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8 Effective Tools for Staying Focused and Getting Stuff Done

It can feel harder than ever to stay on task; here's how you can.

Photo by Ayla Verschueren on Unsplash
Staying focused while working from home
Source: Photo by Ayla Verschueren on Unsplash

What do innumerable Zoom meetings, an unceasingly stressful new cycle, a pandemic, working from home, a steady stream of smartphone alerts, and general uncertainty all have in common?

Each of these strains our ability to feel centered, focus, and get things done.

And if you find it hard to focus even under the best of circumstances (whatever those are), it can feel practically impossible to do so now.

The good news is that even given conditions that are far less than ideal, it is possible to be more focused and get things done.

(Take it from someone who has struggled with attention and focus her entire life!)

And even better news—you don’t need to sustain laser-like focus for hours at a clip in order to get things done.

Of course, the most basic foundation for focusing is to take good care of yourself.

So, do what you already know is important.

Get regular exercise. Exercise has been shown to cause changes in the brain that enhance the ability to focus. And exercise has other cognitive and mental health benefits, as well.

In addition, eat well. Stay hydrated. Practice good stress management. Get a good night’s sleep. Meditate.

And let go of perfect for now (and honestly, just let go of it, period).

What else can you do?

1. Pay attention to your normal escape behaviors—and manage them.

Escape behaviors are those things you do to alleviate the stress or boredom that crops up whenever you have to work on a specific task or assignment.

For many people, the go-to escape behavior may be to snack mindlessly; for others, it will be to become suddenly fatigued, or click on every email alert that pops up.

The key to managing escape behaviors is planning ahead. So, if your escape behavior is to snack, portion out a reasonable amount of a healthy snack and put the box away before sitting down to work. You can eat the snack quickly or slowly but when it’s gone, that’s it. And remember to factor that snack into your day’s meals.

If your escape behavior is to become suddenly sleepy, note this ahead of time. Have water or tea, etc. with you before you sit down to work, or use a standing desk attachment to help prevent feeling sluggish.

And if your escape behavior shows up as checking every email, or surfing the net – see the next tip.

2. Take a Technology Time Out.

Before sitting down to work, silence all non-essential apps, close all programs and windows other than the one you’ll be using, and turn off all phone alerts. Seriously.

Remind yourself that you can look at these things when you’re taking a longer break (see the following tip), but not before.

3. Reward Your Brain with Structured Breaks.

Many people think that in order to be productive, they have to work for several hours straight without stopping. This is neither true nor ideal.

It’s actually easier to stay on task when there is a concrete end or break in sight. Create a realistic schedule of work alternating with breaks.

There’s the popular “Pomodoro Technique,” which is based on 25-minute work sessions followed by 5-minute breaks. For example, someone’s daily goal to work on a specific project might be 3 or 4 pomodoros, followed by a longer break.

Others will work in 30-minute blocks followed by 7-minute breaks, or 48-minute blocks with 12 minutes breaks, etc.

Make sure to stand up and stretch during each break, and stay away from the computer (and even better, away from any sort of screen time) during the break.

You can use brief breaks to do laundry, prepare food, stretch, and so forth.

After a few of these work/rest cycles, reward yourself with a longer break.

Remember, your brain is much more likely to cooperate with the demands you’re placing on it if you reward it for doing what you ask of it.

4. Make a SMART List...

...of your goals for the next day. Do this at night before you go to bed.

It’s a “smart” list because both the list—and the goals on it—are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-restricted.

Give yourself no more than 5 minutes to jot down your goals. This means that you can’t obsess about them or go down a rabbit hole of looking things up, and so forth.

Remember, at this point, you’re not actually working on the project; you are basically outlining what you’ll need to do so that you have an easy-to-follow outline ready for when you actually sit down to do the work tomorrow.

Then, for each broad goal, write a bulleted list of the tasks required to complete that goal. Keep the lists short and to the point. If your goal is to work on a presentation for next week, the bullet points might include scheduling a time frame in which you’ll work on this, creating 20 slides, and rehearsing your talk. That’s it.

5. Plan for External Distractions.

For example, we have three dogs, and if they are awake, they are barking—at a squirrel outside, to go for a walk, when they are hungry, and so forth. We've learned that they are less barky during the day if they have a decent morning walk, have eaten well, and have gotten their morning treats (I know...).

The solution is not for these guys to suddenly have no needs whatsoever; it’s for me to anticipate their needs, make sure they are met, and try to create some sort of (imperfect) structure that works both for them and for me.

Planning ahead and being flexible reduces my stress and theirs.

6. Add Binaural Beat Technology to Your Toolbox.

Binaural beat technology (BBT) is a type of brainwave entrainment that uses auditory tones to shift one’s predominant brainwave state into something more appropriate or relevant to the task at hand.

How does BBT work? When tones of different frequencies are played in each ear, the brain will hear the difference between these tones, rather than hearing each one separately.

It is the frequency (in hertz) of this difference that creates a shift in the brain.

Lower frequencies are associated with deep, dreamless sleep (delta), deep meditation or REM sleep (theta), and feeling relaxed, but awake (alpha). Higher frequencies shift the brain into being focused and alert (mid-beta), and having greater cognitive flexibility, creativity, and focus (gamma).

BBT is frequently combined with music, guided imagery, nature sounds, or some combination of these. There are a number of popular apps and audio downloads that feature beta, gamma, or a combination of these frequencies to enhance focus. Listen to BBT using headphones and while working on a task.

7. Release Resistance and Be in the Now.

Surrender to the fact that right now, you probably will not find yourself working in the same way as you did previously.

The interruptions you face now are different from the ones you had a lifetime to become accustomed to. Give yourself time to adjust to new workday interruptions (e.g., the doorbell ringing, kids and pets demanding attention, innumerable video meetings).

8. Do Your Best—and Be Kind to Yourself.

Remember, all anyone can do is their best at any given moment. Human beings are resourceful and adaptable and resilient. It’s how we’ve survived as a species. But adapting to something new is a process.

Understand that it’s normal to feel fatigued, and scattered, and wish things were different right now.

Allow yourself to have these feelings. These emotions are your truth of the moment.

And then breathe, set a timer, and do what you need to do.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Klever LeveL/Shutterstock

References

Basso, J. C., & Suzuki, W. A. (2017). The effects of acute exercise on mood, cognition, neurophysiology, and neurochemical pathways: a review. Brain Plasticity, 2(2), 127-152.

Colzato, L. S., Barone, H., Sellaro, R., & Hommel, B. (2017). More attentional focusing through binaural beats: Evidence from the global–local task. Psychological research, 81(1), 271-277.

Reedijk, S. A., Bolders, A., & Hommel, B. (2013). The impact of binaural beats on creativity. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 786.

Vysniauske, R., Verburgh, L., Oosterlaan, J., & Molendijk, M. L. (2020). The effects of physical exercise on functional outcomes in the treatment of ADHD: a meta-analysis. Journal of attention disorders, 24(5), 644-654.

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