Maintaining our focus is critical in the activities we undergo every day, whether it’s reading, driving, working, or having a conversation. Focus is something we all have, but some people seem to know how to focus more acutely, and for much longer periods, than others.
In a society filled with distractions, this article will aim to explore the ins and outs of what focus is, why it’s so hard to do for some of us - and most importantly - how to improve focus to become more productive in different areas of our lives.
What is focus?
In the field of neuroscience, the concept of focus is described as the dynamic ability of our brains to initiate and organise energetic mechanisms to direct our attention to the tasks that achieve goal-directed behaviours.
Optimal focus involves the coalescence of three categories: task-oriented attention, synchronisation of body and mind, and control of our motivation-driving emotions. These factors reveal the fundamental currency of focus to be energy, rather than the amount of time spent on a task.
Our focus is also determined by our current determination of ‘self’, or which of the various life roles we are playing at any given moment. Harry the ‘determined worker’ will have different motivations, and therefore a different focus, than Harry the ‘caring parent’; this makes it important to ensure that our current role or mood is congruent with the specific outcomes we are trying to achieve.
The pinnacle of focus is often referred to today as ‘flow’. Flow is a state of being so completely engaged in an activity that one almost loses track of time and self. If you’ve ever experienced this feeling of being ‘in the zone’, perhaps during some creative pastime that you have a particular talent or passion for, you’ll understand why this kind of optimal focus is a worthwhile goal for our productivity and achievement.
Alas, it seems as though our modern world, despite a seemingly endless endeavour toward increased productivity, is built for anything but - at least on the individual level. Let’s explore some of the major elements that can inhibit us from being focused and productive.
Why do we lose focus?
Maintaining focus on a task requires a balance of the motivation and stimulation needed to mobilise the required energy and to effectively direct our attention.
However, there are a few main inhibitors that distort our ability to maintain concentration on our desired task. These can be categorised into distraction, fatigue, and stress.
Distractions can be anything that not only hinder our focus, but actually move it onto a new target, temporarily or otherwise. This may include interruptions from coworkers or computer devices, environmental factors such as noise or music, or even our own thoughts.
The second inhibitor, fatigue, stops us from focusing on the task at hand when the aforementioned energy levels are depleted. This can be the result of overworking, lack of sleep, working against our circadian rhythm, or even just when we have to complete boring or monotonous tasks.
The third area for disturbing our focus is stress. Any number of elements, including time pressure, relationships, conflicts, ambiguity about our goals, or a feeling of lacking control over our situation can disrupt our focus and decrease our efficacy.
As you can see, it seems like there are a lot of barriers stopping us from being laser-focused! Fear not, however, as next we’ll cover the amazing advantages of improving our ability to focus.
Benefits of boosting focus
Enhancing our focus allows us to increase our productivity and improve our performance. We combat the aforementioned focus ‘inhibitors’ by meeting the demands placed on us with the optimal amounts of planning, intent, effort, and feedback processing.
Another benefit of training our ability to focus is the positive effects on mental health. Being focused allows us to shut out negative emotions and unproductive patterns such as procrastination, activating the more creative and directed parts of the mind.
Finally, honing our ability to focus increases our satisfaction in completing tasks, work or otherwise. While we can’t necessarily control what we need to accomplish all the time, the how is certainly something we have agency over.
Before we cover that how, we’ll lay to rest some of the myths around multitasking, and how dealing with the seemingly endless requests asked of us each day affects our focus.
The multitasking mind
One look at the myriad of millennials somehow navigating the busy streets while nose-deep in their Instagram feeds should make it obvious that multitasking is everywhere.
The debate about multitasking is often misguided, in that it’s often a case for or against being able to do multiple tasks at once. However, the question isn’t whether the Uber driver can accept the next job while turning the radio up while negotiating traffic while asking how our day is - it’s whether he can do all that and notice the car backing out of the driveway up ahead.
The ability to multitask is not necessarily a bad thing; it allows us to complete various requirements simultaneously. When it comes to focus, however, attempting to multitask can create cognitive interference and lead to inefficiency and frustration.
When it comes to multitasking, we can put our tasks along a continuum between two categories: concurrent multitasking and sequential multitasking. Concurrent tasks are those that are able to be switched between nearly instantly, like manually transcribing a recorded dictation; sequential tasks take longer to switch between, for example writing a complicated proposal and getting through emails.
The takeaway: try to isolate the tasks with the highest cognitive load in order to maximise focus and increase efficiency, and multitask with less mentally demanding and lower priority items.
If you’ve made it this far, maybe you’re focus isn’t so bad after all! There’s always room for improvement though - so here’s 15 tips for focusing that you can use to take your concentration to the next level.
Top 15 focus fixers
1. Sweet music or sweeter silence?
While there is research out there showing that listening to music that the listener likes increases performance in certain tasks, playing music that workers strongly like actually has a negative effect on concentration. If music has to be playing, try genres without lyrics at a low volume to avoid getting distracted by the classics you just can’t help but sing along to.
2. Focus on the positive - not the pink elephant!
Trying to suppress unwanted thoughts might sound like a good plan, but it can actually backfire when trying to focus on cognitively demanding tasks. We’ve all experienced the ‘don’t think about a pink elephant’ phenomenon - trying not to think about something rarely works. Instead, concentrating on desirable thoughts maintains mental discipline and control, and improves persistence and performance.
3. Stretch it out
During longer work periods, it’s important to take regular short breaks - even just 30 seconds - to move and stretch our bodies. These micro breaks reduce pain and fatigue, and increase mental focus without extending work time.
4. Optimise your environment & eliminate distractions
There are many things in our work setting that we can use to create a space more conducive to focus. From air quality and flow, lighting, plant life, ergonomic furniture, to a comfortable temperature, make sure your space is set up the way that helps you perform best.
5. Improve your sleep hygiene
Our sleep quality and habits have a huge effect on our ability to focus when we need to. Tips for better sleep include eliminating any light or noise sources where possible, keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and avoiding screens before bed.
6. Focus foods
Elite athletes know that food is fuel - and that goes for the rest of us as well! To maximise performance and focus, it’s critical to give our bodies (and our brains) regular doses of good nutrition. Foods and supplements proven to improve cognitive function in elite students include blueberries, coffee, and creatine, in addition to a healthy diet.
Between meals, pop a stick of chewing gum; it too has been shown to enhance attention and promote work performance.
Exercise has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, decreasing anxiety and improving mood, self-esteem and cognitive function. Including regular exercise in your routine is a sure-fire way to increase concentration.
8. Take care of your mental health
The stresses of work, study, or even just life can get overwhelming. While most people are not formally trained in how to deal with this stress, it’s important to seek help if you find your focus at work being negatively affected.
9. Culture & community
Strive to get involved in (or create if you have to) a work culture that supports well-being and productive, focused work. Focusing while alone is one thing, but the ability to focus as a group, or even as an organisation, is the joint responsibility of everyone involved.
10. Start with WHY
Planning our tasks and setting clear goals are essential to maintaining focus on our projects. The ‘why’ of what you’re trying to accomplish needs to be strong enough to motivate and inspire you during times when maintaining focus becomes more difficult.
11. Change positions
Sitting all day is not healthy. Taking opportunities to regularly change your position or even things like getting up to walk while taking calls will accumulate to increase your energy expenditure and stimulate your brain to focus more effectively.
12. Meditate on it
Our focus is always directed toward a ‘goal’, be it a specific object or activity; it is not possible to focus on ‘nothing’. Meditation requires focus on a singular target, with different concentration techniques such as listening to breathing or nearby sounds; some meditations require ‘letting go’ of focus rather than ‘aiming’ it. Either way, it can develop a sense of clarity that will help when you get back to work.
13. Have a clean desk policy
Clutter in our workspace, digital and physical, eats into our field of attention and crowds our mental space. A clear space to work promotes creative thinking and stimulates focus.
14. Our eyes need to focus too!
The majority of our time spent on computers in the current work environment means we blink 75% less than normal. This in addition to spending the bulk of our time only looking 20 or 30 inches away from our faces at screens, means eye fatigue can be a real distraction. Make sure to look away from your screen regularly and vary your focus distance and lighting throughout the day.
15. Find your flow
Earlier we mentioned peak focus as achieving a state of ‘flow’. To achieve this state, develop an intense focus on the present moment, merge your actions with your awareness, and ensure you’ve set up an environment where you have a good sense of personal control over the activity.
We hope this article has helped give you some ideas for how to improve your focus and concentration and achieve your goals!