focus. Focus works best when you’re highly stimulated, and the time after exercise is optimal for concentration.
5. Drink Water
The next time you feel your focus slipping, take a sip of water. Research from the Journal of Nutrition shows that dehydration negatively affects our ability to focus.
Contrary to popular belief, an article published in the British Medical Journal states that you don’t need to drink eight 8 ounce glasses of water a day. But, if you can’t focus, it may be an early tell-tale sign that you’re dehydrated. Finally, something that explains all of those restless, wandering souls by the water cooler.
And, if I may ever so delicately bring up urine– you can accurately gauge your level of hydration by the clearness of your urine. You’re welcome.
6. Listen to Ambient Noise
There’s scientific research to support all of us who like working at the park or in bustling cafes. It turns out that being in a slightly noisy environment enhances our ability to concentrate.
In fact, being in complete silence hinders concentration. Too much quiet can heighten your focus, which is what you don’t want, ironically. For example, have you ever been in a quiet space, and heard the clock ticking, your heart beating, the strange thumps inside of the walls? Having a soft ambient noise can pleasantly muffle those sounds and allow you to zoom in to the task at hand.
A study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign determined that 70 decibels was the perfect level of noise for concentration.
If you can’t relocate your job to your local Starbucks, there’s still hope for you. Try sites like Coffitivity and Rainy Cafe to get that ambient noise from your desktop. If you prefer white noise, visit SimplyNoise for easy listening.
7. Write Down Your Distractions
Sometimes your brain betrays you. It knows you’re doing work, but it still won’t stop pestering you about what you’re going to eat for dinner, why Sarah wore that, how much horses cost, how to spell Kathmandu, and so on. Brains can be more inquisitive (and annoying) than a snaggle-toothed 6 year old.
Focusing requires you to minimize distractions, but how do you do that when your own brain is the culprit?
The best way I’ve found is with a notebook. Whenever a distracting thought comes up in your mind, jot it down to erase it from your short term memory, and carry on with your task.
8. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
A nap is great but it doesn’t replace the power of a good night’s sleep. In our 24 hour world, it’s hard to shut it out and take rest. A lot of people go by the motto, “I’ll rest when I’m dead.” Admirable, but ultimately misguided.
Here’s the science behind it: Your body produces a chemical called adenosine when it’s time to go to sleep. Adenosine negatively influences your ability to pay attention, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. It continues to accumulate in your blood until you finally give in and go to sleep.
Here’s the kicker–in order to get rid of adenosine, you need to sleep at least 7 hours. It takes that long for your body to get rid of the adenosine in your blood. If you wake up before that happens, you’ll feel sleepy and, what’s worse, you won’t be able to concentrate.
Avoid this horror by going to sleep when your body is ready, generally around 10pm.
9. Block Times
Energy management is a necessity to focus. Access your ultradian rhythm and manage your productivity. How?
Research indicates that we get sleepy twice a day in the evening (4:30 pm and 11:30 pm) and every 90 minutes in the mornings.
For most of us, mornings are an important part of the workday. In order to get the most productivity from our workday, we should focus on tasks between these periods of drowsiness. Once the drowsiness hits, don’t fight it. Allow yourself to rest. This will improve alertness and focus.
10. Zone Out
Daydreaming is one of those habits that don’t get much result, and seem misplaced in an article about focus. However, zoning out actually improves your brain function.
About 47% of our days are spent daydreaming. It may be the default setting of our brain. According to Amy Fries at Psychology Today, it’s during these daydreaming episodes when your brain can better solve problems.
So, the next time you encounter a problem, take a break (see above) and start daydreaming. It can help you be a better, more focused thinker.
11. Give Yourself Deadlines
Don’t give yourself too much time to do a task. When you have all the time in the world to do something, it never really gets done until the last minute. Your brain only focuses on what needs to be done next. If you don’t think you really need to do something, you probably won’t.
Build your focus by self-imposing strict deadlines on yourself. This will help you overcome procrastination and focus better.
12. Group Similar Tasks Together
Research indicates that it can take up to 25 minutes for your brain to refocus when you switch from one task to the next. This is why multitasking is so detrimental to concentration.
Instead of hopping around from one task to the next, group similar tasks together. For example, send all your emails at one time, pay all your bills at another time, update your social media at one time (and use a service like Buffer or HootSuite to schedule delivery of the messages).
13. Try the Pomodoro Technique
Created by Francesco Cirillo in the late 80s, the Pomodoro Technique is a time management system that enhances your focus and concentration. The system works like this:
Focus on a task for 25 minutes.
Take a 5 minute break.
This is considered a pomodoro. After 4 pomodori, you should take a longer break (around 15-30 minutes).
Pomodoro requires short bursts of intense focus but the payoff is a few minutes of daydreaming and increased brain agility.
14. Do the Most Important Task
What’s the most important task you must do today?
The most important is always the one you’re doing right at this moment, because you’re trading a non-refundable amount of time for it.
When you approach every task as the most important you’ll do today, you can trick yourself into giving it the most attention.
Once the task is over, the next task is now the most important thing you’ll do today.
The king is dead, long live the king.
Some tasks are just not worth your time. Delegate the work you hate to others who can focus on those tasks efficiently. You may not be good at accounting, get an accountant. Get rid of the tasks you can’t or don’t want to do well, and focus on the good stuff.
Life’s too short to iron if you don’t want to do it. Even though it costs money for services, you can increase your earnings on the other end by being more focused on the profitable tasks.
Here are some tasks to delegate:
- Administrative Service
16. Theme Your Days
This is like working in blocks, but much bigger blocks. Dedicate each day to one task. This is the way Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey organizes his days. Here’s a peak at his weekly schedule:
Monday: Management & running the company
Tuesday: Focus on the product
Wednesday: Marketing, communications, growth
Thursday: Development and partnerships
Friday: Company, company culture, and recruiting
This is a great base for most of us. You may find that theming your days helps you focus.
17. Work with Your Natural Rhythms
Are you a night owl or a morning lark? It turns out that most of us are intermediates (at least 60%). Intermediates have no strong preference for morning or evening.
Discover what time is best for you to focus on certain tasks. It will generally be true on a daily basis. If you feel sleepy around 2pm, it’s probably a daily occurrence, and an indication that you shouldn’t do your most important tasks at that time.
So, Now What?
Now that you have tools to help you focus in on the task at hand, it’s time to try it out. Commit yourself to trying at least 10 of these tools for a week, and then report back. You’ll be concentrating in no time!
Which concentration hack are you most excited to try?