We’ve all been there: trying to work but failing badly because we keep getting distracted. It happens to the best of us, but losing focus at work can be a surefire way to have to put in longer hours and approach burnout. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep your concentration and accomplish everything faster.
Practice these well-being basics
You may already be aware that what you eat and how much sleep you get affects your physical well-being. But you might know that your eating and sleeping habits can also affect your focus. “Our ability to concentrate is dramatically influenced by fatigue, poor nutrition, dehydration and hunger,” explains Dr. Mitchell Hicks, clinical psychologist and academic coordinator for Walden University’s Ph.D. in Psychology program. Taking care of your body is one of the best ways to help your mind perform. Simple Microsteps, such as making a conscious effort to go to bed half an hour earlier, swapping a high-calorie lunch for a lighter meal, or drinking an extra glass of water each day, may make a big difference.
Do one thing at a time
A lot of people pride themselves on being great multitaskers, though research shows very few are actually good at it. Ultimately, the brain cannot fully focus when multitasking, which is why our productivity takes a hit: “When your attention is divided in this way, you can be less efficient and consequently less productive,” says Melanie Lopes, M.F.T., a California-based psychotherapist. One strategy for “unitasking”: Figure out when you’re most productive (in the morning, for instance), and do your most challenging work then. Then do the rest of your tasks when you’re not in prime focus mode.
Make lists, but not epic ones
“Creating lists can be a double-edged sword,” cautions Hicks. “Lists can certainly help you keep track of and prioritize tasks, but if a lack of focus is due to feeling overwhelmed with the amount of work that needs to be accomplished, then creating a long list of tasks may make things worse,” he says. To avoid becoming overwhelmed and therefore unfocused, Hicks encourages identifying the few most important things that need to be accomplished that day and writing those down. (You can keep the “important but not for today” tasks on a separate page to help keep your attention where it needs to be.)
Work hard, break hard
“Sometimes you might not be able to focus because you really just need a break,” Lopes points out. And that’s OK — breaks are, more often than not, good for you. “Go for a short walk or simply put in earbuds and listen to some music for a few minutes. Allowing yourself time to recharge or temporarily step away from what you’re doing can help improve focus and boost productivity.” Just make sure to be firm with yourself about the length of your breaks: “It’s easy to allow yourself to get carried away with longer and longer breaks,” Hicks reminds us.
Redirect yourself when you get distracted
Pay attention to when you, well, stop paying attention: There may be a pattern in what’s distracting you. Maybe you lose focus when you check your email, or listen to certain types of music. “See if you can catch yourself when that happens and choose to do something different, preferably something that can ground you in the present,” Lopes says. The simple tactic of taking a few deep breaths may be all you need to reground yourself and bring your focus back to the task at hand.
Find an accountability buddy
Almost everything’s easier when you’ve got the support of a friend. So find a focus buddy. “Once you create a goal and a deadline for yourself, share it with this person and plan to check in at a designated time,” Lopes suggests. “Self-discipline is challenging for a lot of people and having someone holding you accountable can help keep you focused and on track.”
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