With multiple top priorities on your plate, it’s hard to focus. When your brain is frazzled, it’s even harder.
But there are a few smart ways to refocus quickly and get yourself back on track. All of us have moments when we are distracted by our thoughts or procrastination takes over. However, taking that first step can often help you clear your mind and regain your focus.
1. Start STOPping.
It may seem like a small price to pay for a distracted life — a subtle misunderstanding or missing a joke, for example. Over time, however, these lapses of attention can become increasingly detrimental. And, even potentially fatal, says Amishi Jha, director of contemplative neuroscience and professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day.
It is especially true for military personnel and first responders among the populations Jha studies. Jha says that even the smallest mistakes can feel damaging, even when they’re not potentially fatal.
“When our reputation, sense of justice, sense of purpose, or ethical code get violated, it feels very consequential,” says Jha.
The goal of Jha’s twenty-year research is to help people cut through the noise, find the signal and avoid lapses in attention. In high-stress situations, Jha discovered that mindfulness training can increase focus in a wide variety of populations.
According to Jha, mindfulness is “a mental mode characterized by attention to present-moment experience without judgment, elaboration, or emotional reactivity.” Meditation also involves breathing and focus exercises.
Also, people who practice mindfulness report improvements in their self-reported resilience, working memory, mood, focus, and mind wandering in a variety of experimental contexts. Furthermore, it can ease chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and stress.
Here’s the best part. You don’t need any special equipment.
“Right now, this very ancient practice is being brought into the modern world,” Jha explains. “It’s low cost, low tech; you don’t need special equipment. You just need your own mind.”
Remember the mindfulness strategy Jha suggests — and deploy the Start STOPping technique.
As you go about your day, use environment cues such as a stoplight, a grocery line, or an elevator to show up mindfully.
S: If you’re physically stopped — try to mentally stop as well.
- Take a breath. Become aware of your breath by focusing on the sensory experience.
O: Observe. Be aware of yourself and the world around you.
P: Proceed. Keep moving forward.
2. Power through the distraction.
You should force yourself to stay focused on the task at hand despite distractions for five minutes. During this time, you might struggle to produce quality work — especially if your concentration level is low. However, the key is not to automatically succumb to distractions.
Keep doing this whenever your focus begins to slip. Why? The more you practice, the easier it will be to remain focused. As your mental endurance grows, you’ll be able to focus for longer periods of time.
Why does this work? In short, this helps you build momentum, explains Max Palmer in a previous Calendar article.
The first explanation is based on physics. In particular, we’re discussing Newton’s first law of motion. The first law of motion states that “a body at rest remains at rest, or, if in motion, remains in motion at a constant velocity unless acted on by an external force.”
If that seems a bit far-fetched, let’s discuss psychology. There’s a phenomenon called the Zeigarnek Effect. According to psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, incomplete tasks are remembered by the brain more than completed ones. Until the task is over and done, we cannot think about anything else.
According to legend, Hemingway would stop writing mid-sentence, forcing him to finish where he had stopped. In other words, even if you start working on a project for two minutes, it will remain in your mind until it has been delivered, signed, and sealed.
Let me add one more thing. Working is less painful than procrastinating. Suppose you’re dreading a workout regimen or work-related task. Once you settle in, it’s actually not so bad. In other words, psyching yourself out made you feel worse.
3. Do nothing for two minutes.
The fact that you have multiple tasks on your plate may drive you to finish them as soon as possible. The problem with that? There’s a greater chance of making mistakes or getting distracted.
Taking a few minutes to sit at your desk and do nothing works extremely well to increase your productivity and reduce the chances of making mistakes. What’s more, you should take a break if you notice symptoms like daydreaming or drifting after a prolonged period of work.
Donothingfor2minutes invites you just to relax and listen to waves for two minutes. The only rule? Don’t touch your mouse or keyboard for two minutes.
For those who need more than two minutes to relax from their busy schedules, Calm.com offers a 10-minute version of doing nothing.
4. Control your self-talk.
According to Cecille Ahrens, a psychotherapist, and owner of Transcend Therapy in San Diego, it’s essential to be aware of your self-talk, including “the things we tell ourselves [and] the unchecked stories we have in our heads.”
Her recommendation is to learn how to control how you talk to yourself so that you do not spiral into worry.
“If you find yourself saying or thinking ‘I’m never going to finish this,’ see if you can replace it with a more supportive statement like ’I am doing my best, one day at a time,” she said.
Basically, you should ask yourself if what you’re saying to yourself is true. And, more importantly, do not let those false statements control your attitude at work. You’ll waste energy worrying about what’s ahead if that happens, and you’ll wander from your task list.
“The idea is not to let untrue statements rule your day,” Ahrens said. And certainly, you don’t have the bandwidth to let negative self-talk run unchecked inside your head.
5. Adopt the 5×5 rule.
This rule is based on a pretty simple concept. Don’t spend more than five minutes obsessing over something that won’t matter five years from now. In theory, it sounds easy. Unfortunately, in reality, it’s easy to get distracted by little things that don’t matter in the long run.
Having someone make a snide remark about your outfit can haunt you for weeks. A past mistake can haunt you, like a public fall, and can play over and over in your head.
This rule, however, isn’t just applicable to your day-to-day life. In the workplace, it can be quite useful as well. This is especially true in office settings since it allows you to be more efficient and professional.
Imagine that you and a coworker have a minor disagreement about how to complete a particular portion of your project together. When the outcome isn’t affected by which route you choose and both options are equally effective, deciding which method to use isn’t worth much time. Moreover, this spat isn’t worth distracting you from your other priorities.
In this example, you both increase your productivity by limiting unnecessary conversation. By doing this, you can get to work and avoid a potential disagreement with your teammate, which could result in resentment and hinder collaboration. When faced with situations such as this, the 5-by-5 rule proves priceless.
The next time you can’t seem to relax, focus on breathing and ask yourself, “Will this issue/problem matter five years from now?” If it won’t, don’t let it distract you. Rather than stressing about it, take five minutes to tell yourself that it won’t matter five years from now.
6. Engage in ART.
“In 1989, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan proposed a theory called attention restoration theory (ART) that explains why many of us experience cognitive (mental) fatigue and how ‘green experiences’ can help us restore our cognitive functioning,” writes Shawn M. Burn, Ph.D. for Psychology Today.
Modern life requires what ART refers to as directed attention or voluntary attention. As we do many things, we need to concentrate, focus, and block out “task-irrelevant stimuli.”
The central executive manages concentration and focus. In psychology, executive functions are the brain’s attention and decision-making abilities.
“For instance, smartphone users must tune out the siren song of texts and social media and/or streaming entertainment media when working or learning,” explains Dr. Burn. “Likewise, noisy open office spaces or school settings and working or learning from home typically require lots of directed attention.” Finding a place to live, resolving legal issues, and sorting out information require concentration and focus.
Using a smartphone to send texts, read, watch videos, or listen to music while others are present or there is background noise or distractions requires attention. The majority of people live in urban environments, and ART theorists believe they are particularly susceptible to directed attentional fatigue (DAF).
Nature (Green) Experiences Counter DAF
ART also suggests that, in addition to soft fascination, “natural environments are also restorative because they often give us a sense of being away, says Dr. Burn. Environments like this give us the feeling of taking a break from the routines and responsibilities of daily life.
“Extent is another quality of natural environments that have restorative properties.” According to Richard Kaplan, it refers to an environment that is “rich enough and coherent enough to constitute another world.” As a result, our minds are engaged, taking up space normally occupied by everyday concerns. ·
It is also important for an environment to be a good fit for the person in order for it to be restorative. “In other words, it offers them the opportunity to do things they like or have an experience they like.” Compatibility describes this kind of environment.
Maximize the Restorative Effects of Your Green Experience
Taking a short break in a natural setting can help you regain your focus and attention. Make your green experience as restorative as possible by:
- Avoid using your smartphones unless you need to take a few photos.
- While in nature, engage in minimal conversation.
- “Thought-stopping.” Tell yourself, “Stop, I’ll think about that later.” or set aside time to problem-solve so you don’t prevent restoration.
- Discovering places in your community or nearby your workplace that provide a variety of services. An example is soft fascination, like watching a sunset or watching the clouds roll in.
7. Get to the root cause.
Whenever you’re having trouble concentrating, take a timeout and identify the cause. I know you’re bombarded with distractions. Would you be able to tune them out if you tried?
The problem could be caused by a number of factors. A few common reasons include having too much on your plate, avoiding difficult tasks, or not being interested in what you do.
After you identify the root cause of your problem, figure out how you can solve it or remain motivated despite it. Maybe organizing your desk or making a to-do list will help calm your nerves if you are overwhelmed by work. Feeling bored? Encourage yourself by considering the ultimate goal or purpose of your work.
You can avoid falling back into distractions over and over again by understanding why and making a change — either to your mindset or physical environment.
8. Eat an apple a day.
International scientists have hypothesized that mammals’ brain structure and function might be shaped by diet. Their study examined whether bioactive factors (natural compounds) found in apples affect hippocampal neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells) in adult mice.
It was found that high concentrations of phytonutrients found in apples could boost brain function (learning and memory) by stimulating neurogenesis, according to a study led by Tara Louise Walker of the University of Queensland and Gerd Kempermann of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases.
Plants contain phytonutrients, which are chemical compounds that affect the body, including the brain, in a positive way. Some phytonutrients such as epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) in green tea and resveratrol in red grapes’ skin may reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes as we age.
According to researchers, the flavonol quercetin and 3,5-dihydroxybenzoic acid in apple flesh are responsible for the effect. In this study, stem cells were grown from adult mouse brains in the lab. The cell cultures were supplemented with phytonutrients commonly found in apples. When exposed to quercetin or dihydroxy benzoic acid (DHBA), brain cells were protected from death and generated more neurons.
In further experiments, mice were given high doses of quercetin or DHBA, and their stem cells multiplied and produced more neurons in memory and learning structures. Physiological exercise, a known neurogenesis stimulant, produced similar effects.
What is this study’s takeaway? High concentrations of natural compounds in the fruit, including quercetin and DHBA, may improve brain function. It is still unknown whether phytonutrients can enhance learning and cognitive function, however.
9. Become a lion tamer.
Among his most popular blog posts, productivity and creativity expert James Clear compares focusing to taming lions. Clear points out that “The classic image of a lion tamer is one of an entertainer holding a whip and a chair. The whip gets all of the attention, but it’s mostly for show.”
“In reality, it’s the chair that does the important work,” he adds. “When a lion tamer holds a chair in front of the lion’s face, the lion tries to focus on all four legs of the chair at the same time.” As a result, the lion becomes confused and unsure of what to do. “When faced with so many options, the lion chooses to freeze and wait instead of attacking the man holding the chair.”
If there are too many options, we can relate to the confused and frazzled lion. Continuing, Clear explains, “Anytime you find the world waving a chair in your face, remember this: all you need to do is commit to one thing.”
How can you make this easier? It may be helpful to remove distractions such as your mobile phone, email notifications, and text messages. By doing this, you provide yourself with a chance to focus for set periods of time.
Using the Pomodoro technique, you can accomplish the above. To begin, clear your work area of distractions and get comfortable. After you have set a timer for 25 minutes, concentrate as hard as you can on the task at hand for the entire period. Just as in meditation, if your mind wanders, stop and return to the task at hand. After the time has expired, take a break. During the day, you can do as many 25-minute blocks as you wish.
10. Practice the 3-2-1 technique.
In any context, professional or personal, this technique can be effective for grounding. If you find that your focus is slipping or you are tempted to stop paying attention, ask yourself:
- Currently, what are three things that I see? In the workplace, it might be your computer, desk, or coffee cup.
- What are the two things I’ve done recently? Using this method, you will be able to refocus on where you are in terms of completing the task. You might reply, “I responded to a Slack message and cleaned my desktop,” if you are preparing your child’s lunch.
- For my task to be accomplished, what should I focus on? Or, “What’s important now?” (or WIN).
Image Credit: Kelvin Valerio; Pexels; Thank you!
John’s goal in life is to make people’s lives much more productive. Upping productivity allows us to spend more time doing the things we enjoy most. John was recently recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine as being one of the top marketers in the World. John is co-founder and CEO of Calendar.