Work Culture

How to increase focus at work in 5 steps


Published on May 10, 2017

It’s a familiar story. You arrive at work, eager to get started on a new project. Then the distractions begin: a handful of emails, a chatty colleague, a personal errand, a trip to the coffee klatch. You keep trying to concentrate, but for one reason or another, you can’t stay on task. We know the feeling. That’s why we set out to find some smart tips for increasing concentration at work. Sometimes it just takes a few small adjustments to go from scattered to focused.

1. Simplify your to-do list

When you’re having trouble focusing, it’s tempting to write everything out in a long bulleted list, complete with detailed steps for finishing every project on your agenda. But research suggests a giant to-do list can be overwhelming. You’ll find yourself pulled in several directions and less confident in your ability to get it all done. Instead, consider focusing on just one goal at a time, with detailed steps only for that particular project. With this approach, you can keep completing full tasks one after the other, rather than trying to chip away at 10 all at once.

2. Establish rituals

It turns out some distractions can be helpful, provided you turn them into rituals. Studies show that practicing small rituals—like preparing a cup of coffee, checking your favorite news site, or stretching before you begin a project—can help you beat procrastination and focus on the task at hand. If you can establish a consistent routine right before you roll up your sleeves, you can train your brain that it’s time to start concentrating. Just don’t let your rituals become hour-long distractions. It might help to read an article before getting started, but when one story becomes 10, you’re back to wasting time.

3. Do your most thoughtful work in the mid-morning

Your brain tends to be most alert in the mid-morning—about two to four hours after you wake up. Even if you’re a self-proclaimed night owl, you’re still likely to have the clearest head around 10:00 am. From there, your ability to concentrate will begin to fall off, and studies say the decrease becomes even more significant as you reach middle age. As a result, consider shifting around your daily schedule to maximize your most alert hours. You might move status update meetings, data entry, or social breaks to the afternoon, while switching important presentations, team brainstorming, or creative writing to the mid-morning. If you can find focus for thoughtful projects early in the day, you’ll have time for repetitive or carefree tasks later.

4. Do mindless tasks—including email—in chunks

Your big, important projects tend to get interrupted by small tasks throughout the day, and email is among the worst offenders. Unfortunately, you can’t always just ignore the less urgent requests. One trick is to find a good balance, getting small jobs done without letting them take over your day.

Consider the following options: 1. Too hot: You can’t stand leaving any task unfinished, so you always do the small things right away. Unfortunately, you’re never quite able to find flow with your bigger projects. 2. Too cold: You always put off small tasks in favor of the important stuff. Unfortunately, you’ll likely be distracted by that unopened message or lingering question. In fact, knowing you have an unread email can temporarily lower your IQ by 10 points. 3. Just right: You set aside planned, half-hour chunks to knock out emails and minute-long tasks. When you handle mindless tasks in concentrated, short bursts, you’ll be able to cross them off your list while still leaving uninterrupted time for more thoughtful, creative work.

5. Find breaks for physical activity

Your brain craves breaks—which help recharge your creative energy—but not all breaks are created equal. Ten minutes of browsing social media can help break up the tedium of an assignment, but such breaks might come with a cost. Studies suggest that social networks decrease our ability to think critically and independently.

Meanwhile, taking a break for physical activity has a variety of positive effects, with very little downside. A University of Bristol study found that exercise increases employee concentration, improves mood, helps people solve problems, and gives workers an increased sense of calm.

The trick is finding the time for exercise in a busy workday. Even if you can’t do a full midday workout, a 7-minute burst of activity can still help. If you can fit in a few of these breaks—whether it’s 50 sit-ups, a quick walk with a colleague, or some lunchtime stretching—you’ll take advantage of the activity-based benefits throughout the full day.

In the end, what’s most important is finding the tips that work for you. If you find yourself spending less time fighting distractions—and more time in a creative groove—you’ll know your new habits are paying off.

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