You start your day intent on being productive and accomplish everything you’ve planned on. You want to finish your homework, prepare a presentation, and end up with some time to hit the gym or grab a few drinks with your friends.
And yet, you spend what seems like just a few minutes scrolling through Facebook, checking chat notifications, and watching funny cat videos. Time flies and, before you know it, you’ve wasted a good chunk of your day on meaningless stuff.
We all have to deal with countless distractions and productivity issues. Luckily, there are ways to improve your focus and concentration to finally be proud of what you’ve achieved today (and still be able to carve out time for those drinks with your pals)!
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Want to Learn How to Stay Focused? Start With Building Your Concentration Muscles
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.
Many psychologists, coaches, and tutors, such as Elie Venezky, the author of Hack Your Brain, suggest that focus or concentration can be compared to a muscle. Turns out, your ability to focus can be noticeably improved, but it takes time and commitment.
Before starting, you should keep in mind that your ability to concentrate is not limitless, and it’s also very individual. While some people can learn how to get in the zone pretty easily, for others it might be a longer and harder battle (people with ADHD, we feel you!). So, remember to give yourself time and don’t be too hard on yourself if for some time it feels like you don’t make any progress.
If you dedicate yourself to working on your concentration and attention, after some time you’ll notice that it is easier for you to stay focused, and your productivity will change for the better as well!
Ready to get down to work?
Start with these simple but effective tips and tricks to improve your concentration and focus:
10 Science-Backed Tips on How to Stay Focused for Longer
1. Play Brain Training Games
A 2015 study by Lumos Labs and Wheaton College Department of Psychology showed significant improvements in the concentration, memory, and problem solving skills of over 4,700 adults who spent 15 minutes a day playing brain games.
So, if you already spend hours scrolling through your phone, why not use it to improve your ability to concentrate, instead? Another way to approach it is to incorporate game nights with your family members, friends, or your loved one. This way, you can have fun, spend some quality time together and work on your concentration skills all at once!
Here are just some ideas of the brain training games to try:
- Word search
- Jigsaw puzzles
And, if you are not that much into the old-school card or board games, there are tons of websites created for improving memory and mental functioning, so you can check out one of those!
2. Listen to Music You Like
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.
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.
We know that not everyone will be happy to listen to Chopin eight hours a day, so don’t torture yourself and go for the playlist you love instead.
3. Remember to Take Breaks
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 and attention span at the same time.
If you find yourself checking your email or Instagram constantly, make a pact with yourself and start with 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 (preferably on mute).
- Set a timer for 25 minutes and start working. No choosing the right playlist on Spotify or making yourself comfortable at your desk for ten minutes!
- If you feel the urge to take a break or check your phone, remind yourself that you will do it as soon as your timer runs out.
- Take a 5-minute break after the 25 minute period is over.
- Repeat as necessary, taking a 15-minute break in between four 25-minute work bursts.
The good thing about this technique is that it’s very adjustable. Some people find it easier to have longer work streaks or longer breaks — it all depends on your preferences. Start with the classic approach, and later you’ll see if you want to tweak it to make it even more beneficial.
The most important part is to make yourself work without any distractions for a given period of time. As you might have guessed, it might not feel like a piece of cake at first. But, if you try your best to stick to working during the given period of time, it will improve not only your concentration but also your willpower. And that’s a great bonus!
4. Create a “Do Later List”
Imagine a scenario when you actually work rather productively and happy with everything you’ve done so far for the last half an hour.
And then, a random idea, errand, or question pops into your head out of nowhere.
“When is the next Star Wars movie coming out?”
“I have to buy milk and coffee!”
“Should I have sushi or burger for dinner?”
Of course, you cannot simply stop those thoughts from appearing and, actually, you shouldn’t. Sometimes, these “out-of-nowhere” thoughts might result in creative solutions. What you should do is try to unload your brain and consciously point it back in the right direction.
The main problem with this kind of thoughts is that it is extremely difficult to let them go, as you’re subconsciously worried that you will not remember them later. So, you end up trying to keep them in your mind for as long as possible, which causes distraction and overload for your brain.
Instead of spending your precious time and attention on random thoughts when you’re being productive, simply write them down and get back to your main task. The mechanism is simple — as soon as you get them written down, you won’t be worried about forgetting them. And, come back to this list after you’re done with your main task or have a break during practicing the Pomodoro Technique.
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 on average, millennials finish only 42.79% of an article they find online, at most.
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 listicles. What’s more, it is hard to work on your focus and attention if you lose interest in an article you’ve started just a minute or two ago.
Exercising your mind to finish an article or a book shows you how to stay focused, while also visualizing the author’s concept in your mind and engaging your learning faculties. Better yet, long-form 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 improve concentration if you’re constantly checking your phone throughout the day. Even if you’re only checking work emails or your employer’s Slack feed, multitasking and switching your attention from one assignment to another isn’t good for you and your attention muscles. The best solution is to put it away or turn off the notifications at least for a certain time when you have to stay focused.
Switching to something else while in the middle of a task jumbles your brain’s concentration. Instead of focusing on what you’re doing now, your brain is still thinking about the task you were doing before. Sophie Leroy, a professor at UW Bothell School of Business, calls this phenomenon “attention residue.”
We know that it might be especially difficult to focus when you’re a knowledge worker who has a laptop connected to Wi-Fi 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, the 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. Sooner or later it will become a habit, and you will end up with bigger concentration difficulties. As soon as something boring comes up, 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.
Surprisingly, 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. Not only it helps you to focus and boost concentration — doodling also helps in memory retention and even reduces stress!
Don’t be afraid to doodle next time you’re in a meeting. It’s certainly better than getting caught sleeping.
9. Practice Mindfulness and Meditate
This might be one of the best tips that will significantly increase your ability to focus and boost your mental performance. Meditation and mindfulness have long been proven to have multiple benefits for both your mental and physical health. Some of them include stress and anxiety reduction, sleep improvement, and an increase in self-awareness.
But, what’s more important, meditation is highly beneficial for anyone who wants to improve concentration and attention. A 2018 experiment showed that meditating even as little as 10 minutes a day can significantly boost your concentration and memory.
If you haven’t tried meditating before or you’re not sure how to concentrate while meditating, try a meditation app, such as Headspace or Calm. These two apps have guided meditation sequences perfect for beginners.
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 react to the sensation. This exercise will definitely teach you how to embrace your boredom and teach you to focus on the present moment!
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. Insecurity and a fear to start cause procrastination, which makes you spot distractions in anything around you. 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.
If you think that this might be the case, there are a few steps you can follow. First of all, remind yourself, why you’re doing this task and why is it important. Also, if the task feels too big and overwhelming, come up with a realistic goal you could achieve in one day. Maybe, you could write 1,000 words for your essay or prepare 10 questions for your exam. And, finally, head to work using those tips we just armed you with!
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 and increase your attention span. 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 long-form content
- Turn off notifications and other online distractions
- Embrace boredom
- Don’t be afraid to doodle
- Meditate and practice mindfulness
- 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. Having a good sleep, quality rest, and knowing how to shift your focus to things that make you happy go a long way! Not only these simple things will make your life more full and enjoyable — they also have a direct connection to your productivity.