According to a 2015 Microsoft study, the average human has an attention span of eight seconds, which is less than that of a goldfish. Because of our digital connectedness and the fact that the brain is constantly looking out for what’s new and what’s next, that number has decreased over time.
“Survival depends on the ability to focus on what’s important–generally, what’s moving–regardless of the environment in which humans find themselves. Alyson Gausby, consumer insights lead for Microsoft Canada, writes, “That talent hasn’t changed; it’s just moved online.”
So, what do you do when you need to concentrate on your job rather than what’s going on around you? According to Elie Venezky, author of Hack Your Brain, the first and most important step in increasing focus is to change the way you think about it.
“Focus is a muscle that can be strengthened,” he says. “Too many people believe they can’t concentrate because they’re not focused, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can take a much more practical approach to build focus once you let go of this erroneous belief.”
It is possible to create a focus-friendly environment using a combination of mindset and tools. Here are eight tricks and tips for avoiding distractions and focusing on the task at hand:
1. GET YOUR MIND READY
Venezky recommends calming your mind before beginning a task. “Sit in a comfortable position for a minute or two and breathe deeply into your stomach,” he advises. “You don’t have to chant or sit cross-legged. Allow your body to relax before beginning your work. You’ll discover that it greatly aids concentration.”
2. UNDERSTAND WHERE YOUR FOCUS SHOULD BE
According to Ron Webb, executive director of the American Productivity and Quality Center, a nonprofit research organization, “focus also entails an understanding of what is worthy of your distraction.” “Success is about integrating that focus into the way you work,” he says.
Take the time to think about what you want to concentrate on for the year, the month, the week, and the day, according to Webb. Then take a look at your schedule and set aside time to concentrate. “This prevents people from sending calendar invites for non-emergency, last-minute events,” he says. “These are killers of concentration.”
3. TURN OFF THE POWER FOR 30 MINUTES
Log out of email and social media if you need to concentrate. Jan Bruce, co-author of meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, says, “Even if you live and die by email, do yourself a favor and log out for 30 minutes either in the morning or for a period in the afternoon.” “You won’t believe how much you can accomplish when you aren’t constantly interrupting yourself to return emails.”
4. GET A CUP OF COFFEE
Coffee in the morning not only helps you wake up but also helps you concentrate on the tasks at hand. If you’re looking for a way to focus in the afternoon, a coffee shop run might be the answer. Astrid Nehlig, a French physiologist, discovered a link between caffeine and cognition in a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. While caffeine does not enhance learning or memory, it does increase physiological arousal, which makes you less likely to be distracted and better able to pay attention during a demanding task, according to Nehlig.
5. INSPECT YOUR THERMOSTAT
It may be difficult to concentrate if the temperature in your workplace is too hot or too cold. According to a Cornell University study, workers are most productive and make fewer mistakes when the temperature is between 68 and 77 degrees. According to a study from Finland’s Helsinki University of Technology, the magic temperature is 71 degrees. If you don’t have control over the temperature, add a sweater or a fan.
6. PLAY SOME MUSIC
Too much background noise can be distracting, but music can help you focus on your own ideas, according to a study published in Scientific Reports by the Wake Forest School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina. What’s the catch? The song had to appeal to you.
The consistency of the researchers’ findings was surprising, given that musical preferences are uniquely individualized phenomena and that music can differ in acoustic complexity and the presence or absence of lyrics.
Turn up the volume and get to work, whether it’s Beethoven, the Beatles, or the Beastie Boys.
7. SHORT BREAKS ARE RECOMMENDED
A study from the University of Illinois suggests that instead of succumbing to distraction, you should plan for it. During a 50-minute task, psychologist Alejandro Lleras discovered that participants who were given short breaks performed better than those who worked straight through.
The research looks into a phenomenon known as “vigilance decrement,” or the loss of focus over time. The brain is reenergized by taking a brief break in the middle of a long task.
Lleras writes, “We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused.” “Our research suggests that when working on a long task, it’s best to take short breaks. Short mental breaks will actually assist you in remaining focused on your task.”
Doodling will help you concentrate and develop your artistic skills when you’re sitting in a long meeting or conference. Doodling improves cognitive achievement and memory, according to a study from the University of Plymouth in England.
According to lead researcher Jackie Andrade, “doodling simply helps to stabilize arousal at an optimal level, keeping people awake or reducing the high levels of autonomic arousal often associated with boredom.”