Stay Focused: Simple Ways to Deal with Distraction While Working from Home, The Office, or Wherever.

Person Staying Focused on their Work
Photo by Reinhart Julian

What is it about the TV in the background, quietly drumming on with the sounds of daytime talk shows, that is so hard to ignore? Why do we regularly catch ourselves logging in to social media ‘for just five minutes’ and end up wasting 20 minutes or more looking at photos of cats or our neighbors’ new baby?

Why is it so incredibly easy to get distracted, and so challenging to stay focused?

The simple answer is that distraction is our default state, and it takes effort to stay focused. But that doesn’t explain the full picture. To fully understand the answer, and how to be better at focusing, we need first to understand what exactly is focus.

What is Focus?

When we talk about focus, what exactly do we mean? The Cambridge Dictionary gives the following definition: “To  direct attention toward something or someone.”

The keyword in this definition is direct. Focusing is an action. We must purposefully direct our attention constantly, or we lose focus.

Imagine for a moment a dog, continually moving from one exciting smell or sound to the next, always on the move, never staying in one place too long. Our minds work similarly. Constantly moving from one stimulus to the next. Always drawn to new and exciting things or things which require little effort and provide large ‘rewards.’

The fact is our brain is built to be distracted. If our early ancestors weren’t constantly reacting to new stimuli in their environment and were laser-focused on the mammoth they just hunted, they may never have seen the saber-toothed tiger stalking them from the tall grass.

So how do we overcome 10,000 years of evolution to succeed in the modern workplaces, homes, and schools–where there is a distinct lack of saber-tooth tigers?

To Stay Focused, Don’t Forget About the Small Stuff.

One of the most important things we can do is to understand what is causing us to become distracted in the first place. If we can identify the things that trigger our brains to lose focus and become distracted, it becomes much easier to avoid those distractions.

And It isn’t just big distractions that can cause us to lose focus and be less efficient–and more stressed–at work or school. In fact, the large distractions as often the easiest to overcome because they are the easiest to notice. But what about the small things? What about the loose thread on your shirt or the clutter on your desk?

Small distractions may only take a few seconds of our time, but when we lose five or ten seconds at a time, dozens, or even hundreds of times per day, we can end up wasting hours of time without even noticing.

Add to that the fact that it takes an incredibly long time to refocus our full attention on our chosen task–as much as 23 minutes to return to full productivity according to a study from UC Irvine–and you can begin to see why these seemingly insignificant distractions can have a significant impact on our performance.

Declutter your space, declutter your mind.

Once we have identified what is keeping us from staying focused, one of the best ways to keep our attention directed towards the important things is to remove these distractions before they become a problem.

Let’s think back to the first questions. How do we avoid being distracted by the TV or social media? The easiest way is to remove these triggers from our environment. If we could work in an environment that had fewer distractions, it would be much easier to focus on the things that need our attention.

If we design our workspaces in such a way that we have to go into another room to see the television, or we remove the bookmark to our favorite social media site from our browser, it becomes just a little bit more difficult for those things to steal our attention.

Organized Desk for Staying Focused
Photo by STIL

Easy steps to declutter and help stay focused

What are some concrete examples of things we can do to declutter and make our homes and offices more focus friendly?

  • Prepare our desks so that they are free of messy things, unnecessary toys or gadgets, and non-work related articles. It can be especially important to remove things that are important but not urgent as these can easily cause us to lose focus on what needs to be done now while still thinking we are doing something that needs to be done.
  • Ensure we have everything we need for the task before we start. This can include tools and supplies such as pens, paper, and charging cables, but also snacks, water, and other necessities. Having everything set out before you begin your task means that you no longer need to run to the kitchen for a drink or to your bedroom for a notebook – making it less likely you will be distracted by things such as chatty coworkers or that laundry basket sitting in the corner.
  • Leave plenty of ‘white space’ in your work area so that you have room to review documents, organize materials, or place new items quickly. If our desk has no open space we run the risk of switching focus from our task to organize our desk whenever someone hands us a paper or we need to lay out a document or other material for review.

Multitasking: Why Trying to Focus on Two Things Means Doing Both Things Worse.

But external distractions aren’t the only thing we have to worry about when it comes to staying focused and performing at our best. In today’s offices, schools, and even at home, we are always faced with multiple projects at once, each on tight deadlines–and, of course, everything is a top priority. The obvious answer for many people is to double up and take on multiple tasks at one time.

The only problem with this solution is that we can’t actually do two things at once. When we try to do two things at the same time, what we are really doing is switching back and forth from one task to the other. This constant switching means we aren’t focusing on either, and we end up preforming both at a much lower level.

If you can imagine trying to watch two television programs at the same time, constantly switching back and forth between channels, this is what ‘multitasking’ is actually like. You may be able to follow the basic plot of the shows, but you will miss many important details along the way.

If we can choose to focus on a single task at a time, spending small chunks of time on individual projects and then moving on to the next, we can become much more productive, avoid the cognitive declines associated with multitasking, and have more mental energy available to keep our attention directed at the current task.

Understand Your Personal Ebbs and Flows.

Another thing that is important to understand is how our personal daily rhythms affect our focus. For some people, it is easier to concentrate in the morning before the day becomes to busy. For others, the afternoon is better, after they have taken care of all of their meetings and can work without interruption.

Our bodies, like all animals, function on what are known as Circadian Rhythms–daily cycles of “brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities” which determine feeding patterns, sleep cycles, and even our ability to cope with stress and emotional strain.

According to Harvard Business Review, our ability to focus peaks around mid-day and again towards the end of the typical work day – at around 6pm – while our focus is lowest early in the morning, after lunch, and later in the evening.

This doesn’t mean however that these peak focus times are the only times we can get work done. In fact, while these peak times are great for focus, organization, and absorbing new information, the times in between can be especially good for activities which require synthesis of newly acquired information such as brainstorming, writing, or creative activities.

If you can schedule the tasks which require the most focus during your peak focus periods, and tasks that require more creativity or sociability during the rest of the day, it will be much easier to stay on task and get work done.

It is also critical to listen to your own body. If you catch yourself unable to focus for an extended period, constantly yawning, or feeling anxious and unable to concentrate, it may be your body’s way of telling you it’s time to take a break.

Sometimes, the best way to stay focused is to give your mind some downtime. Take a short walk around the office or out to your mailbox. Grab a cup of water. By stepping away from your current task for a moment (to give your brain a chance to rest, not to look at social media), we can give ourselves time to synthesize and recover and return to our task more able to focus than before.

Keep your brain and body healthy.

Hopefully, you have made it this far without getting too distracted.

The final piece of advice we have is this: It is much easier to focus if you take care of your brain and body.

You wouldn’t expect a sports car to perform at 100% without proper maintenance and care, so why would you expect that from the complex machine that is the human body and mind?

With proper exercise and diet, we can improve mental performance and concentration, and avoid mental fatigue and loss of focus throughout the day.

Healthy food to help stay focused

Some of the best foods for focus include:

  • Caffiene – This substance found in coffee, tea, chocolate, and more can give you a short-term boost to focus, especially when taken in the morning. But take care not to overdo it, because too much caffeine can have the opposite effect.
  • Fish – Many fish make an excellent addition to a balanced, healthy diet–especially those with omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, trout, and sardines–as long as you stay away from fried fish.
  • Nuts – These vitamin packed, snack-sized foods are an excellent source of fuel to keep your mind focused throughout the day.
  • Blueberries – If anything can be called a ‘superfood,’ blueberries surely deserve that title. These delicious little berries have been shown to reduce the effects of aging on the brain, increasing our ability to acquire new information and stay on task longer as we get older.
  • Broccoli – One of my personal favorite foods, broccoli is a fantastic choice for anyone looking to add a focus-boosting vegetable to their diet. Broccoli is a key source of vitamin K, which is essential for brain health and has been linked to increased memory.
Yoga Exercise Helps To Stay Focused
Photo by Anupam Mahapatra

Staying active can help us stay focused

Adding regular exercises to a well-balanced diet can improve brain function even more. Some of the best exercises for a focused brain are:

  • Aerobic exercises – Activities such as running, cycling, and swimming are an excellent way to boost brain health. These activities increase our body’s ability to pump blood–and oxygen–to our organs such as our brain, providing the much-needed food for focus and concentration.
  • Mind/Body exercises – Any activity which requires both mental and physical dexterity can have a positive effect on our brain’s ability to focus. Activities such as yoga, pilates, or even martial arts can fall into this category of exercises.
  • Any activity is an excellent place to start – Not everyone can run a marathon to improve their brain health. Some people need to start off slow. The good news is that ANY activity is better than nothing – whether that means walking down the street and back, performing arm exercises, or any other activity which increases your heart rate.

But don’t think that the only exercises that can help improve focus involve lifting weights, running, or going to the gym. There are plenty of mental exercises that we can do from the comfort of our home that can have a considerable impact on how well we focus.

If you have tried everything and you are still having trouble staying focused, it may be due to a medical condition such as ADD/ADHD. If you think this is the case, you can try this ADD/ADHD Cognitive Assessment, and speak with a medical professional near you.