Building and growing your own business is hard. You need your wits about you. And your attention is by far your biggest asset. Learning how to keep it where it is supposed to be – deliberately planning how to stay focused – is time well spent.
Why? Because a distracted mind is often the thing that stops us doing what we should be doing. Instead of finishing off that research report, our mind wanders to our inbox. Then we check the inbox and just quickly reply to those few emails, but wait, that one you just looked at mentioned payments which reminds you that you haven’t finished off the invoices yet. Let’s just do that now quickly whilst you’re thinking about it. Before you know it that research report is a distant memory.
There is so much out there to distract us these days and avoiding all those distractions is, for many, a constant battle. But when you know how to stay focused you can create an environment that nurtures your concentration – instead of stealing it.
But first you need to understand why your mind finds it so easy to wander.
Our brains are highly sensitive to distractions because distractions signal that something has changed. We are alerted to this fact in case it’s dangerous. Way back when, that noise we just heard might be a sign that a bear attack is imminent and we need to run for our lives.
But these days, in this noisy, digital world we live, that sound is likely just the ping of a new email, or a new comment, or a new like, or a news alert. Hardly dangerous, but our brain’s reaction to these disruptions is the same. And it is completely involuntary.
The problem is that our distracted minds are getting worse. How long do you think you manage to stay focused on what you are doing before you get distracted by something else? Hint: it’s only a matter of seconds.
In 2000, the average focused attention span was 12 seconds. In 2013 it was down to just 8. Goldfish have an attention span of 9 seconds.
So take a look at our 9 tips that will help you discover how to stay focused on what you should be doing.
1. Do one thing at a time
Multitasking, it turns out, is a myth. We just aren’t very good at trying to do many things at once. As your mind switches from one task to another, that transition is far from smooth.
Your brain takes time to catch up. You actually lose focus, make more mistakes and take longer to re-engage with what you were originally doing.
So if you want to know how to stay focused, stop trying to do everything at once and shine your spotlight on one thing at a time.
2. Get enough sleep
We all know sleep is good for us and that we should be getting around 8 hours a night. Whilst we snooze, our brains are busy filing away our memories and the lessons we learned that day. They are clearing things out so that when we wake up we are clear headed.
If we don’t get enough sleep, the parts of our brains that control cognitive abilities and behaviour are impaired. Metabolism and blood flow to various areas of the brain are impeded and this, in turn, affects our ability to focus and concentrate. So we become forgetful and find it hard to pay attention.
So for your brain to function well when you are awake, you need to get a good night’s sleep. Take a look at our top tips for sleeping well.
3. Practice mindfulness
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have come across at least one person who practices mindfulness. A simple form of meditation, mindfulness brings us into the present so that we are aware of what we are doing whilst we are doing it. Without focusing our awareness on the here and now, we’d likely spend all of our time daydreaming about the future.
Mastering mindfulness means that you’ll be better equipped to ignore those other distractions and focus on the job at hand. How? In mindfulness meditation, you practice focusing your attention on your breathing. By doing this on a daily basis you train your brain to be able to stay focused for sustained periods.
If you want to know more about mindfulness, Headspace is a great place to start.
We also all know that we should exercise regularly. To lose weight, prevent depression and protect ourselves from heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes. But exercise also affects our memory and thinking skills, as well as helping us stay on task.
Many studies have found that in those who exercise regularly, the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory are larger than those that don’t.
Dr. John Ratey says in his book ‘Spark – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain’ that exercise improves your brain in the short term by raising your focus for 2 – 3 hours after.
Several studies involving children of a school age have demonstrated this. In one study, interspersing lessons with 20 minutes of aerobic exercise improved children’s attention spans. In another the effects of daily sports classes after school improved the kids executive control. They became better at ignoring distractions, multitasking and storing and manipulating information.
5. Take regular breaks
One of the things our mind cannot do is focus non stop for hours and hours on end. It needs time to rest. So instead of trying to avoid all distractions all of the time, schedule a few in.
It may seem like you are wasting time and it may seem counterintuitive when you are wanting to know how to stay focused and finish what you started, but having short breaks during long tasks re-energises the brain and improves your ability to focus.
Spending too long trying to concentrate on something causes our cognitive control systems to start to fail. By taking a break, giving them something else to think about for a while, we can go back to whatever it was we were originally doing nice and refreshed.
But don’t just switch to Facebook. Make your breaks count. Get up and move about to get your blood flowing and to help clear your mind. Drink some water, do a few yoga poses, practice mindfulness.
6. Drink plenty of water
Staying hydrated also provides a whole host of benefits and one of them is the way it boosts brain power. Our brains are 73% water, so keeping your hydration levels topped up can help you think more clearly, improve your concentration levels and your ability to focus and stay alert.
Research has shown that being dehydrated by just 2% causes impairment in our ability to pay attention as well as affecting our immediate memory skills.
So if you need a mental boost, reach for a glass of water.
7. Learn to say no
Committing yourself to too much simply serves to steal your focus and ruin your productivity. In this busy, modern age that is already so full of distractions, do you still find yourself saying yes to everything that comes your way? Are you always taking on new projects and commitments despite your bursting-at-the-seams schedule?
Knowing how to stay focused is knowing how to say no. So said Steve Jobs anyway. Who some might call a bit successful. What he understood was that to be able to really focus and be highly productive, you have to know ‘what makes sense and what doesn’t.’
Figure that out and say no to everything that doesn’t make sense. Because in order to focus on one thing, you have to ignore everything else.
8. Get a caffeine hit
We’re about to give you a good reason to carry on drinking that coffee, although we do have a few caveats. Caffeine, is if we needed an excuse to consume it, doesn’t just wake you up it also helps you focus. For many of us, that early morning coffee is what helps cut through that fog and get us going in the morning.
Now for those caveats. Too much can have the opposite effect. It can affect your sleep, making you tired and groggy, forcing you to increase your consumption the next day. And we’ve already mentioned the importance of a good night’s sleep.
So to make sure your caffeine improves your focus and increases your productivity without disrupting your sleep, follow these simples rules: avoid caffeine after 2pm to give your system enough time to clear it out before bed, and don’t drink more than 400mg, or about 4 cups of coffee, a day if you don’t want to be dealing with those pesky withdrawal symptoms.
What do you do when you’re bored? Grab your phone and scroll through Facebook or Instagram? Yep, us too. But what did we do before we had social media and YouTube to procrastinate on? Well, we probably picked up a pencil, a bit of paper and… doodled.
Jackie Andrade, a psychology professor at the University of Plymouth, ran a study in 2009 where participants listened to a monotonous telephone message. Half of them doodled whilst they listened, and the others didn’t.
Those that had doodled their way through the message remembered 29% more information.
So whilst we may assume that a bored brain is an inactive one, the opposite is true. A bored brain is actually very active. Our brains are wired to constantly process information. When it doesn’t find anything stimulating it starts to daydream.
Enter the doodle. Hearts. Triangles. Flowers. Faces. Animals. When you’re bored it seems the humble act of doodling provides just enough stimulation to stop the mind wandering off into your daydreams, thereby helping you stay focused on the task at hand.
The importance of learning how to stay focused
Learning how to stay focused is an important skill to add to your armoury, and one that shouldn’t be underestimated. We live in a noisy, cluttered world but there are things you can do to sharpen your lens.
Exercise, drink plenty of water, get enough sleep, give mindfulness a go. Stop trying to multitask and concentrate on one thing at a time. Don’t spend hours sat staring at your screen, instead schedule in short breaks to give your mind time to re-energise. And learn to say no. If all else fails, grab a coffee, a pen and some paper and do a bit of doodling.
Do you feel like you would benefit from having someone take on all those projects that are distracting you from the big stuff? Then book a free consultation and find out how one of our Virtual Assistants can help you cut through the noise and discover how to stay focused on what really counts.