Improve Your Concentration

Achieving Focus Amid Distractions

Learn how to improve your concentration,
in this short video.

How many times have you sat at your desk and tried to focus on a task, only to find that your mind is wandering? Despite your best intentions, you just can't concentrate. We've all been in this familiar, frustrating situation, and it's something that can really undermine your performance.

In this article, we'll review strategies to improve your concentration and reduce your daily distractions.

Environment

Your personal work environment plays a large role in your ability to concentrate. The more comfortable and welcoming your environment is, the easier it will likely be for you to stay there and focus.

Here are some ideas for improving your physical environment:

  • Make sure you're comfortable – Start by ensuring that your chair and desk are at the right height for you to work comfortably. If your chair is too high or your desk is too low, you'll be uncomfortable, and you'll be tempted to use this as an excuse to get up and walk away.
  • Put up pictures – Viewing a natural scene or watching wildlife can help improve concentration. If you're able to put up pictures in your office or work area, then choose landscapes or natural images that you enjoy. This can help your focus, especially if you can see the pictures from your desk.
  • Shut out distractions   as much as possible – Listening to music can help, especially if it's instrumental music. Some people even use "white noise" apps – these produce a steady, non-distracting sound like ocean waves or falling rain. This steady background noise can drown out other noise, helping you focus better and ignore distractions.

Nutrition

Follow some simple nutritional tips:

  • Drink water – Many of us don't think about drinking water while we're at work, yet dehydration can make us feel tired, irritable, slow, or even sick. When our brains don't have enough fluid, they can't operate at peak performance. Staying hydrated is an easy way to help improve your concentration during the day.
  • Eat breakfast – Start your day with a healthy breakfast. It's much harder to concentrate when you're hungry, so eat a well-rounded meal before you go to work. You can also help your concentration throughout the day by keeping healthy snacks at your desk. Almonds, whole-grain crackers, fresh fruit, and vegetables are good choices.
  • Get up and move around – Do you walk around during the day? If you're like many people, you probably don't move around enough. Research has shown that regular walking can help increase your focus during the day.

Mindset

Constant distractions, and the low productivity that's associated with these distractions, have become so commonplace in today's offices that doctors have even given it a name: Attention Deficit Trait, or ADT. And, they say that entire organizations can suffer from it.

Follow some of these guidelines to help focus your mind:

  • Set aside time to deal with worries – Many of us have trouble concentrating during the day because we're constantly worrying about other things. It could be an approaching deadline for a project you haven't started, a new colleague who's causing problems, or just the amount of work on your desk. If you find yourself distracted by worries, then note these down so that you don't need to hold them in your mind. Then schedule time to deal with these issues.
  • Focus on one task at a time – It can be much harder to focus if you take minibreaks (15–30 seconds) to answer emails, send text messages, or take quick phone calls. Some researchers believe that it can take up to 15 minutes for us to regain complete focus after a distraction.
  • Close your email box and chat program – Let your voice mail do its job. If your office allows it, close your office door or put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign to let colleagues know you need to focus. (If you're a manager and you want to operate an open door policy, then consider working from home or from elsewhere for times when you need to focus.)
  • Switch between high- and low-attention tasks – This can give your brain a rest after heavy concentration. For instance, if you spend two hours working on your department's budget, you'll probably feel tired afterward. You can recharge your energy by working on a low-attention task, like filing, for 15 minutes before going back to your budget.
  • Prioritize – Having too much to do can be distracting, and this sometime causes procrastination. Or, you may quickly jump from task to task, creating the illusion of work – but in reality, you're not accomplishing very much. If you're not sure which tasks to start or which are most important, take 10 or 15 minutes to prioritize   your To-Do List  . Our article Overcoming Procrastination   can also help.

Limiting distractions allows you to get into the flow of your work – so you get more done. If you'd like to learn about improving your focus, read the articles In Flow   and Managing Interruptions  .

More Tips for Improving Your Concentration

  • Take short breaks – We can be masters at focusing, but eventually we're going to need a break. Our minds can struggle to focus intensely on tasks for eight hours a day. This is where it can be better to divide your work into one-hour segments, with a 5–10 minute break between tasks. This short break will allow your mind to rest before focusing again.
  • Do your hardest tasks when you're most alert – This will help you maximize your concentration. Do you want to learn how to schedule your tasks around your energy levels? Read our article Is This a Morning Task?  
  • Use a phone headset – If you have a headset for your phone, consider using it for a few hours each day. If your colleagues think you're on the phone, they're less likely to interrupt you.
  • Promise yourself a reward – For instance, make a rule that if you focus intensively for 45 minutes on one task, you can take a break to get a cup of coffee when you're done. Little "self-rewards" can often be great motivators.
  • Schedule email downloads – It can be tremendously distracting to have emails pinging into your inbox every few minutes – you're tempted to stop what you're doing, and answer them right away. If you can, schedule your email to download only a few times each day, and deal with all of your emails in one go.

Key Points

Sitting down to focus on one task can be difficult, especially when you're constantly interrupted.

To help increase your focus, start with a good breakfast, and drink plenty of water throughout the day. Don't multitask, close your door, and listen to music if it helps you concentrate.

Although it may sound somewhat counter-intuitive, taking short, regular breaks throughout the day can also help you focus.

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Comments (18)
  • MichaelP wrote This week
    Joe, thank you for sharing your view. I am happy not to be a slave and at the same timeI enjoy trying different approaches. We all have to find the one that works best for us. I do agree with you that the power of the human mind is amazing.
  • Joe wrote This week
    Too much soft beating around the bush techniques here. Just sit and FORCE yourself as if you were a slave and had no other choice. You'd be surprised what the human mind and body are capable of achieving when pushed to the extreme! It becomes much easier after a while.
  • Diksha wrote This week
    Thanks for this nice article. Though, I would suggest that the best way would also making use of some nice time tracking app that could help better in focusing yourself at one task at a time.

    There are various such nice to use apps like Toggl and Harvest etc. though I like and use Replicon time management software - it has indeed helped me a lot and in turn has been made things efficient, simpler and faster at work.
  • Yolande wrote This month
    Thanks for your comment liloleme :-)
  • liloleme wrote This month
    would help my concentration on this article if I didn't have popups interrupting me while I'm reading! :)
  • RJon wrote This month
    Sarah.P I couldn't agree more! However, I have to say that although mindset is very, very important as this article shows, you're mindset will be greatly determined by your sleep and diet. Being properly slept and nourished can create that drive to be productive.
  • Sarah.P wrote Over a month ago
    Hello all,

    The ability to concentrate is a key skill if you want to get any meaningful work done.

    Learn how to focus on your work, with this week's Featured Favorite article.

    Best wishes
    Sarah
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Michel,
    I so agree with you about taking breaks being counter-intuitive in today's culture! It's worth trying (or a variation of it) just to force oneself to stop working very regularly and consciously, because in today's culture this is totally counter-intuitive. So many of us are driven to do more, and more and more ... yet we are driving ourselves to the ground. And, we are driving ourselves into actually being less productive, efficient and effective. The idea of 'less is more' is a good thing to aspire to, and part of that is actually taking breaks to 'recharge / refuel' before refocusing once again!

    We've previously had a discussion here about taking breaks, and the Pomodoro Technique - viewtopic.php?f=2&t=5180&hilit=Pomodoro&start=15 - and thought you might be interested in taking a look.

    This is something I coach athletes on which is very counter-intuitive in that I encourage them to relax to improve their physical performances. By relaxing, this allows the body (and the mind) to be more fluid, flexible and do what they have trained it to do ... without having to force anything. The tighter and tenser they are, the less effective they perform. Same goes in the workplace with a mental performance!

    The down-time of breaks, not just a quick switch off before getting back to things, allows the body the rest it needs to refuel (physically, mentally, emotionally and even spiritually).

    Yet, the key is finding out what works for you and what your ideal performance times are, and your down times are!

    What do you think?
    Midgie
  • Elessar wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Midgie,
    I definitely agree with your suggestion of regularly getting up and drinking a glass of water or something similar. But in the sense of an actual break (not just 30 seconds) to help your brain disconnect. I also still think 60-90 minutes is way too much for most people. You're right in saying that it can vary, but even if you manage to stay entirely focused on one task for that much time, you won't be productive for such a long time. Therefore a 3-5 minute break every 30 minutes would easily be compensated by a higher productivity after the break. And when I do that, I feel less tired. The Pomodoro technique will certainly not fit everyone's needs, but I feel that it's worth trying (or a variation of it) just to force oneself to stop working very regularly and consciously, because in today's culture this is totally counter-intuitive.

    Michel
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Michel,
    Welcome to the Forums and glad you jumped in with your comments about focus, concentration and productivity.

    I was just the other day having a conversation with someone about improving focus/concentration and their overall effectiveness. We also talked about the benefits of breaks.

    I agree with your comments that managers could benefit from shifting their views about simply being present at one's desk versus actually completing work. I know for myself there are times when I am in the 'flow' of things and really focused and get through work quickly. Yet, other times when I'm less focused or when I'm tired and unmotivated, work seems to take forever!

    I believe the idea of getting up from your desk to 'break the focus' such as going to get a glass of water helps to shift concentration. So, when you get back to work, you can get back on track and refocused. Studies have shown that prolonged periods of study (eg students studying for exams) that their performance actually decreases with time.

    Yet, it does become an individual thing as to what works for some people. The Pomodoro technique of 25 minute chunks may work for some people whereas 60 minutes works for others.

    Irrespective of the length of time you can concentrate for, the key is to take regular breaks to shift your focus so that you come back refreshed and ready to focus again. Much like an athlete needs recovery time after hard exercise before they go again, so do us 'corporate athletes'!

    What sorts of things do you do when you take a break to refuel and replenish so you can concentrate again. What kinds of strategies do you use to help improve your concentration?

    It will be great to chat more on this topic, and I hope to see you around other discussions with comments and questions.

    Please do let me know if there is anything I can help you with.

    Midgie
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