Anyone looking to maximize their productivity, achieve goals, and advance their career must learn how to focus their attention and eliminate distractions.
Distractions in our modern day work environments abound; learning to direct your attention amongst the endless chatter in our lives is crucial to success.
There are many different strategies that can help minimize distractions, decrease stress, and improve focus. Not all work for everyone, which is why we wanted to explore whether there’s scientific support for some of those strategies.
We found five scientifically sound strategies and want to share them with you:
Meditation isn’t just for yogis and new age-y folks listening to Enya. Vastly successful business people – Oprah, Jerry Seinfeld, Joe Rogan, Jeff Weiner and Arianna Huffington, to name just a few – are all advocates for the practice, and swear by its effectiveness in calming the mind and improving focus.
Studies have shown meditation can alter your brain matter by reducing your stress levels, which consequently leads to better mental health and improved decision making. A study published in Consciousness and Cognition, for example found that meditation training improved cognition, leading to a better mood, increased verbal and non-verbal reasoning, and improved capability for manipulating mental information.
According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, mindfulness meditation refers to “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment.” Anyone working in a highly stimulating, fast-paced environment knows that being centered, focused, and aware is critical to successfully navigating the overload of day-to-day activity.
The benefits of mindfulness meditation are clear. Regular practice can boost the immune system, improve your emotional well-being, and significantly increase your ability to focus.
Want to read more about how successful entrepreneurs use meditation? Check out Wellness Tips from Successful Entrepreneurs and Health Experts.
2. Make lists
Making lists isn’t just for the scatterbrained among us. At any given moment, entrepreneurs’ busy minds are buzzing with ideas, plans, to-do’s, and an endless assortment of things you don’t want to forget. Lists are critical in keeping everything accounted for.
For some people, writing everything down is a great way to objectively analyze things so you can prioritize your day. Being able to schedule things well, delegate things to other people, and figure out the best use of your time will keep your day focused and productive. Need some tips to optimize your lists? Here are a few:
Write your list the night before
Writing your list the night before means you can start your day already prepared with what to expect and what needs to be accomplished. Sparing yourself the stress of figuring those things out during the chaos of the morning dash leaves you composed and capable of handling everything that comes your way.
Assign Time Estimates
Seeing how much time each task requires for completion is smart. You can make realistic decisions about what you’re truly able to accomplish, and your schedule will thank you for the reasonable estimates for each item you build your day around.
If you’re consistently bumping the same to-do item to another day, you need to figure out why. Is it unimportant? Is there a problem that needs to be worked out first in order for you to complete it? Whatever the case, repeated rescheduling of a task indicates that it requires more attention to meaningfully address the item.
Having said that, to-do lists aren’t for everyone. In fact, in an earlier post on our blog, we explained why to-do lists can actually be counter-productive for some. Here’s what we wrote:
Despite our reliance on the tactic, research suggests 85% of a person’s output includes tasks not included on their to-do list, and that 41% of to-do list tasks never get tackled at all.
To be fair, those numbers actually make a lot of sense (and may feel familiar, if we’re keeping things 100). To-do lists lack the context necessary to be effective planning and work management tools. You end up with a number of tasks that need to be completed without real regard for the level of urgency associated with those tasks, the amount of time required to complete the tasks, or anything that will how you accountable for completing the tasks.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s time to get off the couch.
While there are often conflicting scientific studies about many things, you won’t find much disagreement about this: the benefits of exercise—physically, mentally and emotionally—are innumerable.
A study published in the British Medical Journal confirms exercise’s benefits. According to the study, short 10 to 40-minute sessions of exercise resulted in an improvement in mental concentration and focus: even a quick walk can have major benefits on your focus, productivity, and general well-being. If a focused mindset is a goal for you, it’s time to get moving.
According to Dr. John Ratey, who wrote a book on the impact exercise has on the brain, exercise increases your focus for two to three hours after you finish your workout. Do you find you have a time of day where you just can’t get your mind to settle? Try exercising a few hours beforehand, and find yourself with an ample amount of focus to compensate during your more challenging hours.
Exercise increases our confidence in our ability to accomplish challenging things. Entrepreneurs like the late Steve Jobs to powerhouse Mark Zuckerberg are key examples of confident leaders who have employed the benefits of exercise. Many entrepreneurs are also regularly advocates for walking throughout the day.
In fact, Facebook recently put in a half-mile loop on the roof of its headquarters in Menlo Park, California so that workers there can regularly have walking meetings.
When you have a healthy workout schedule, your sleep improves, too. Studies show that exercising before bed leads to falling asleep around 15 minutes earlier and extends sleep for an average of 45 minutes a night. Entrepreneurs who sleep better become quicker thinkers, have more focus and are capable of leading their industries in ways their sleep-deprived colleagues are not.
If your workspace looks like an office supply truck crashed into it, your focus is bound to be distracted by the sheer volume of stuff piling up in every corner of your office. “Surveys show the average person loses an hour a day to disorganization,” says Lisa Zaslow, a professional organizer in Manhattan. “It takes much less time to get and stay organized. Think about how frantic and stressed you are when you can’t find something.”
“Surveys show the average person loses an hour a day to disorganization,” says Lisa Zaslow, a professional organizer in Manhattan. “It takes much less time to get and stay organized. Think about how frantic and stressed you are when you can’t find something.”
Whether or not you are particularly attuned to the mess inhabiting your life, clutter will still have a noticeable effect on your concentration. Researchers with the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute discovered that having too much clutter decreases the brain’s capacity for focusing and processing information. Your brain becomes overly distracted by the mass amounts of clutter threatening to swallow you whole, and it renders you unable to accomplish much.
Professional organizer Amanda LeBlanc says it’s not just about clutter, it’s also about having the right tools for the job:
If you’re always getting up to find something you need, it’s difficult to concentrate on your projects. There are many studies showing that once a person gets up from something they are working on to look for supplies, they are much less likely to return to what they were working on when they left.
A tidy desktop is your best bet to get off on the right foot every day at work. Work habits are reflected by the environments we work in; a clean office is most supportive of a productive workflow.
And it’s not just about physical clutter. As we wrote previously in our post How Clutter Affects Your Productivity, And What You Can Do About It:
June Saruwatari, author of Behind the Clutter explains that mental clutter is just as bad for your productivity as is physical clutter. She warns that even when you put physical clutter away, it doesn’t really go anywhere:
If you put it into a closet and shut the door, you are still carrying that with you. It’s important to get to the root cause of that one item and not just shove it under the rug.
Saruwatari explains that mental clutter is often caused when you clear physical clutter, but don’t necessarily dealt with it. This couldn’t be more true – especially for busy business owners and entrepreneurs who find themselves multitasking with endless tasks. Sometimes putting away those notes from the meeting you still have to review doesn’t help, especially if that stays on your mind for the rest of the day until you complete the task. For this reason, Saruwatari suggests a mental dump, 1-2 times a day. This translates into creating a to do list each morning, and prioritizing it. Then, at the end of each day, a moment of reflection and reorganization of the to do list. Since it’s impossible to get everything done in one day, it’s crucial that we are able to keep everything in it’s own mental container, only opening the lid when we are ready to deal with it.
5. Go for a walk / take a break
Sometimes the best strategy is to stop trying so hard and take a break. Our brains were not built to maintain constant attention, and taking short breaks can improve your ability to maintain focus over long periods of time.
Illinois researcher Alejandro Lleras examined the phenomenon known as “vigilance decrement,” in a study published in the Journal Cognition:
We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused. From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!
There are a number of productivity systems you can try to help you work more effectively with breaks, such as the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks a task up into twenty-five-minute blocks, followed by a five-minute break. After you’ve repeated this four times, you then take a longer break of around thirty minutes.
Another option is the 52-17 method, proposed by the Draugiem Group. Through data from their productivity app DeskTime, they discovered that the most productive employees work for 52 minutes at a time, and then break for 17.
The reason the most productive 10% of our users are able to get the most done during the comparatively short periods of working time is that their working times are treated as sprints. They make the most of those 52 minutes by working with intense purpose, but then rest up to be ready for the next burst. In other words, they work with purpose.
Breaks can be anything from going for a short walk, letting yourself daydream, or even just doodling for a bit. The point is to disengage from what you were working on and change up what you’re doing. By breaking up your concentration, you’ll give your brain a chance to recharge so you can return to what you were doing refreshed.
As an entrepreneur, responsibilities, to-dos, and brainstorms can threaten to overwhelm your precious little time and attention. Staying focused in the middle of the hectic every day is a critical component in anyone’s ability to not only get work done but get work done well.
Following these tips might just help you find your way to a calmer, more productive, and highly focused workweek.
If not? There’s still always coffee.
But the scientific value of coffee is debatable.
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