Concentration is a funny thing. Some days you can be completely in the zone — nothing can pull you away from the task at hand. Other days, the littlest thing, like someone walking past the window or a colleague eating lunch, can take you out of the moment and render all hope of regaining concentration lost. In this age, with social media, emails, and pretty much the entire internet, there tends to be a lot more of those “other days.” But, how to improve concentration?
If you’re someone who regularly succumbs to lapses in concentration, take comfort in the fact you’re not alone. A Fox News study found that 45 percent of employees work distraction-free for only 15-minutes at a time, while 53 percent lose an hour a day to interruptions. Another study by the University of California found that there’s typically only three minutes of consistent focus before an employee gets interrupted, or interrupts themselves.
It’s a common problem. No one is immune from distractions, especially in this digital age. No one can work consistently without focus drifting. There are, however, ways to improve concentration and stop the mind from wandering.
Find the distraction and eliminate it
What’s causing you to lose concentration? Is it tiredness or hunger? Is it a social media addiction or an obsession with replying to emails as soon as they land in your inbox?
Chances are there are a number of things at play. Now you need to pinpoint problems and remove them.
Fatigue and hunger are simple: sleep better and eat well. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep a night and enjoy a slow-release energy breakfast — something packed with fiber, calcium, vitamin D, and omega-3s. Drink plenty of water too. The brain needs fluid to operate properly — between six and eight glasses of water a day is the recommended amount.
Where social media is a factor, smartphones are the biggest culprit. Ignoring a push notification until you've finished a task is like asking a dog to ignore freshly baked cakes on the kitchen counter when no one else is around. The easiest thing to do is to switch off your phone. If that seems a bit drastic, compromise by switching on Airplane Mode. This will prevent incoming messages and emails without stopping you from listening to music or using certain functions, like the alarm.
To take social media out of the equation on your laptop or desktop, use the Focus app. Focus sits in your menu bar and allows you to block out apps, websites, or specific pages within a website to avoid distractions. It also has a few motivational features, such as a focus tracker, a productivity scheduler, where you can input hours for work and relaxation, and inspirational quotes on blocked sites that remind you where your attention should be.
Set the proper environment
Once all the immediate and anticipated distractions are gone, take some steps to create an environment that’s pleasant enough so you can sustain your focus over long periods of time.
Why it's difficult to concentrate? While noise from colleagues or the outside world can be a hard problem to avoid, try wearing headphones and instruct people not to bother you have them on. Then, turn on some concentration music with Noizio, which is the perfect ambient sounds app to set the right productive mood. Listen to nature or the hum of the coffeehouse, and even combine different sounds together.
Focus on one thing at a time
Pick a task and stick with it. It sounds simple, but it’s something we rarely do. We all like to think we can multitask but, in reality, the brain isn’t cut out for it.
In an interview with Fortune magazine, MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller explained why:
“When we toggle between tasks, the process often feels seamless — but in reality, it requires a series of small shifts. Say you stop writing a pitch for a client in order to check an incoming email — when you finally return to the pitch, your brain has to expend valuable mental energy refocusing on the task, backtracking, and fixing errors. Not only does this waste time, it decreases your ability to be creative. When you try to multitask, you typically don’t get far enough down any road to stumble upon something original because you’re constantly switching and backtracking.”
Miller’s advice for trying to do more than one thing at a time — don’t. “It ruins productivity, causes mistakes, and impedes creative thought.” Of course, sticking to one thing at a time on your desktop is easier said than done, but there’s an app that can help.
While Focus blocks out distracting websites, HazeOver can dim everything, other than the thing you’re working on, into the background. Only the active window will stay highlighted, preventing your eyes from looking at something else, and your attention from wandering elsewhere.
With research showing that employees can become distracted from what they’re doing after as little as three minutes of focus, it makes sense to take baby steps towards building up the brain's ability to concentrate.
Psychologist and author Larry Rosen PhD recommends giving yourself 60 seconds of distraction time to check emails and quickly browse social media, before setting a timer for 15 minutes of solid work.
The human brain isn't built for the extended focus. You CAN'T concentrate on one thing for a long time.
Once you’re comfortable with 15 minutes, gradually increase the time in five-minute increments, working up to 30 minutes — the optimal number. Tracking this on your own might seem like quite a bit of work, but there is a handy tool — Be Focused, a productivity timer that could be set to specific work and rest intervals, with daily goals, so you can track your progress and improve as time goes by.
Rosen’s method relies on self-discipline and blocking out any distractions (Focus and HazeOver have your back on that part), which over the course of a few days and weeks can make a huge difference.
Knowing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing, and when, is a great way to get in the zone. Map out your days by writing down the things you need to get done. Organize and prioritize, and set reminders for your most important things. Once you’ve hit your target, take a break and reward yourself — it’s amazing at how well you can focus on a task if there’s a cookie waiting at the end!
Using a task manager app like GoodTask is a great way to list the things you need to get done, never forget anything important, and stay on schedule.
Hopefully, you were able to concentrate long enough to get to the end of this post interruption free. Don’t worry if you didn’t; the important thing is that you’ve read through the steps. And even better, all the apps mentioned here are available on Setapp, a collection of over 120 Mac apps to help you get anything done. You can try it free. Now you know how to approach tasks with laser-like focus!