In this article, we will tackle the hurdle: staying focused. This can be a surprisingly difficult part of the journey. Even after you put all that effort into feeling motivated and getting started, it’s still easy to get distracted from your target.
Certain people are more prone to distractibility than others, so let’s start with a review of what makes focus an issue for certain people, and then launch into evidence-based strategies for improving focus.
Problems With Attention and Focus
Like many jobs, Grace’s job involved a lot of boring, tedious documentation. And it was incredibly difficult for her to stay focused. At any given moment, she’d have 18 tabs open on her web browser, all representing single moments of curiosity that accumulated into hours of lost productivity.
The documentation that should have taken her about an hour of dedicated focus per day ended up taking over much of her life. And the more time she spent trying to complete her paperwork, the more fatigued she became and the harder it was to focus. It was a vicious cycle.
To simplify a very complex issue, attention is your ability to concentrate on one thing (a thought, a task, a sensation, etc.) while you ignore everything else you could be concentrating on at the same time.
Difficulty concentrating is a symptom of nearly all mental health conditions. The brain changes that occur when people are depressed or anxious, for example, interfere with their ability to focus their attention, making things like reading a book, having a conversation with a friend, or even watching a television show is much more difficult.
But problems with attention and focus are especially problematic for people who have ADHD. ADHD can cause people to be forgetful, lose things, and get distracted or sidetracked easily—all of which make sustaining focus very difficult.
Though problems with attention, concentration, and focus are brain-based, that doesn’t mean they’re permanent or that they can only be changed with medication. Just as biceps curls can strengthen your arm muscles, stimulating the part of your brain involved in focus helps strengthen that area.
Even for people with mental health conditions, including ADHD, focus can be practised and improved. But, of course, you can’t do just one biceps curl every now and then and expect to get stronger—repetition and progressively increasing the challenge are important components of building strength.
The same is true for building focus. It’s important to challenge yourself to focus, do it repeatedly, and push yourself over time to increase the duration and intensity.
As a focus quote says, “The effectiveness of work increases according to geometrical progression if there are no interruptions.”
How To Stay Focused
This article introduces strategies to get and stay focused. These techniques are designed to help you find when you’re best able to focus, learn how to stay engaged with a task longer so you have the opportunity to exercise your brain and build your ability to increase your focus over time.
Before we begin, though, the most important component of focus is a solid foundation of physical health. Fatigue, hunger, and malnutrition all interfere with your ability to focus, so be sure to get enough sleep, exercise, and healthy food to set your brain up for success. Then, try these interventions to build your focus.
1. Know Your Prime Time To Focus
Your ability to focus varies on a 24-hour cycle called your circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm affects a huge number of biological processes, including sleep, appetite, and body temperature. Your attention is also on that list. For most people, attention is poorest in the middle of the night and in the early morning hours, better around noon, and best in the afternoon and evening.
But individual differences exist in our circadian rhythms, so it’s important to determine when your own attention is strongest. Even if you don’t think you’re a morning person, try to see how your focus is in the morning. This can change with age, so the fact that you couldn’t concentrate well in the morning when you were in college doesn’t necessarily mean that’s still true today.
Once you know when your attention is strongest, plan to do the tasks requiring the most focus during that time frame. Things like reading, paying bills, or learning a new hobby should be in that category.
Tasks like folding laundry, running errands, and spending time with others require less attention, so save them for the time of day when it’s harder for you to focus.
2. Adjust Your Environment
In addition to establishing your prime time for concentrating, it’s also important to determine your prime space. Our brains are very sensitive to our environments. That’s why you get sleepy when you slide into bed, why you feel excited at an amusement park, and why you crave funnel cakes at the state fair.
When your brain is in a physical space it associates with relaxation or fun, it will be more prone to distraction and resistant to focused attention. Likewise, when your brain is in a physical space it associates with hard, concentrated work, it will be more prone to help you stay focused.
Use this to your advantage by creating a dedicated space for focused work. If you work well from home, create a home office or an area reserved for concentrating. If you don’t work well from home, experiment with other spaces—libraries, coffee shops, your workplace, bookstores, and parks can all be good spaces to concentrate.
As you’re choosing a space, consider your proximity to temptation. The library might not be the best choice if you’re susceptible to getting distracted by books, and you might want to avoid the coffee shop if you find yourself getting involved in every conversation you overhear.
If you work in a bustling office, adjust your environment to be more focus-friendly by requesting a desk near a wall rather than in the middle of the room, using the tallest partitions you’re permitted around your desk, and minimizing decorations and clutter in your workspace.
At your workspace, surround yourself with cues that confirm your goals. Make a vision board, post a sticky note, or tape a picture to your desk reminding you why studying for this one exam is so important. It could be that it’s helping you complete your degree so you can live independently, get a great job, or provide for your family. The specific reason doesn’t matter; all that matters is that it’s important to you.
3. Remove Distractions
An incredibly important part of getting and staying focused is managing the things that could compromise that focus. You likely already know that you should eliminate the obvious distractions, like people, television, and games—of course it’s harder to focus on your physics homework if your roommates are playing loud video games right next to you.
But it’s also important to remove (or remove yourself from) less obvious distractions, like your cat, your phone, email, or snacks. Removing distractions begins with keeping track of what’s really distracting you and then getting creative about how to distance yourself from those temptations. Here are a few ideas to start with.
Turn off all the extra screens (phone, TV, computer) around you, as your brain is attracted to their light and will get distracted. Put your phone in airplane mode so you can’t be distracted by phone calls, texts, and notifications.
If you’re worried about missing an emergency call, use the “do not disturb” mode and set exceptions only for your closest family members and loved ones. Tell them you’re working on something important, and ask them to please only contact you in an emergency.
Email is one of the sneakiest distractions around, so mute your Gmail with Inbox Pause or use a similar app to silence email notifications while you’re working. If you’re working on a computer, use an app or extension to block distracting websites.
If you don’t need the internet for your task but find yourself getting distracted by websites, unplug your router or temporarily disable your Wi-Fi connection.
4. Write Distractions Down For Later
No matter how effectively you remove distractions from your environment, there’s still the possibility of becoming distracted by your own mind. If you find your thoughts pulling your focus, try a “distractibility delay,” a technique for training your brain to focus for increasingly longer periods of time.
Determine an amount of time you want to work on a task before you take a break—say, 15 minutes. During those 15 minutes, make a note of any distractions that come up. These could be thoughts or ideas you have or other things you need to do.
For example, while you’re studying for a history exam, you have the thought that you’d rather be starving on a deserted island than studying. You then find yourself wondering whether old episodes of Survivor are online and get sucked into a YouTube vortex of the best Survivor moments.
Rather than following up on these distractions in the moment, write down the questions, ideas, to-do list items, or other distractions that come up while you’re working, and re-examine them when you’re no longer in the middle of a task.
Delaying your distractibility will help you stay focused on what you’re doing and train your brain to stay focused for longer periods of time.
5. Play With Sound
Limit extraneous noise, like the TV, to enhance your focus. For sounds you can’t eliminate (like your roommate talking in the next room or the dog barking next door), try noise-cancelling headphones.
Once you’ve tried eliminating sounds, experiment with adding other sounds in. While unpredictable noise can be distracting, certain sounds, like white noise and pink noise, have been repeatedly shown to enhance attention (Helps, Bamford, Sonuga-Barke, and Söderlund, 2014).
Our brains process music differently than other sounds, so you can listen to your favorite songs while you work, using the tempo and energy of the music to enhance your focus. It may be helpful to play calming instrumental music (e.g., elevator music, classical music) to reduce anxiety and maintain focus during some tasks.
For other tasks, high-energy music (e.g., techno or other types of electronic dance music) could be helpful. Experiment to see what works best for you.
Binaural beats may also enhance attention. Binaural beats are a specific type of music where the listener hears two different sounds simultaneously, one in each ear. One sound is slightly higher in pitch than the other, which creates the illusion of hearing three sounds.
This sounds gimmicky, but there’s actually scientific evidence that binaural beats make your brain process information differently, which enhances attention and concentration in some people.
Scientists are still trying to understand exactly how, why, for whom, and in what circumstances binaural beats are effective, but at the very least there’s evidence they are calming, and having a calmer brain increases the ability to focus.
Remember to use headphones if you use this strategy to make sure the separate sounds are being played to each ear.
6. Take Breaks
You have a finite amount of attentional resources. Attention starts to wane within the first few minutes of starting a task. Once you start drifting off, you can sometimes get yourself refocused, but the period of time you can refocus for gets shorter and shorter as you go on.
Taking breaks allows your brain time to catch up and replenish the energy it spent trying to help you focus. Giving your brain a few minutes to refuel can help you get refocused and stay focused longer. Every 15 minutes, take a three-minute break.
After you’ve had three three-minute breaks, take a 15-minute break. Continue alternating three three-minute breaks and one 15-minute break for every 15 minutes you work. While you’re on your break, do something to bring more oxygen to your brain: breathing exercises, jumping jacks, or a quick meditation work well to replenish focus.
If you can’t focus for 15 minutes at first, break the task down. Maybe you can only focus for 10 minutes, or five, or one. Start there, take a short break (aim for about 20 percent of the amount of time you focused), and then start again.
One challenge with taking breaks is getting yourself back on task when the break is done. Try setting a timer for each break so you’ll be reminded to get back to work.
7. Use Timers
Timers can be a great resource for staying focused. As I just mentioned, you can use them to measure your breaks, but you can also use them to build self-awareness regarding whether you’re on task.
At regular intervals, your timer will beep, allowing you to examine where you are with your work. Maybe you started working on a job application, but a few minutes later, you’re on a totally unrelated internet forum. When your timer goes off, you’ll realize it’s time to get back on task.
Having the timer go off regularly will help keep those distractions from taking over your entire day, which means you’ll spend more time focused on your goal and make more progress.
In deciding how often the timer should go off, consider how often you get distracted. Start by making an educated guess about how long you can stay focused (say, 15 minutes). Then, if the alarm goes off and you realize you’ve been off task for several minutes, you can shorten the duration for the next cycle.
Or, if you’re still on task and going strong, you could try lengthening the duration. Try using an old-fashioned kitchen timer for this, as they’re easy to reset and don’t present the same temptation for distraction that your phone does.
8. Set Aside Time to Get Organized
Before you even try to get focused on a task, it’s important to set yourself up for success. Set aside 5 to 10 minutes before you start working to set up your space and organize your time.
Adjust your environment, remove external distractions, get some paper to write down your internal distractions for later, set up your white noise, music, or binaural beats, and get out your kitchen timer.
Then, make a plan for how you’ll tackle the task. What’s your specific goal to accomplish, and how will you accomplish it? If you’re sitting down to study, decide what classes you’ll study for, what materials you’ll need, and what you’ll read or review. If you’re paying bills, make a list of which bills you need to pay. If you’re fixing something around the house, make a plan for exactly how you’ll fix it and try to think of everything you’ll need.
Spending just a few minutes getting your time and your space organized will allow you to stay focused on the actual task itself once you start working.
Now you know some proven techniques to help you get focused and stay focused on your goals, which is a huge part of overcoming procrastination.
But an equally important part is managing the emotions that come up when you try to approach a task that’s boring, unpleasant, tedious, difficult, or intimidating.
Those feelings make us want to avoid tasks that are otherwise important, making us feel even worse in the end.
Let’s get to work on some strategies for overcoming avoidance behaviour.