It’s impossible to avoid distractions at work. There are a dozen things vying for your attention at any given time: the chatter of colleagues, phones (including your own) ringing, your very long to-do list, your inbox filling up before your very eyes… And you’re not only subject to work-related distractions. Personal issues are culprits too: what to have for dinner, where to go for your next vacation, did you remember to schedule that appointment with your dentist, your bank, your vet?
Here’s a rather astonishing fact: the average office worker loses focus every 3 minutes. And according to research from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, it can take up to 25 minutes to regain that focus after being distracted.
Even the most organized people find it difficult to prioritize what they should focus on first. And being constantly distracted can lead to feelings of inadequacy and even an inability to deal with the workload as a whole.
So how can keep your focus – and your sanity – in the face of all of these near-constant distractions? Here are 6 methods you can try.
- Follow your brain’s natural clock
- Make what you do feel meaningful
- Keep your desk (and computer) distraction-free
- Tell your co-workers you want to focus
- Reward your mind for staying focused
- Drink some water, have a snack, or… chew gum? Yes!
When it comes to doing cognitive work, most people perform best in the late morning. As your body temperature starts to rise just before waking in the morning and continues to increase through midday, your working memory, alertness and concentration gradually improve. So focus on intensive tasks in the late morning, and take a break or go for a walk in the afternoon whenever possible.
Have you ever been just about to start another task only to find yourself daydreaming 10 minutes later? When you don’t believe that the task at hand is important enough to warrant your full attention, your brain begins to process other stimulus. This is your brain activating its default network, which is what you use when your brain is no longer focused on the outside world.
Too many doodads within arm’s reach on your desk can be very distracting. Only keep the things you really need on your desk and put the rest away. As for your computer, shut down Twitter, Facebook, your personal email, and any other temptations that might vie for your attention. Yes, this means Spider Solitaire.
If you want to keep distractions to a minimum, let others know it. Chances are, you’ll be left undisturbed when you’re doing your most important work. Unless there’s an urgent matter at hand, your colleagues will learn to wait until you’re free to chat with you. And you can return the favor: they’re sure to appreciate it.
Your brain learns by doing. In other words, the more you engage in disruptive behavior (like checking your email or Twitter) the easier it becomes to continue to engage in it. You’ve trained your mind to feel some sort of reward for being distracted, and you need to stop. Instead, train your brain to stay focused by catching yourself before you fall into bad habits: each time you feel yourself becoming distracted, tell yourself to stop as quickly as you can. Soon, your brain will begin to feel rewarded for remaining focused, rather than distracted.
And one last tip:
As soon as you feel your mind starting to wander, drinking a glass of water snap you back to attention. Loss of focus is a definite side effect of not drinking enough water; dehydration can also lead to other symptoms, including headache, fatigue and low mood. Same goes for a quick snack: when you’re hungry, it’s almost impossible to concentrate. Your brain needs fuel. Keep a package of cookies or a piece of fruit on hand. And it sounds strange, but research has shown that chewing gum increases oxygen flow to the parts of your brain responsible for attention. It also improves your long term memory and injects a bit of insulin into your blood which may help give your brain an added energy boost.
Just remember to spit out your gum before that big presentation…