You start your day intent on being productive. You want to finish your homework, your presentation files, and get some time to hit the gym or grab a few drinks with your friends.
And yet, you spend a few minutes scrolling through Facebook, checking chat notifications, and watching funny cat videos. Time flies and before you know it, you’ve spent a good chunk of your day on meaningless stuff.
You want to work hard but you just don’t know how to concentrate.
Build Your “Concentration” Muscles if You Want to Learn How to Stay Focused
So what can you do when you need to hunker down and really focus on the task at hand?
Some people mistakenly believe that they just lack focus so they quit easy, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Elie Venezky, Author of Hack Your Brain, suggests that focus or concentration is a muscle. You can learn how to stay focused longer.
You might’ve given up on a task way before you’ve started. You’ve probably thought, “I don’t want to do this” just before you go for a run, start your homework, or finish a difficult report. But that’s exactly the time to get cracking.
There’s a popular fitness quote, “Your mind will quit a thousand times before your body does”
The same applies to your focus.
Still, even if you will yourself to work, the lure of social media and external distractions are strong. Below are 10 things you can do to minimize distractions and strengthen your concentration at the same time.
10 Science Backed Tips on How to Stay Focused Longer
1. Play Brain Training Games
If you already spend hours mindlessly scrolling on your phone, why not use it to improve your mental faculties, instead?
A 2015 study by Lumos Labs and Wheaton College Department of Psychology showed significant improvements on the concentration, memory, and problem solving skills of over 4700 adults who spent 15 minutes a day playing brain training games.
Brain training games to try:
- Memory games
- Word search
These games might be fun but they’re actually training your brain how to concentrate on a task.
2. Listen to Music
A study from the University of North Carolina and Wake Forest School of Medicine showed that listening to music you like can improve your concentration.
The keyword here is “LIKE,” which perhaps explains why listening to your neighbor belt out their favorite karaoke songs doesn’t help your concentration at all.
Personally, I first heard of this practice from author Ryan Holiday, who confessed that listening to his playlist and some embarrassing songs are the secrets to his creative output.
Pop music and other noisy tunes might not be what comes to mind when you think about learning how to stay focused at work. But personally, I find that listening to Zombies by Cranberries or Immortal by Evanescence on repeat while I write is effective to tune out distracting thoughts.
While the study doesn’t require a specific genre—only that you listen to songs you like— an article published at Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain, suggests that low arousal, negative impact music like Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor improves concentration while studying.
3. Build in Breaks to Your Routine
You can’t expect yourself to be 100% focused all the time. Adding breaks to your routine will help you fight distraction and build your concentration at the same time.
If you find yourself checking your email or social media constantly, you might want to start will short, focused bursts of work first. The Pomodoro Technique is perfect for this approach.
Here’s how the Pomodoro Technique works:
- Select a task that needs your undivided attention. Keep your gadgets away and tell everyone not to disturb you.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes then give it your full attention.
- If you feel the urge to take a break or check your phone, remind yourself that you can do it later.
- Take a 5 minute break after the 25 minutes is done.
- Repeat as necessary, taking a 15-minute break in between four 25-minute work bursts.
Start small first. You can adjust the break and work timer settings as you learn how to concentrate better and longer.
4. Create a “Do Later List”
Speaking of distractions, I’m sure you’ve had many moments when you’re concentrating on an important task when a random idea, errand, or question pops into your head.
“When is the next Star Wars movie coming out?”
“I have to buy milk and coffee!”
“Should I have sushi or a burger for dinner?”
Learning how to concentrate isn’t easy when your monkey brain keeps distracting you.
Even if it only takes you a minute or two to research a random factoid, a study from the University of California Irvine shows that it takes about 23 minutes on average for your mind to concentrate back on your original task.
That’s 23 minutes lost every time you get interrupted. Just imagine how much concentration and time you’ll lose when you switch tasks throughout the day.
Next time you remember an errand or want to look up a random factoid, just write it down and check it later during your break.
5. Fight the Too Long, Didn’t Read (TL-DR) Culture
A review of over 140 million articles by State of Digital Publishing showed that millennials, at most, finish only 42.79% of an article they find online.
According to the study of data compiled using Content Insights, tablet readers finished 42.79% of articles they read, while desktop readers and mobile readers reached up to 39.76% and 38.62% respectively.
This is quite disheartening, considering that many online articles aren’t too long to begin with.
While longer articles don’t automatically mean they’re better, there are complex ideas worth learning that are impossible to condense into list posts. Some topics even require an entire book to flesh out and fully understand.
Exercising your mind to finish one article or book shows you how to stay focused, while also visualizing the author’s concept in your mind and engaging your learning faculties. Better yet, longform reading exposes you to a world of deeper knowledge and understanding that’s shown only to those willing to dig deeper.
If nothing else, reading through an article thoroughly will help you avoid fake news and clickbait headlines.
6. Minimize Electronic Distractions
You can’t learn how to concentrate better if you’re always checking your phone. Put it away or turn off the notifications. Even if you’re only checking work emails or your employer’s Slack feed, switching your attention from one task to another isn’t good for you.
Doing something else while in the middle of a task jumbles your brain’s concentration. Instead of concentrating on what you’re doing now, it’s thinking about the task you were doing before.
Sophie Leroy, a professor at UW Bothell School of Business, calls this phenomenon “attention residue.”
Unfortunately, knowing isn’t the same as doing, especially when you’re a knowledge worker who regularly works on a laptop connected to WiFi all day.
If the Pomodoro Technique isn’t enough, install website or app blockers on your laptop or phone to block everything that’s not related to your task. Try Freedom, Cold Turkey, Self Control, and Offtime.
7. Embrace Boredom
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, advises his readers to embrace boredom. According to him, if your first response to boredom is checking your phone, then you are training your brain to react that way next time you need to think deep or concentrate.
So next time you’re doing something boring, like studying or finishing a work presentation, your brain will prompt you to check your phone and look at funny videos instead.
Resist the urge. Sit in your boredom and let your mind wander. Allowing your brain to get bored shows it how to stay focused next time you have to do something you’d rather not do.
Boredom, as unpleasant as it is, actually increases your creativity and encourages you to pursue new goals.
Surprise, it turns out doodling during long meetings or calls isn’t so bad after all.
A study conducted by Jackie Andrade from the University of Plymouth School of Psychology showed that people who doodle during calls or meetings have better memory recollection and concentration.
Andrade explains that doodling, the act of drawing or coloring random images, keeps the brain’s arousal at an optimal level. In short, it keeps you alert when you’re bored.
Don’t be afraid to doodle next time you’re at a meeting. It’s certainly better than getting caught sleeping.
Meditation has long been proven to improve the mind. A 2018 experiment showed that mediating even at least 10 minutes a day can significantly improve your concentration and memory.
Is traditional meditation not for you? You can try other meditation exercises:
- Watching the clock hands: Find an analog clock with a second hand and put it in front of you. Focus your attention on the second hand and follow it along the clock face for five minutes. Don’t think of anything else. Doing this will teach you how to stay focused on one task.
- Sit still: This is a simple concentration exercise but it’s harder than it sounds. Find a comfy chair and sit still on it for three to ten minutes. Once you sit down though, you’re not allowed to move or adjust your position anymore. If you get uncomfortable, that’s okay. Dwell on it. Observe how your mind and body reacts to the sensation.
10. Explore Why You’re Distracted
Sometimes, your inability to concentrate isn’t due to an external distraction but an internal one.
For instance, you may find it hard to concentrate on a thesis because deep down you’re not quite sure which angle to pursue in your research. Some people also find it hard to prepare for an exam or big presentation because they’re nervous and unsure if they’re going to do well.
In times like these, it’s better to dig deep so you can diagnose what it is that’s bothering you. It will be easier to troubleshoot the situation once you know the root cause of the problem.
Know How to Concentrate Fully But Know When to Stop, Too
Hopefully this article armed you with different things you can try to boost your concentration. With practice, you’ll find it easier to get in the zone next time you need to do something important.
- Play brain training games
- Listen to your favorite tunes
- Schedule breaks throughout the day
- Create a do-later list
- Read longform content
- Turn off notifications and other online distractions
- Embrace boredom
- Don’t be afraid to doodle
- Find out why you’re distracted in the first place
All things said, it’s also important to know when to stop. The internet and the technological advancements available now make it easier to work around the clock, but that doesn’t mean you should.
Improve your concentration and work hard, but know your limits too.