According to The Wall Street Journal, the average person gets interrupted every 11 minutes while working, and it takes them 25 minutes to totally get back into the original task. Yikes!
Whether you’re working from home or in an office, you’re probably nodding your head; that’s a pretty accurate representation of the daily struggle of working while having a million other things on your mind. However, if you want to improve on focus and productivity, there are several scientifically proven ways to do so that are easy to implement and sustain. Here are six.
1. Meditate regularly
When scientist Giuseppi Pagnoni compared the MRI brain scans of a group who had meditated regularly over the course of 12 years to a control group of volunteers with no background in meditation, he found stark differences. Although all participants were of similar ages and educational backgrounds, the meditators had more stable ventral posteromedial cortices (vPMCs), which is the area of the brain connected to the production of spontaneous, distracting thoughts. Using an information processing test, he found the meditators could answer faster and more accurately. He concluded that meditation helps people control their wandering minds, and time and time again this has been shown to be true. If you’re new to meditation, don’t be intimidated! It can be as easy as finding a quiet spot to sit and monitoring your breathing for a few minutes. You’ll feel refreshed, more at ease, and ready to tackle the tasks of the day ahead with laser-focus.
2. Get plenty of exercise
According to Dr. John Ratey, the author of Spark - The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, your focus is enhanced for two to three hours after you exercise. In part, this is because exercise helps with mindfulness and gives you time to check in with yourself. However, it also stimulates the process of neurogenesis, or the birth of new brain cells, and enhances the ability of the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to avoid distractions. Whether it’s by taking a break for a 30-minute power walk around the neighborhood or doing a few HIIT workouts on YouTube, exercise should definitely be incorporated into your everyday life. It has tons of short- and long-term benefits and is guaranteed to get all your jitters out, helping you to focus on work once you’re done.
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3. Declutter your workspace
Studies show that when there are too many visual stimuli in your workspace, you’re more likely to lose focus when trying to stick to one task. For example, if there is a stack of folders or an assortment of colorful Post-it Notes on your desk, you’re going to be subconsciously drawn to fiddling with them as the day goes on. This is because ignoring these things requires the brain to expend energy—the same amount of energy it takes to focus. Take a few hours to get rid of things you never use or that take up too much space. Focus on tidying up your immediate workspace first. Keep it as simple as possible to minimize your distractions and maximize your productivity.
4. Periodically take breaks
If you’ve ever walked away from a frustrating problem for a while and come back with fresh insight on how to solve it, science is on your side. According to a study by DeskTime, “the most productive people work for 52 minutes, then break for 17 minutes. The 52 minutes should be totally dedicated to making progress on your tasks, and the 17 minutes dedicated to rest.” This is different from the more popular pomodoro technique (25 minutes of work and five minutes of break) but has been shown to be more effective. Since working for sustained periods of time can lead to cognitive boredom and negatively impact your attention span, timed breaks are important to your overall focus. Spend your breaks doing something you enjoy, whether it’s hanging out with your pets, taking a walk, or grabbing a snack.
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5. Chew gum
While it’s probably a bad idea to chew gum during a meeting or presentation, keep it on hand for days when you’re working alone at your desk or at home and just can’t seem to stay focused. In a study conducted by The British Journal of Psychology, 38 participants were split into two groups and given a 30-minute audio task to complete. The first group chewed gum during the task, while the second didn’t. Strangely enough, the gum chewers had faster reaction times and answered the task’s questions more accurately than their non-gum chewing counterparts. This suggests that chewing gum plays a strong role in getting us focused and maintaining our concentration. It’s likely the first 20-minutes of gum chewing is most effective.
6. Listen to classical music
Ever heard of The Mozart Effect? It’s the long-standing belief that classical music stimulates brain activity, and research continues to support it. Not only does classical music improve performance on cognitive tasks, it also prevents sidetracking from stress and thoughts unrelated to work. While pop, jazz, and EDM can divert your brain’s attention by exciting you, classical music helps you to relax and is conducive to faster, more productive working. Blast Mozart before your next stressful assignment and you’re guaranteed better results.
7. Get a good night’s sleep
According to Dr. Lawrence Epstein, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, “poor sleep has an adverse impact on thinking.” It can cause a rapid decline in one's concentration, reaction time, and ability to respond to environmental signals. Getting seven to eight hours of sleep every night not only improves your overall health and wellbeing, but it also enhances your brain’s “executive functions,” including memory, mental flexibility, and self-control, all of which are imperative to high performance at work. Working women today have to juggle professional and familial responsibilities like never before, which means sleep length and quality are probably in need of improvement. Try any relaxation tactic such as deep breathing or even counting sheep to fall asleep faster and improve your focus the next day.
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