Do you ever have days when you just can’t seem to focus?
You know you’ve got tasks that are important to complete, but you procrastinate. You allow yourself to get sidetracked and sucked into social conversations at the office or even social media.
Maybe the tasks you want to complete support your professional goals. Maybe others depend on you to get the work done.
And you know they’re important.
But you’re not even getting started.
You need a way to fix this fast.
Here’s a list of 15 strategies to get you in the zone.
1. Break large tasks down to smaller chunks.
If a task feels too large, it’s often hard to know how to start, or get the motivation to dive in. By breaking down large tasks to smaller chunks, they seem more palatable and easier to address. You usually feel good after accomplishing something, and by breaking your big task into smaller ones, you get satisfaction after completing each one. You can also see your progress toward finishing the whole job, which will motivate you even more.
2. Write it down.
Write your immediate task on a piece of paper and put it in front of you. That’s what you're focusing on. Nothing else. That one thing.
Now get it done.
3. Set a timer.
Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to fill the time allowed. Put a time limit on how long you have to complete the task. This will force you to focus on the work to get as much done before the timer completes.
If the task is too big to complete within the allotted time, use tactic #1 - identify a part of the work that can be done within that time. Then set your timer and...GO!
4. Listen to music.
Years ago I used classical music to drown out distracting sounds and help me get focused. But in the past few years I’ve switched to Brain.fm and find it works great. Its intent is to improve focus through audio brainwave entrainment. The audio helps to quickly get me into the “zone” of extended concentration on the task at hand. Other types of music may work for you. Just make sure it’s not something that will actually distract you.
5. Wear (over the ear) headphones.
Even if you’re not listening to music, noise-canceling headphones can block out external distractions and let you stay focused. Over-the-ear headphones do double-duty if you have long hear like me. They are easily visible and send a signal to others that you’re not available for conversation.
Recent studies support the benefits that mediation has on improving focus. A study by Guiseppe Pagnoni, published in the Journal of Neuroscience in April 2012, found brain activity in regular meditators that suggests better focus and concentration. Another study published at the University of Washington suggests engaging in regular meditation helps with staying focused on tasks longer. If your thoughts feel scattered, a short meditation can calm your mind. Even taking as few as 3 minutes to meditate can help you think more clearly and increase attention on your work.
7. Drink water.
A study published in The Journal of Nutrition in 2011 showed that severe dehydration negatively impacts cognitive performance. You likely don’t experience severe dehydration in your regular day job. But anecdotally I notice that if I’m having trouble focusing, having a glass of water seems to clear my head and help me get focused.
8. Avoid carbohydrate-heavy meals.
Studies show that eating carbohydrate-heavy meals can cause insulin spikes, which leads to tryptophan being released into the brain. This in turn produces melatonin and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that regulate sleep. If you want to remain mentally sharp through the day, don’t load up on bread and potatoes when you need to focus.
9. Get an accountability partner.
Peer pressure can be a good thing if used the right way. By making a commitment to someone else, not only can they help hold you accountable, but you’ll increase internal motivation to meet the commitment you’ve made, rather than failing. Find someone you trust who agrees to be an accountability partner. Let them know you plan to complete your task by a certain time. Commit to following up to share your status. For example, tell Amy that you’ll complete the presentation draft by 3:00, and at 3:00 you’ll let her know how you did. Then follow up with your status at 3:00.
10. Change your environment.
Moving to a different work location can help can help inspire creativity or get you out of a rut. Choosing a location with minimal distractions is critical – going to your favorite coffee shop where friends are likely to stop and chat would defeat the purpose. Choose a location where you won’t be interrupted. Have the right mindset also. Keep in mind that you’re not going for a break, but to increase focus and complete a task.
11. Clear the clutter
Having a cluttered workspace can have multiple negative impacts to focus, such as adding extra stimuli and distracting you from what you want to focus on. Clean off your desktop and work area to create a calmer mental state and reduce overwhelm that can inhibit concentration.
12. Make a list.
When holding on to many thoughts, you’re not able to give full attention to the activity you want to focus on. Do a brainstorming session and write down everything you want to come back to later. This will eliminate the need to try to remember it, and you can focus fully on the prioritized task.
13. Turn off alerts.
Every buzz, chirp, and popup will compete for your attention. Those little dopamine hits are hard to resist, and when you stop what you’re doing to check that text message, you’ve lost more time to task switching. You’re also likely to get lured even further away from your goal. Remember the cost and what you’re giving away when you allow those alerts to compete for your attention. Remove them while working on your immediate task.
14. Raise the stakes.
If you’re really having trouble getting focused, make it a bit painful to fail. Bet your co-worker that if you don’t complete your task by a certain time, you’ll pay her $50. You’ll feel that. And you’ll be even more motivated to get focus and finish.
15. Take a short nap.
Not everyone benefits from napping. But if you’re working on less sleep than normal you may need a short nap. Much has been written about the value of taking a short nap in the afternoon, and if you keep it short it can help you feel more rested and alert and improve your ability to focus. It’s hard to get in the zone when you’re feeling groggy.
Now you’ve got an arsenal of tools to choose from to increase your focus. No more excuses. Whenever you’re challenged, use one of the above strategies and get in the zone.