While raising my four kids I played traffic cop. Really. They all wanted my attention, all at the same time. Often I’d find myself holding out one hand, fingers outstretched with palms facing forward signaling, “stop”, while using the other hand to call one specific child towards me so he/she could speak with me or show me their awe-inspiring stick figure drawing. My mantra was: “Please kids, one at a time. This way I can give each of you my undivided attention.”
These parenting moments were my often-futile attempts of avoiding what Linda Stone describes as “continuous partial attention”, defined as the “modern predicament of being constantly attuned to everything without fully concentrating on anything.”
Modern technology seems to have made the ability to stay focused, i.e. fully concentrate on one thing at a time a Herculean task (both professionally and personally). As I write this blog my laptop email notifications are coming in on the upper-right hand screen, my iPhone has alerted me to new text messages, and oh yes, the biggest culprit of them all – my brain. My mind is thinking about all the other tasks that need to get done before I can call it a day (or night).
Yes, my brain represents the biggest challenge I face for staying focused. Can you relate to the struggle your mind presents to you for staying focused and on task, both at work and at home? If the answer is yes, and I suspect it is, follow along.
The following are 6 do-able ways to train your brain to stay focused while working.
- Create a routine. Yes, I know, routines sound incredibly boring! But a routine trains your brain for the activities that will follow. It’s like warming up before exercising; you’re conditioning your body to expect a workout before the workout begins.
Before I sat down to write this blog, I made my morning coffee and brought it to my desk. I always begin my workday with a cup of coffee sitting on my desk. In many ways I love the smell of coffee as much as I love the coffee itself. So what’s my point? Both the visual and sensory aspect of coffee creates signals to my brain that I’m about to begin working – because every morning I routinely engage in this activity. (brain conditioning ala Pavlov’s dog in motion here).
Our brain recognizes routines and creates the necessary neural pathway for what is to follow, allowing us to focus on the task ahead.
- Create a schedule. Knowing what activities you plan to work on throughout the day will help you focus on them and complete them. Small business owners and corporate employees alike are inundated with a crazy amount of tasks and projects on a daily basis. Creating a schedule allows you to develop a sense of control over what may often feel like an uncontrollable list of tasks. Without a schedule you may feel overwhelmed and out of control, creating an inability to focus on anything. Creating a schedule precedes tip #3.
- Create a realistic “to-do” list with an accompanying time frame. For example, if you have two meetings blocked off for the afternoon, you need to be realistic in what you can do during the afternoon.
Time management gurus have all sorts of tricks for allocating and managing your time per tasks. One very popular time management technique is called The Pomodoro Technique. It’s based on a system that has built-in time breaks throughout one’s day. Adherents claim this technique maximizes focus and creativity, while minimizing fatigue. To read more about The Pomodoro Technique, click HERE.
(Note: I’m not advocating this time management technique one-way or the other. I’m merely sharing it with you as one example of many that are out there).
- Turn off all electronic distractions – all of them. No email notifications, no sound indicating a new incoming text message, etc., etc., etc. Allow yourself the opportunity to totally submerge yourself into your work activity at hand.
Research shows it takes approximately 20 minutes to re-focus on work following an interruption. Click HERE to read an article published in The New York Times on May 3, 2013 discussing the amount of time it takes to re-focus after a distraction and how the interruptions affect the quality of our work.
- No Multi-tasking. Do not create distractions by jumping from one task to the next, constantly shifting your focus. Current research shows multi-tasking makes us less productive, less efficient, more frazzled - and may even lower our IQ. Click here to read “The Multitasking Mind” published on October 9, 2013 in BrainFacts. Org about the negative effects of multi-tasking.
- Practice Mindfulness, the ability to become aware of our thoughts in real time. Mindfulness increases our focus and productivity by preventing our mind from wandering away from our task at hand by staying in the present.
Focus your work on one task at a time, until completion (if possible) and then move on to the next task (outlined on the schedule you created from tip #2).
If you have any additional tips to share on how to use your brain to stay focused, please share them. Thanks!
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