Top tips for improving your focus
Time
17 Feb 2022

Top tips for improving your focus

Written by: Max J.

Research tells us that our attention span is shrinking. Researchers measured this to be around 12 seconds in the year 2000 and in the year 2013, it was just 8.25 seconds. 

After an interruption, it can take people up to 23 minutes to fully return to the same level of focus, so every time we switch our attention from a task to look at our phone or our emails, it can take us a long time to focus again when we go back to that original task. 

So high-quality work is produced when we time intensity of focus with time spent. The part we tend to struggle with is the intensity of focus which is why difficult tasks tend to take us longer to complete than they need to. 

So how do we improve our focus?

Various research studies have indicated how effective mindfulness can be for improving focus. One study showed how after practising just ten minutes of meditation, people showed a better level of focus in subsequent tests, compared to a control group.  

Some other ways we can improve our level of focus and concentration span include things like reading books or long-form content, completing puzzles or Sudoku, playing memory training games or practising something like a language or an instrument. 

Flow state

To improve our focus and get better quality work done, we also want to work in what is described as a state of flow. 

Flow can be described as: 

A mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity so that they lose the sense of space and time.

We won’t be able to apply this to all elements of our work, but there may be some tasks we do that require a deep level of concentration and could really benefit from us working in this way. 

So to do this we want to:

  • Set windows of time where you will focus on one thing – that might be a block or one-two hour. 
  • Agree with the people around you - that may be your manager/team/clients - how frequently you will be available on emails/IM/phone. We really want to try and get buy-in from others around you here – that is going to be really key in order to do this successfully.
  • Turn off notifications (email, phone, social media and IM)
  • Identify what a productive work environment looks like to you
  • Work in 60-90 minute blocks, followed by short 10 minute breaks
  • You may also want to discuss using headphones in the office – may be using them for periods of time that is pre-agreed with your team and when you’re wearing the headphones it’s agreed that you’re not disturbed unless it’s really urgent. It’s trying to respect each other’s time so you can all get the quality work that you need to get done.
    - How can you apply this to a certain aspect of your work?
    - What elements of your job would benefit from working in this way?
    - What barriers or obstacles might you face when trying to work in this way?
    - What can we do to try and overcome these obstacles?

Breathing procrastination

The last thing we’re going to touch on in this area of focus is procrastination. We will all procrastinate from time to time – and we probably all know that feeling of frustration when we’ve put off work and then we have to rush through it or work overtime to get it done at the last minute. 

Procrastination happens for a number of reasons. Our brain likes to preserve energy, so if it can take on an easier task like answering emails or completing simple admin tasks, it will drive you towards that, rather than the alternative which is using valuable brainpower to focus on something tricky. You may notice that when you’re carrying out work that is challenging, you’ll be drawn towards checking your phone, your emails or going to find a snack. This is our brains looking for a distraction. 

So we need to make our goals and what we’re working towards really clear. Part of this will happen in the planning process which we’ll cover in the next section, but a few things we also want to think about here.

  • Break bigger tasks into smaller goals – the more specific we can be with these goals and what the outcomes look like, the easier it will be to stay on task and complete them. For example, if we know we have a lengthy report to write, we want to break that down and small achievable chunks. So maybe the goal for today is to finish 500 words of the introduction or to complete chapters 2 and 3. You need to be really clear on what success looks like for the task you’re trying to complete. If we just have a ‘complete report’ on our to-do list, the likelihood is we’ll put it off, because it seems like too big a task to complete. 
  • Help others hold you accountable. Set yourself mini-deadlines for bigger projects and share those deadlines with a colleague, a boss or a client
  • Then you can send a calendar invite to this person alerting them on that deadline. The chances are if you’ve sent a calendar invite to your boss or a client saying you’re going to deliver a piece of work on a certain date and then it doesn’t arrive, it’s not going to look great, which means your much more likely to get the work done.