Updated: Jul 14, 2019
Do you find that you're struggling to stay focused? Does your mind wander?
It happens to all of us, but if we understand a little more about attention, we can have more control, and focus better and for longer.
First things first, what is attention?
Attention is a function of the brain that highlights a section of your mind’s processing at a given time: it selects a part of your mind’s workspace and makes it conscious to you, so that you can work on it.
Attention, and being able to deliberately direct it to a task and keep it there, is therefore essential to being able to complete the task. Distractions that pull your attention from your task are one of the biggest obstacles to productivity today.
What happens if more than one thing needs our attention?
Recently the University of California conducted a survey and found that we are bombarded with about twice as much information in a day than we were 30 years ago. They found that office workers were interrupted on average every three minutes, and that they were often attending to two or more tasks at any one time.
As members of the digital generation, we tend to think of constant distractions and interruptions as normal. Generally we deal with it by multitasking to get things done: we listen to a coworker debrief us about the meeting while also scanning our inbox, while perhaps also drinking our coffee. We may feel like this means we’re getting a lot done.
Many people believe that they are able to effectively multitask, but the research suggests that this is not so. In reality, flitting between tasks or trying to do more than one thing at a time scatters attention and stretches concentration very thin across all the tasks, overall reducing the worker’s effectiveness and decreasing productivity. Research by psychologist Dr Glenn Wilson found that workers who were constantly distracted by phone calls and emails experienced a 10% drop in their IQ, and were therefore more likely to make mistakes or simply perform less well than they could if they were focused.
It's a simple process to discipline the brain, and use techniques to increase concentration focus and span, but the effects of that effort on our productivity can be massive.
So what can we do to increase our concentration?
One task at a time: The best work is done when your attention is undivided, so the first tip for improving focus is to only attempt to concentrate on one task at a time. Also try to take a moment between tasks to allow you to fully switch your attention from one to the other.
Do what you can to eliminate distractions if possible: let people know that you need to concentrate for half an hour so they will not talk to you; minimise noise, including music; put your phone on silent; check out of social media; clear a space in your desk; and get as physically comfortable as possible.
One way that we can get distracted is when we are trying to mentally keep track of tasks we need to do later. You might be working on your emails, but at the same time be keeping the times of your child’s various clubs that week in the back of your mind. Even when you’re not consciously focusing on them, these ‘back of your mind’ thoughts detract from your attention. Before you sit down to the task at hand, make a list of everything you need to remember, to clear your mind and be able focus fully on your present task.
De-stress: Stress is actually a major obstacle to good concentration, as when the body is stressed it goes into a fight-or-flight response, and distractibility increases, which is not conducive to focused thought.
If you’re feeling stressed, you can focus better if you do something to minimise your fight-or-flight response. For example, we can do this with your breathing: breathe in for five, hold for five, and out for five, and do this for a few minutes, until you feel your heart rate slow down and you feel your mind clear. Getting regular exercise can also minimise stress and improve your concentration.
Hunger can have a similar effect to stress, because when your blood sugar is low, adrenaline kicks in and mimics stress. You can avoid this by making sure you eat a breakfast that combines proteins with carbohydrates, which will stabilise blood sugars. Also make sure to drink plenty of water as dehydration diminishes concentration.
Do the right thing at the right time: Another thing you can do to improve your attention is to work in timed slots that are regularly interspersed with breaks. Research suggests that people are only able to effectively concentrate on a task for about 60 minutes, and that after that time it becomes very difficult to maintain attention, unless you take regular breaks.
When it comes to creativity, the mode of our brain that resets our brain when it has got overstressed or to an impasse and is responsible for most of our creativity is the ‘daydreaming mode’, so one of the best things we can do to work creatively is do things that put us in the daydreaming mode every couple of hours or so. You do it by listening to music, taking a nap, looking out the window, or walking in nature.
Another element of timing is to fit it into your body’s natural daily cycles. Most of us reach peak alertness at 10am, coordination is best at 2pm, reaction times are fastest around 3pm and muscle strength climaxes at 5pm. Deepest sleep occurs around 2am so make sure you're tucked up well before then for maximum focus the next day.
Practice, practice, practice: The final point to remember about concentration is that it is a plastic skill, and so it can be improved with practice. If you feel your attention drifting from your task, and you’re tempted to stop, just do a couple more minutes/pages/emails before you do. Just as athletes build up their stamina, you can build up your focus by pushing past the point of frustration.
Meditation: Another technique that can increase your stamina is to learn to meditate. Studies have shown that even ten minutes a day can reduce stress and increase your concentration.
I hope that these tips will help you increase your attention capacity and gain control over your focusing power.