What can we do to stay on track when we’re struggling to stay focused?
If you struggle to stay focused . . .
One of my words this year is “focus.” It’s something I struggle with sometimes lately, but I’ve been looking for ways to improve my ability both to stay focused on the big picture and what matters most in my life overall, and also to stay focused day-to-day on what I’m doing at the moment.
What is focus?
According to an article written by Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, there are at least three different types of attention that produce our ability to focus and concentrate:
- Selective Attention – This is the attention needed to focus on just one thing while disregarding others.
- Divided Attention or Attention Switching – This attention that can be switched from one thing to another and useful for managing and processing multiple sources of information at the same time, such as driving a car when your attention needed to toggle back and forth continually. According to Dr. Schwartzbard, this type of attention could be vulnerable to changes as you age, but with practice and exercise, it can be maintained.
- Sustained Attention – This type of attention is used to stay focused on one thing for a long time. While experiencing this type of attention, our brains can sort and disregard outside information and stimulation to give us the ability for uninterrupted focus.
What interferes with focus?
Researchers have identified some common factors that either individually or in combinations can impair our ability to stay focused. Those include:
- Poor diet/nutrition and hunger
- Lack of sleep
- Environmental Factors such as noise, visual disruptions, etc.
- Medical, emotional or psychological problems (According to Dr. Schwartzbard, any serious issue that affects your health, mentally or physically, can affect your focus. These can include sleep apnea, traumatic brain injury, stroke, ADHD, learning disabilities, toxicity from heavy metals, visual disorders, dementia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and emotional trauma.)
- Thyroid problems
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Hormonal changes
- Lack of physical activity
- Everyday general distractions such as the internet, social media, etc.
Staying focused on the big picture
It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when we get caught up in the day-to-day commitments and activities. But while focus on and attention to the present are good things, getting “lost in the weeds” of the day-to-day can lead to losing focus on the goals we’ve set for ourselves and the longer-term journey we need to take to achieve them. So let’s look at ways we can keep these goals in mind.
1. Keep them visible.
Write your goals down and put that note in a place you’ll see it every day, such as a bathroom mirror or on your desk.
Create a physical reminder of that goal or priority. For example, Natalie Eckdahl has told about how she gave out stones to the attendees and one of her conferences. Each woman wrote a word on her stone that represents her most important goal or priority; they keep the stones in their homes or offices as a reminder.
Find a piece of decor or jewelry that reminds you of a key goal or priority or has a word you want to focus on.
2. Schedule reminders
Create a recurring alert in your digital or physical calendar to remind you to think about that goal or priority. The alert could pop up with a question like “Is what you’re doing right now moving you in the direction of your goal?” or “When’s the last time you worked on your ____ project?”
3. Schedule regular meetings with an accountability partner.
If there’s a project or goal you feel you’re not making progress on, teaming up with someone else who’s also working toward a goal can really help by having someone to keep you thinking about your priorities.
Finding a mastermind can also help, such as The Productive Woman Mastermind Groups.
Staying focused on your current task
Sometimes when I sit down to work on the things I prioritize for myself, such as my legal work, preparing for the podcast, or working toward a specific goal, I find myself distracted with other things and having trouble getting and staying focused. While distractions may not always be easy to ignore, there are some ways we can create an environment that’s conducive to focus.
1. Get rid of distractions.
Clear your workspace of anything you don’t need for your project. Having a clean desk can prevent those tiny distractions from grabbing at your attention and, according to one article, is essential to our ability to stay focused.
Turn off alerts and devices. This can include website notifications or any messages that aren’t important to your project.
Put your phone away or turn it off. If you have to, put it in a drawer or another room to remove the temptation to check it periodically.
Turn off the TV or radio or any sounds or visual stimulus.
We’ve talked before on sounds that may help us focus, such as [email protected], which plays music scientifically designed for focus. There are also Spotify playlists or videos of music for concentration on YouTube you can play in the background.
Close browser windows and programs that aren’t in use.
You can use an app like Freedom (iOS/Mac only), which locks you out of social media and other distracting websites for a predetermined period of time.
2. Create a workspace that’s conducive to focus.
Believe it or not, there are studies that show an ideal temperature for focus is between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit / 21-24 degrees Celsius.
Make sure you have adequate light. If possible, try to get as much natural light as possible. If you don’t have a window nearby, there are certain lamps that can mimic the sunlight.
A good chair can help your focus, rather than a chair that is uncomfortable or needs constant adjustment.
There are also essential oils and certain scents that are said to promote focus and concentration, such as different types of mint and herbs.
3. Set a timer and work without interruption until the timer goes off.
- We’ve talked before about the Pomodoro method. YouTuber Amy Landino recommends The Miracle TimeCube for this.
- Reward yourself with a break when the timer goes off.
4. Stop multitasking.
We’ve talked about this in many past episodes.
An article in Bustle cited a study that found only 2% of people can multitask effectively. For the other 98% of us, it could be doing more harm than good.
If you are so accustomed to multitasking and unsure if you can go a day without it, try this exercise:
1. Give yourself one task for a set amount of time, and only allow yourself to work on that.
2. When something comes up that you would normally try to work on simultaneously, write it down instead.
3. At the end of your allotted time, look at that list to see what tasks are truly time sensitive and help you prioritize. This will also help you with time management, as well as improve your ability to focus on just one thing.
5. Leave white space in your calendar.
Having back-to-back meetings and events can overwhelm our brains. We need those spaces of no plans for our brains and bodies to recharge before the next big thing comes along.
This also helps avoid unforeseen circumstances or delays.
The extra time we have for our brain to recharge can also help us avoid burnout.
For every 45-60 minutes in a meeting or spent on an activity, try to get a break of at least 15 minutes for yourself.
6. Get enough sleep.
Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the ability to focus on a specific task or specific information when other things are going on at the same time.
Getting enough sleep can help you maintain focus throughout the day, including staying sharp and alert. This can even help make your to-do list feel more manageable.
Naps can also boost your focus for some.
Getting enough sleep can be conducive to learning and problem-solving skills.
7. Studies have also shown certain foods promote brain function, such as:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Dark chocolate
- Extra-virgin olive oil
What do you think?
What sorts of things distract you when you’re trying to work on something important to you? How do you manage those distractions and stay focused on what matters?
Resources and links:
- Food for Concentration: 11 Foods That Boost Memory & Help You Focus
- 15 Brain Foods To Boost Focus and Memory – Axe
- ADHD Diet: Foods to Help You Focus – ADHD Center – Everyday Health
- 9 brain foods that will improve your focus and concentration
- 12 Foods to Help You Focus | The Chopra Center
- Water and Brain Function — How to Improve Memory, Focus, and Concentration
- Why Your Brain Needs Water | Psychology Today
- Brain Health Phoenix: How Does Hydration Impact Brain Function?
- Study: Dehydration May Cause Low Mood, Fatigue and Lack of Focus in Women | com
- Could Dehydration Be The Cause Of Your Concentration Problems?
- Ideal Office Temperatures for Productivity
- The Science of How Temperature and Lighting Impact Our Productivity – The Buffer Blog
- What is the Optimal Office Temperature for Productivity and Focus? –
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Great insights. Schedules and time-blocking work effectively as well. I love the idea of blocking off a certain time to focus on getting a task done. It is a great way to hold yourself accountable and get the work. When the time comes, you just get yourself to do the work, no questions asked and every other thing must wait. That’s how I write my blog posts 🙂