We all have those days when we convince ourselves that we aren’t as productive as we should be. Maybe it’s because you compare yourself to others or have fallen off the productivity rails. Regardless of the cause, we might hit the panic switch and frantically embrace new systems and processes.

In reality? The root of the problem could be much simpler. You lack focus.

Improve Your Focus, Improve Your Productivity

Just how important is focus? Well, Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, says that the is a link between attention and excellence. He also writes that “full focus gives us a potential doorway into the flow.”

With that being said, if you’re having difficulty focusing, here are proven ways to improve your focus. And, when you do, you’ll improve your productivity.

Get 1% better.

“One percent doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a huge difference when it comes to developing solid habits,” writes Choncé Maddox in a previous Calendar article. James Clear discusses this in his Atomic Habits by sharing the theory that “habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”

Committing to change, 1% at a time, is more manageable than setting lofty and unrealistic goals. That small change also “adds up over time and makes it easier to make a 2% or 5% change.” Eventually, “your habits are worked into your daily lifestyle and you start to get the results you’ve always wanted,” adds Choncé.

“It’s not about the goal so much but the systems you put in place for long-term results,” she says. “The small atomic habits you develop will build on each other and compound your results over time.” Come to think of it, “this is the only way people get things done and reach certain levels of success.”

To get started, focus on the following atomic habits;

  • Wake up an hour earlier each day by setting your 15-minutes earlier each day until you’ve reached this goal.
  • Physical activity will increase your energy and focus. Add 30-minutes of any type of exercise into your schedule each day. If possible, go for a walk or bike ride as spending time in nature has been found to improve concentration and productivity.
  • Set aside a tv-free night per week. Besides reducing screen time, you can use this downtime more productively.
  • Name your one thing and create a system. “If you usually feel a bit scatterbrained and like you’re often juggling a million things to do each day, start naming your one thing,” advises Choncé. “Choose your one primary focus for the day that you must do. You may want to choose one thing in each area of your life, or just keep it simple with a single task.

Live in the moment.

“It’s tough to stay mentally focused when you are ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or tuned out of the present moment for some other reason,” writes Kendra Cherry, MS, over at VeryWell Mind.

“You have probably heard people talk about the importance of ‘being present,’” continues Cherry. “It’s all about putting away distractions, whether they are physical (your mobile phone) or psychological (your anxieties) and being fully mentally engaged in the current moment.”

Additionally, “being present is also essential for recapturing your mental focus,” she adds. “Staying engaged in the here and now keeps your attention sharp and your mental resources honed in on the details that really matter at a specific point in time.”

Can you do this overnight? No. It’s going to take time and practice. Just remember that you can’t “change the past and the future has not happened yet, but what you do today can help you avoid repeating past mistakes and pave a path for a more successful future.”

Practice pre-commitment.

What exactly is pre-commitment? Author, lawyer, and entrepreneur Marelisa Fabrega describes this as deciding what task you’ll be working on ahead of time. You also should determine the duration as well.

“Once you’ve decided on the task you’re going to be working on—that is, once you’ve identified your mission–, write it down on a piece of paper, an index card, or a post-it note,” states Fabrega.

An example of this would be knowing that you need to write a new blog post for your site. You then dedicate 25-minutes to this activity. Write that down and set a timer for 25-minutes. During that timeframe, that is the only thing you should be focused on.

Impose time limits for distractions.

When it comes to reducing distractions, you know the drill.

Put your phone on ‘do not disturb.’. Close the door. Wear headphones.

Despite your best efforts, though, you will get distracted. They’re unavoidable. But, how can you handle this predicament?

One technique is to allow “distraction time.” For instance, before diving into your work for the day, scroll through social media to avoid FOMO. The key is to set time restraints so that you don’t waste too much time on this unproductive activity.

Travel back to 1918.

Declining attention spans isn’t exactly a modern concern. Back in 1918, Theron Q. Dumont published a book called The Power of Concentration. It contained several concentration exercises that could build up attention span.

While some of these workouts might seem goofy, they are effective. And, it gives you a chance to temporarily disconnect from the distracting world around us.

  • Sit still in a chair for 15-minutes.
  • Fix gaze on your fingers. “Raise your right arm until it is on the level with your shoulder, pointing to your right,” explains Brett and Kate McCay. “Look around, with the head only, and fix your gaze on your fingers, and keep the arm perfectly still for one minute. Do the same exercise with your left arm.”
  • Spend 5-minutes concentrating only on opening and closing your fists.
  • Lay down, relax your muscles, and concentrate on the beating of your heart.
  • “Follow the second hand with your eyes as it goes around,” the McCay’s write. “Keep this up for five minutes, thinking of nothing else but the second hand.”

Get your game on.

When it comes to brain training games, it can get murky and complicated. There is research, though, that shows that games like Sudoku and crossword puzzles can improve short-term memory, concentration, response time, and logic skills.

Even video games, such as Peak and Brain Age Concentration Training, can sharpen cognitive functions.

“The goal of playing these games is not to get better at them, but to get better in the cognitive activities of everyday life,” says Kim Willment, a neuropsychologist with Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “But there is evidence that a person’s ability to pay attention can be improved by progressively pushing the person to higher levels of performance. So if you reach a certain level of sustained attention, pushing it to the next level can help improve it, and this may translate to everyday life.”

Practice asynchronous communication.

What happens when you receive a message, like an email, text, or Slack notification? Some of us might stop in our tracks and respond. Productive individuals, however, tell themselves that they’ll get to it when they can.

“Aside from the benefit of giving people more time for uninterrupted focus, asynchronous communication predisposes people to better decision-making by increasing the amount of time we have to respond to a request,” notes Steve Glaveski, CEO and co-founder of Collective Campus. “When you’re on a phone call or video chat, you’re making real-time decisions, whereas if you’re communicating via email, you have more time to think about your response.”

How can you practice this successfully? “We must do away with the arbitrary ‘urgency’ that still plagues workplaces the world over,” states Glaveski. And, one of the most effective strategies to fight back against this urgency bias is through the “Eisenhower Principle.”

It’s a simple way to prioritize your workload and time by differentiating between the urgent and important. Eisenhower, quoting Dr. J. Roscoe Miller, president of Northwestern University, elaborated on this by saying, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

“To optimize an asynchronous message and to avoid a lot of follow-up emails, include the following in your initial request,” recommends Glaveski:

  • Sufficient details
  • Clear action item(s)
  • A due date
  • A path of recourse if the recipient is unable to meet your requirements

Reduce the chaos of your day.

There’s a Radiohead song called “Just” with the following line, “You do it to yourself, you do

And that’s what really hurts.” And, I think that is apropos when it comes to improving your focus.

For example, if you have an exhaustive 20 item to-do-list, how will you be able to zone in on the two or three most important tasks for the day? If your workspace is too cluttered, you’re going to be too distracted to work. And, if you scheduled a virtual meeting at the same time contractors are working in your home, will you actually be an engaged participant?

I don’t want to stroll in on my high-horse here. But, we have a tendency to get in our own way. So, try to reduce the chaos around by using common sense and foresight.

Concentrate on what you can do, not what you can’t.

Anthony J. D’Angelo once said, “Focus 90% of your time on solutions and only 10% of your time on problems.” I like that.

Many times we make excuses to let distractions sneak in. There’s construction on your street? Well, it’s too noisy to concentrate, right? That may be true, but you could put on a pair of noise-canceling headphones or work in a more quiet location.

Stuck on a difficult task? Break it down into smaller pieces and just get started by tackling the easiest parts first. Waiting for a colleague to respond to an email or complete their portion of a project? Keep chipping away at your responsibilities in the meantime.

Image Credit: bahaa a. shawqi; pexels; thank you!