A major difficulty that most of us experience when it comes to time management and productivity is the ability to remain focused on the task at hand and give our full attention to one thing at a time.
I don’t care how organized your day is, if you lack focus when it comes to attacking your tasks, you’re never going to get your stuff done within the timeframe you’ve set for yourself.
So, lack of focus is a massive productivity killer and will throw a huge spanner in the works of any good time management plan.
And it’s actually the part of time management that people struggle with the most.
Think about the number of times a task that should have taken you thirty minutes to complete has actually taken an hour or more, not necessarily because you underestimated the effort involved (see the ‘planning fallacy’), but simply because you were unable to apply yourself properly due to either internal or external distractions.
But you know, it doesn’t have to be this way, because there is a flip side to this.
Think about an occasion when you’ve been completely ‘in the zone’, as they say.
At that moment, you were totally focused on what you were doing. There could have been a hurricane going on around you, but you would have never noticed because you were so totally engrossed and absorbed in what you were doing at the time.
And you absolutely nailed the task at hand.
We’ve all had moments like that, so we know we are physically and mentally capable of focusing our attention something completely when conditions are right.
Even if your recollection of a time you were completely focused relates to the game you were playing on your smartphone (which, if you didn’t already know it, is one of the biggest sources of distraction in society today), it doesn’t matter.
The fact you were actually able to do that shows you can do it.
Now all we need to do is understand how to harness that skill and learn how to achieve that state of mind on demand for tasks and activities that are more productive and relevant to our work or well-being.
Barriers to staying focused
Staying focused seems to be more problematic for humans now than ever before.
Something is always vying for our attention and our time – whether it is our own thoughts or one of the many external factors that continuously bombard our lives in this modern, fast-moving digital age.
And distractions come in many forms, for example, and in no particular order:
~ Phone calls
~ Other people – bosses, colleagues, friends, clients
~ Social media
~ Clickbait titles
~ Clutter – both digital and physical
~ Worrying about the future
~ Ruminating on the past
~ Random thoughts
~ The pursuit of perfection
~ Comparing yourself with others
~ The desire for instant gratification
A big problem is that our brain actually seems to like distractions. New stimuli can feel good and interesting and can possibly produce an emotional high.
So we need to implement some strategies to prevent distractions, which is halfway to being fully focused.
Tips to stay focused
Here are fifteen things to try if you are struggling to maintain focus on work, study or some other task.
Some will work and some will not. The key is to try them out and see what suits you best.
1. The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique helps you to stay focused by working in 25-minute intervals with the emphasis on trying to complete as much as possible within that interval. Read this post to find out how.
Check out this post: What Is The Pomodoro Technique
Check out this post: Does The Pomodoro Technique Work?
2. Listen to music
This definitely doesn’t work for everyone and some people find it distracting which defeats the object. I have always worked to music and find that it cuts out any other kind of noise-related distraction and helps me to zone in on what I am doing.
While I am generally more of rock/metal/grunge type guy, when working I prefer something more classical without vocals.
You might not drink coffee or tea, so if that is you, move on to the next one. For those that do, sometimes caffeine can help attention and alertness. I don’t recommend relying heavily on caffeine.
Nootropics, sometimes called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers, are supplements that are becoming increasingly popular.
However, there is no strong evidence that these provide proven benefits, so don’t go thinking you’re going to become like the excellent Bradley Cooper’s character, Eddie, from the movie Limitless just yet.
There is limited evidence of the efficacy of most of these supplements, so if you’re looking to get and advantage through something you’re going to ingest, you’re probably better sticking to coffee as your performance-enhancing drug of choice for now.
There’s also better evidence that exercise improves cognitive performance, so go for a run instead.
5. Chew gum
It has been claimed that chewing gum can help improve concentration and relieve stress. There have been a few scientific studies like this one over the past couple of decades looking into the effects of chewing gum on concentration and test performance.
The results have not been all that compelling, so it may be more of a myth than fact, but try it out and see if it works for you. I know a lot of people who swear by it.
There is some evidence to suggest that regular meditation can help you focus better. This is not something that I have tried, but I do frequently try to use some mindfulness techniques, which I believe helps me to ‘quieten some of the chatter’ in my mind when I am getting down to some work.
7. Correct environment
You need a space that is conducive to working without distraction.
It should be comfortable and free of clutter.
Forget the claims that a messy desk is a sign of genius. That’s just some bullsh*t messy people say to justify the state of their desks.
Your “work station” needs to be neat and organized and have everything you require to complete your task within reach. If you have to keep getting up and down to find the stuff you need, you’re going to break your concentration and get distracted by other things.
The temperature needs to be just right as well – too hot or cold will create internal distraction.
8. Eliminate external distractions
Be brutal and ruthless about it, particularly in the workplace. Make it clear to co-workers and bosses that you need allocated time to complete tasks. There are ways to do this politely!
Use a do not disturb sign and go offline if you need to.
Check out this post: Time Management Tips For Work
9. Have a clear ‘why’
Tasks are much easier to finish quickly when you have a purpose and an end in mind. If you are clear on the purpose or the goal, you will be able to focus more easily.
10. Find your sweet spots during the day
We all have our certain times of day when we feel more energetic and productive. First thing in the morning works for many, while others swear by an evening routine for getting things done.
Check out this post: Tips For Productive Evening Routines
Check out this post: Tips For A Great Morning Routine
11. Build will power, discipline and routine
This takes time as we’re talking about building habits, which cannot be cultivated overnight. Routine creates mental prompts. Repetition creates excellence. Excellence is a habit.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.Will Durant
12. Train your focus like a muscle
Fortunately, the ability of your brain to focus is not something that is set in stone. Like a muscle, it can be trained to become stronger and more effective.
Practise focusing and you will get better at it. Using the Pomodoro Technique can help.
13. Pair work with reward
Getting things done is much easier when you have a purpose and a ‘why’. You can also introduce incentives for yourself.
Give yourself a reward if you can complete your task within your desired timeframe. For completing a small block, it can be a chocolate bar, a coffee or whatever you enjoy. Whatever motivates you.
Of course, this is just a silly mind game with yourself, but it can be really effective if you let yourself buy into it.
14. Get good sleep, eat well and exercise
This goes without saying, but if you are malnourished and lacking sleep, you will not be able to concentrate on anything much fo every long.
Do yourself a favour and look after your body and it will perform much better for you when you need it to.
15. Use visual reminders
Sometimes it is good to have a visual prompt in front of you to remind you to stay focused for the duration of the time you have set to work. It could be a motivational quote, a picture of someone you aspire to emulate or of something you want to buy (e.g. fast car, house).
It could be something as simple as a post-it note on the corner of your computer screen that just says, “Stay Focused!”
Or if your purpose is to build a business to become financially secure and provide for your family, have a picture of your kids close by as a reminder of your ‘why’ at all times.
This method will become ineffective if you use the same visual reminder in the same place all the time, as you will quickly become oblivious to it. Mix it up regularly and start your task by reminding yourself of your goals and why you have them before looking at your visual prompt.
Time Hack Hero Takeaway
Some people claim that improving productivity is not about how we manage our time, but how we manage our attention.
In other words, it’s about attention management, rather than time management.
I feel this is just semantics, because managing your attention is part of managing your time well, but either way, I fully agree that the ability to focus your attention on a task plays a huge role in getting things done quickly and effectively.
If you are struggling to focus on your tasks properly, give some of the above tips a go. Don’t try them all at once, but introduce one at a time gradually into your routine. If I were to recommend one to try first, it would be the Pomodoro Technique, as it is the method I have had the most success with to date, but try what you think is applicable to you and see what works.
Please feel free to comment below on your own experiences.