How to focus: The 5 key elements for attention management, focus, and flow

Focus is something pretty much everyone wishes they had more of, but that most of us struggle with on a daily basis. Whether we’re trying to concentrate on a task at work, block out the distractions of the modern world, or even just sit stay committed to our long-term goals, attention has become a wild, seemingly untameable beast.

But research has shown that people who can focus for sustained periods of time regularly perform better on all sorts of cognitive challenges. Whereas constantly giving in to distraction leads to decreases in creativity and poor decision making.

The problem isn’t just that we’re distracted. But also that few people really practice how to focus. But, as Elie Venezky, author of Hack Your Brain, writes in Fast Company:

“Focus is a muscle, and you can build it. Too many people labor under the idea that they’re just not focused, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once you drop this mistaken belief, you can take a much more realistic approach to building focus.”

So how do you go about rebuilding your attention and learning how to focus? It starts with understanding the power of focus and then building the right work habits, environment, and mindsets to promote it.

Before we dive in… Focus is one of our most valuable resources at work and in life. Download our free Guide to Finding Focus and Overcoming Distractions to help you take back control of your attention. 

How to find more focus in the modern workplace

The power of focus: Why focused hours are up to 500% more productive than unfocused ones

Focus

Let’s start with the basics. For most people, deciding to learn how to focus comes from a number of motivations:

  1. Wanting to be more productive and feel good about what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day
  2. Working towards learning a new skill, building a better product, or outworking the competition
  3. Trying to protect yourself from the dizzying amount of distractions in the modern workplace

Whatever your reasoning, it’s probably safe to say that you realize people who can focus get more done in less time. In that way, focus is the ultimate “productivity hack.” We all have the same 24 hours. And as author Srinivas Rao told us in a recent interview:

“What matters more than the length of time you put into a thing is actually the intensity of focus. Because if you have an intensity of focus you can actually reduce the amount of time spent doing it to get the same or better results.”

As one example, Srini points to Steven Kotler’s book, The Rise of Superman. In it, Kotler found that top executives are 500% more productive when they’re in a state of flow, or deep focus, compared to when they aren’t. (You can read our full guide to finding flow in the workplace here).

Even if you’re not in a state of flow, focus helps you get more out of the day.

A study from the University of California at Irvine found that, on average, participants (who worked in the tech field) could only work on a project for 11 minutes before being distracted. What’s worse is that it took them more than 25 minutes to regain their focus.

Focus keeps you productive. It’s what determines whether you do what you want to or spend the day distracted. But focus isn’t just about being better at work either. Learning how to focus is the foundation of our entire life experience.

As William James, the forefather of psychology wrote in 1890: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

In other words, being focused allows us to choose the life we want to live. Not just react to what’s happening around us.

Want to know where your time is actually going each day? RescueTime gives you in-depth reports on how you spend your time. Find out more and sign up for free here

Learning how to focus: The 5 key elements for attention management, focus, and flow

focus attention skills

If you want to improve your focus, you have to do more than just will yourself to pay attention. Focus is as much about what you’re paying attention to as what you’re blocking out.

Unfortunately, the world around us is incredibly distracting and our brain has been trained to seek out novelty rather than focus intensely on a single task. Add in digital distractions like smartphones, email, and IM and focus can feel like a lost cause.

As Daniel Goleman explains in Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, there are two main sources of distraction in our lives: sensory distractions (things happening around you) and emotional distractions (your inner dialogue, thoughts about things happening in your life).

To rebuild our attention and learn how to focus, we need to make adjustments to both. This comes down to understanding the 5 essential elements of focus:

1. Control over your technology

There’s no escaping the fact that smartphones, email, IM, news, Netflix, and 24/7 access to the knowledge of the world have destroyed our attention spans. But as behavioral designer Nir Eyal told us, technology is there to serve you. Not the other way around.

The default settings on your devices and in your apps are designed to take your attention away. And you need to change them right away. Get rid of notifications. Take “infinity pools” off your phone. Block distracting websites when you’re focusing. And keep your tech out of sight whenever you don’t actively need it.

2. A focus-friendly environment

Your work environment plays a massive role in your ability to focus. Yet most of us don’t think much of it.

Start by clearing out as much clutter as possible (a team of neuroscientists found that clutter competes for your attention and decreases performance while increasing stress). Then, avoid office noise by using headphones or listening to the right music for productivity. Or even try using an “interruption stoplight” to signal when you’re focused and shouldn’t be interrupted.

3. No more multitasking

If you haven’t heard by now, multitasking is a myth. When we try to do more than one thing at a time, we’re really just quickly switching back and forth between them. This isn’t very efficient (as I’m sure you can imagine), and ends up ruining our productivity and making us more stressed.

Even worse, the more you multitask, the more your brain looks for more things to do at once. Single tasking, on the other hand, rebuilds your focus, lowers stress, and can even make you more creative.

4. Clear expectations around communication

One of the biggest internal factors that chips away our ability to focus is expectations around communication. Studies have found that 84% of people keep their email open all day long, with 70% of emails opened within 6 seconds of receipt. Even when we’re not receiving emails, we found that the average knowledge worker checks email every 6 minutes of the day.

To rebuild focus, you need to have open conversations around communication. When do people expect a response? Can you set times where you’ll check throughout the day so everyone is on the same page and not waiting around for you? You can’t be focused if you’re assuming your attention can be pulled away at any moment.

5. More breaks away from your computer

Looking at Facebook or checking your email isn’t a real break. Taking real breaks means leaving your computer, standing up, maybe even going outside or walking around your workspace.

A real break takes your mind away from what you’re doing completely, giving it the ability to reset before you hit the desk again. Research shows the kind of unfocused, free-form thinking we do during breaks helps the brain to recharge.

If you find it difficult to fit in real breaks, try scheduling ten-minute meetings with yourself throughout the day.

RescueTime helps you stay focused by blocking distracting sites, giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, and more. Sign up for free here

Boosting focus beyond the workplace: 4 unconventional focus exercises

focus exercises

We might notice the importance of focus in the workplace the most. But there are lots of other activities that can help you learn how to focus outside of work.

Here’s a few you might want to try out:

Spend more time near trees

Spending time in nature is great for your brain. When I say nature, I don’t mean the nearest city street. I mean somewhere green and leafy. And, in particular, somewhere with lots of trees.

While walking is a healthy activity, when we walk in busy areas like an urban street, our brains have to stay switched on to keep us safe. There’s a lot of stimuli demanding our attention in this kind of environment—advertising, other pedestrians, cars, and bikes.

Yet when we walk in a natural area like a park, the peaceful surroundings allow the brain to relax, which helps us recharge our ability to focus. But more importantly, make sure there are some trees around. Trees don’t just add to the natural vibe, they also do something special to the brain. Research has shown just seeing trees is enough to improve our health.

Use deliberate rest to recharge

Recharging and strengthening your focus doesn’t come from just taking a break. While most of us think we need to “turn off our brains” to recharge them, the truth is that hobbies and “deliberate rest” are powerful ways to build focus and refill your energy at the same time.

Deliberate rest is engaging in activities that are engrossing and mentally stimulating, yet that let you recharge.

Daniel Goleman says doing something that’s passive, but requires focus, is key. For instance, playing a song on the piano or guitar that you already know well, or cooking a favorite meal could work. It needs to be an activity that keeps your attention but doesn’t work your brain too hard beyond that.

“The key is an immersive experience, one where attention can be total but largely passive.”

Take a flow day

Most of us spend our days in one of two ways:

  • Manager days are spent in tiny chunks bouncing between meetings, emails, and small tasks
  • Maker days contain long periods of time set aside for creative exercises like writing or coding

However, there’s a third option: Flow days.

Deep Work author Cal Newport decided to test the idea of “batching” his work every day to see if it made him more productive. This meant spending a minimum of 30 minutes on any task. For example, if he needed to check one thing in an email, he would force himself to spend the full 30 minutes processing emails.

Yet, while he found these kinds of rules “will absolutely make your day more difficult,” he also discovered he was more focused and in a state of flow more often than usual:

“…the percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.”

Since the strict rules can add effort and complications to your day, it might be best to save this approach for those rare times when you really need to spend a whole day focused on one big project. Scheduling a “flow day” once a month or so may help you get more done than you thought was possible.

Chew gum

It might sound strange, but research shows chewing gum can boost mental performance.

Gum has been shown to improve cognitive abilities more than caffeine, but the improvement seems to be short-lived. One study found gum-chewers only performed better than those not chewing for around 20 minutes, after which they stopped seeing any benefit.

The best suggestion of why this happens seems to be something called “mastication-induced arousal,” which just means that the act of chewing wakes us up and makes us focus.


Focus is a valuable resource. And one that’s constantly under attack by our surroundings and cultural expectations. But something incredible happens when we learn to harness our focus and enter a state of flow.

Not only do we do more work than usual. But we also feel energized rather than drained and can look back on the day feeling like we actually accomplished something of value.

Where to go from here:

Focus is as much about what you don’t do: Learn 7 practical methods for prioritizing your work

Protect yourself from distraction by avoiding these 10 common workplace time wasters

Your energy levels go through a natural ebb and flow throughout the day: Find out how to optimize your daily schedule for energy and focus

How do you start and stick with the tasks you want to focus on? Stop falling victim to the procrastination doom loop

Get the most out of the tools you use: Here’s how to set up Slack and Gmail for focus

Less is more when it comes to staying focused. Uncover the productive power of constraints.

Sometimes we need help staying focused. Learn how to block distracting websites while you work.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.