Focus is something I struggle with a lot. In my freelance writing work I have to spend hours at a time researching, writing, and editing. When I’m working on Exist, my company’s personal analytics app, I sometimes spend whole days writing blog posts, or working on our iOS app.
With so many different types of work on my schedule every week, I find it hard to stick to one task until it’s done. Too often I pick up my phone or start browsing Facebook without even thinking about it. Before I know it, I’m struggling to even remember what I was doing before.
I’m not the only one, either. A study from the University of California at Irvine found that the participants (who worked in the tech field) could only work on a project for 11 minutes before being distracted, on average. What’s worse is that it took them 25 minutes to regain their focus.
25 minutes for every distraction can quickly add up. For work like writing and software development, your best work can only be done in a state of deep focus, since you need to keep a lot of information in your head as you work. If you’re only doing 11 minutes of work every time you hit your stride, and taking another 25 minutes to get your focus back, you won’t have much to show for your efforts after a full day of work.
So what can we do to stop this vicious cycle from holding us back from productivity? According to science, there are quite a few actions we can take to improve our ability to focus for longer periods.
Take breaks more often, and get 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.
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, stores announcing sales, other pedestrians, cars, bikes, and maybe even trams.
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.
Spend time on a hobby you enjoy
If taking a walk outside isn’t your thing, or you’ve already tried it an need another option, finding a hobby you enjoy could do the trick.
Daniel Goleman says doing something that’s passive, but requires focus, is key. For instance, playing a song on piano or guitar that you already know well, or cooking a favourite 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. — Daniel Goleman
Goleman says this type of activity can give the brain a chance to recharge. By staying passively focused on what you’re doing, you’ll stop yourself from continuing to think about work. If you don’t already have a go-to hobby that fits the bill, you could try cycling, knitting, drawing, or even colouring in.
Move your desk
For those times when you can’t leave the office, or you need to push through without a break but you’re struggling to focus, this may be the most simple change you can make. Research has shown working in natural light can improve productivity and decrease how many sick days employees take.
Unfortunately, most of us work in offices with artificial lighting that can cause eye fatigue and make it harder to focus. If you can, try moving your desk closer to a window so you can get more natural light during the day.
Take a flow day
Author, university professor, and productivity expert Cal Newport says the idea of batching similar tasks together sounds useful, but rarely works. This process introduces more complexity, says Newport, and “most people will abandon a tactic as soon as it makes their life more difficult.”
Newport tried a day of batching tasks himself, to see how it affected his productivity and focus. He established firm rules and stuck to them for an entire work day. The rules stated all work had to be done in 30-minute blocks.
If he needed to do a small task that would only take a few minutes, he had to spend that entire 30-minute block doing small tasks. If he needed to check something in an email, he had to spend a full 30-minute block on processing and replying to emails.
Newport concluded after his experiment that the type of strict rules he used are necessary for batching tasks to work. But he also found these kind of rules “will absolutely make your day more difficult.”
There’s no avoiding the reality that there will be times when you have to take convoluted action to solve a problem that could so easily be handled with just a quick bounce over to your inbox.
This is a pain in the ass.
Despite the extra effort and frustration that came with the experiment, Newport found his day was more focused and more productive than normal:
Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.
Most importantly, Newport found he was able to find more of that elusive “flow state” than he usually would. “Flow” being that state of getting so caught up in what you’re doing that time passes without you realizing it. Newport found the 30-minute block rule helped him achieve this by making small distractions a non-option:
…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.
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.
Researchers have tested gum that includes sugar and is sugar-free, but glucose content doesn’t seem to have any affect on performance. 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.
If you’re not a fan of gum, you could try this trick from author Gretchen Rubin: chew on plastic stirrers or straws. Rubin says the act of chewing helps her focus while writing.
It’s taken me longer than I care to admit to finish this article, thanks to constant distractions. With this list handy, next time I’m struggling I’ll have a few options to try that may just improve how much I can get done in a day.