The average person’s mind wanders 47% of the time, according to a 2010 Harvard University study, so nearly half the time you’re doing one thing, you’re thinking about something else. Add the 24-hour news cycle, the barrage of social media and the countless distractions for those working from their bedrooms, backyards and walk-in closets — a number that has more than quadrupled from 8.2% in February 2020 to 35.2% in May 2020, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas — and it’s no surprise that people are struggling to focus.
“Some would argue that human attention, not money, is the most valuable commodity there is,” said Angela Duckworth, author of “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” and founder and scientific director of Character Lab, a nonprofit that connects researchers with educators. “It’s the ultimate scarce resource.”
The good news, however, is that focus is a skill you can cultivate and improve. And your brain can learn to ignore distractions. Here are some techniques to try, aimed at increasing both your attention and productivity amid the pandemic.
Disengage from distractions.
For at-home workers struggling with distraction, a recent survey revealed that social media is the leading cause — many reported wasting up to two hours a day — with children coming in second.
You can reduce those distracting dings, tweets and rings coming from your social media feeds, emails and text messages by simply turning off the notifications. That’s right, just turn them off.
If that feels radical, you can attempt turning away from technology using self-control, but as Duckworth said, “Willpower is a limiting resource; it’s unpleasant and we’re not willing to do it for very long, so the best thing to do is create a situation where it’s just harder to be distracted.” In her research on self-control in teenagers, data showed that the farther away students placed their phone while studying, the higher their grades. “If you’re trying to control your attention, don’t just try to do it with willpower,” she said. “You literally need to hack your physical space.”
When your focus wanes and you feel the urge to online shop or grab a game of 2048, there are tech tools to prevent your giving in. The Freedom app blocks websites from your computer and smartphone; Forest has you set a timer encircling the image of a tree; if you pick up your phone before the time is completed, the tree withers and dies.
Having children at home when you’re working remotely poses its own challenges to staying focused. Nir Eyal, author of the book “Indistractable,” recommends setting up clear signs so young children understand when not to interrupt. Eyal suggests finding the craziest hat you can find — he calls it his concentration crown. “When my daughter sees me wearing it, I don’t need to interrupt my call and explain that I’m busy, because she knows the hat means that Daddy’s working and can’t be distracted,” he said.
Distractions can make it impossible to find your flow, that state when you are deeply engaged and merged with the object of your focus. “For parents with children at home, creating the environment in which flow can actually happen may mean clearly articulating boundaries of your time,” said Sasha Heinz, a developmental psychologist and life coach. “Instead of two parents half working and half taking care of the kids, you need to communicate with your partner and block off time for each of you when no interruption is allowed.”
Stick to a schedule.
Increasing your focus nowadays means planning your workday thoughtfully, having set start and stop times and specific blocks for just about everything in between. That includes meetings and tasks like writing, reading, editing or researching, as well as breaks to eat, exercise and read emails. “The way to bring structure is by making a schedule that constrains our time,” Eyal said. “We perform at our best when we know what our day is going to look like.”
Rather than keeping a to-do list, with tasks that often go unfinished and get recycled onto the next day’s list, Eyal suggests using a timebox calendar. “Because there are only 24 hours in a day, a calendar forces you to prioritize, to make a choice — do I want to do this or that?” he said. “With a timebox calendar, the goal is not to finish anything; the goal is to work on that task for as long as you said you would without distraction.”
Additional scheduling strategies.
Meetings: Make an agenda for each meeting so that you and other attendees have an idea of how much time it will take and what you hope to accomplish.
Connections and social media: Rather than read every email the moment it lands in your inbox, schedule two or three specific time slots during the day to batch them. Similarly, you can allocate a time to make personal phone calls and another to scroll through social media.
Quiet time: With days of back-to-back meetings, it’s hard to fit in time to think and write, often the part of the job that gets relegated to early mornings or late nights. Eyal likes to use the “do not disturb while driving” function on his iPhone no matter what task he’s involved in, knowing that if the sender types urgent, the message will come through. “There’s so much we can do to get the best out of these products without letting them get the best of us,” Eyal said.
Refuel: After a period of focused concentration, it’s important to take a brief microbreak to recharge — like a battery — according to a study in the International Journal of Stress Management. Schedule breaks for short unfocused activities, such as a quick walk or some stretching, as well as time to eat lunch.
Exercise: Allotting time for exercise is a proven way to improve focus, memory and productivity. A British study found that workers experienced a 21% increase in concentration and a 41% increase in motivation on the days they worked out.
Check in with yourself.
The state of the world is enough to fog anyone’s brain. “The reason we lose focus most of the time is because we are looking to escape some kind of discomfort, such as stress, anxiety, loneliness or boredom,” Eyal said. If watching or reading the news increases your anxiety, limit the time you spend doing it. If you feel lonely or disconnected, schedule time in your day to speak with family or friends. If you’re bored, take a break and pursue a new hobby.
Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the present moment — your thoughts, emotions and sensations — whatever is happening. Research has shown that mindfulness practices improve working memory and focus, training the mind to let go of distractions. “The digital world has been engineered for distraction, and with quick hits from social media, we don’t see how unrewarding these distractions are,” said Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and associate professor of psychiatry at the university’s medical school. Brewer suggests experimenting by leaving on all your phone’s dings and tweets for 20 minutes and asking yourself: “How focused can I get? What does it feel like?” Then turn off all the notification sounds for 20 minutes and ask the same questions.
“Compare those two, and the brain will make the obvious choice — being focused feels better,” Brewer said. “If we can see that focus is rewarding, we can lay that down to memory.”
There are many apps with guided meditations to help you learn and develop mindfulness. The Headspace app recently introduced a Focus mode, aiming to help people focus on “what matters most to them.” It offers meditation exercises like “preparing for a presentation” and “unlocking creativity,” “exam prep” and “ending your day.” Focus music is curated by John Legend, a musician and Headspace’s chief music officer, and includes a variety of playlists. The songs are all instrumentals so as not to distract listeners with lyrics.
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