In pursuit of becoming as productive as possible, most of us have a common area of concern: our focus. If we can’t adequately concentrate on the task in front of us, we’re not going to get it done in an efficient way.
The problem with focus is that it can’t be improved in a direct way. You can’t take a pill or install an app to make yourself concentrate harder on the work in front of you. But you can, through a series of habit adjustments and environmental changes, train yourself to focus more efficiently. In this article, we’re going to discuss 17 effective strategies for how to focus at work.
How to Focus at Work
With these strategies and approaches, you should find yourself in a better position to stay focused at work.
1. Analyze your performance.
You might have a subjective inkling that you’re not focusing efficiently, but how can you really tell? And will you be able to know for sure that your efforts are boosting your focus over time? The first step in any focus improvement effort is establishing a way to analyze your performance. There are a variety of tools that can help you do this, including time tracking tools, project management apps, and email habit analysis apps like our own EmailAnalytics. With these, you’ll be able to measure how many tasks you’re completing and how much work you’re getting done. Ideally, as you capitalize on the tips on this list, you’ll notice these figures improving.
2. Stop multitasking.
Most professionals fall into the trap of thinking multitasking can save time. In reality, it compromises the integrity and efficiency of every task you’re trying to accomplish simultaneously. Whether you’re checking your email during a meeting or trying to finish a project while holding a conversation with a colleague, learn to recognize when you’re multitasking and cut it out.
3. Shut off notifications.
It takes up to 23 minutes to fully recover your focus after being distracted, meaning even a few-seconds-long instance of losing your attention can result in a massive disruption in your efficiency. There are some distractions you won’t be able to help, but notifications should be squarely in your control. These incessant, ubiquitous alerts will destroy your focus over the course of a day as you get new emails, new instant messages, and get notified of new changes on your group projects. If and when possible, turn your notifications off altogether. If not possible, try to turn them off during select periods of time (so you can focus on a central task), and limit the number of notifications you receive.
4. Minimize interruptions.
Similarly, one of the best ways to improve focus at work is to minimize interruptions. If you’re trying to focus on a specific project, make adjustments to your work environment so that interruptions simply aren’t a possibility. For example, if people in your office frequently stop by your desk to ask questions or make small talk, shut the door to your office or hole yourself up in a private meeting room. If you work remotely, work at your home office instead of a noisy café.
5. Cut down on distracting websites.
Most of us are at least occasionally distracted by popular time-wasting websites like Facebook or Reddit. Without even consciously realizing it, you might click on one of these bookmarks and spend several minutes browsing in the middle of a work assignment. The good news is, there are measures you can take to eliminate this bad habit. For example, you can remove the bookmark, you can delete your account, or if you’re feeling less extreme about the issue, you can install a browser add-on that only permits you to browse these sites for a few minutes at a time.
6. Commit to 10 minutes.
Focus is much easier to sustain than it is to initiate; in other words, once you start focusing on a given task, you’ll find it easy to keep focusing on it, but beginning to focus can be extraordinarily difficult. That’s why, if you can’t focus at work, it’s a valuable strategy to commit to just 10 minutes of work; 10 minutes never seems like a long time, so you’ll be more likely to initiate a focus period, but by the time 10 minutes is up, you’ll likely be so engrossed in the project, you can continue indefinitely.
7. Understand and optimize for flow.
Flow is a psychological state where you’re so focused that time seems to disappear, and your environment becomes irrelevant. Achieving flow can be challenging, but if you can do it, you’ll attain maximum focus for the duration of your work session. Flow states reside at a nexus between difficulty and interest. If a task is too hard or too easy, you won’t be able to focus on it properly. If a task is uninteresting or dull, you won’t be able to focus on it. Try to find work in your role that interests you, and is just challenging enough to keep you working; if you do this, you’ll be able to glide through your tasks with unabated focus.
8. Understand your focus fluctuations.
It’s not just a social construct; some people are natural morning people, and some people are natural night owls. Different people have different focus and energy fluctuations throughout the day. If you spend some time understanding yours, you should be able to optimize your schedule to capitalize on those fluctuations. For example, if you notice you tend to achieve peak focus in the middle of the afternoon, schedule your most important or most intensive tasks for that time. If you’re most distracted in the early morning, only work on low-level, easy tasks during that time slot.
9. Eat a hearty breakfast.
Focus is partially a byproduct of our energy. If you’re feeling tired, sluggish, or hungry (or all three), you won’t be able to focus properly. Accordingly, one of the best ways to improve your focus in the morning is to eat a robust, nutritious breakfast. Lean proteins, like egg whites, and complex carbohydrates, like those in oatmeal, are ideal here. If you’re a coffee or tea person, the dose of caffeine will help too.
10. Snack throughout the day.
Even a full breakfast isn’t going to last you all day. If you start feeling hungry a few hours after lunch, or in the dead space between breakfast and lunch, your focus might plummet. Plan ahead and prepare a few healthy snacks to keep you going; sometimes, a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts is all it takes to get you back to peak efficiency.
11. Get plenty of sleep.
If you’re excessively tired, you won’t be able to focus on anything. It follows that sleep should be one of your highest priorities. Schedule 7-9 hours of sleep for yourself every night, the same way you’d schedule any priority in your life. If you can, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. And if you have trouble getting to sleep and/or staying asleep, make sure you invest in a good mattress, limit caffeine consumption, and avoid late-night screen time. Getting sufficient rest every night is key for staying focused at work.
12. Meditate daily.
Concentration requires mental discipline, which is something you can achieve through practice. One of the best tools for this is mindfulness meditation, which calls upon practitioners to focus on rhythmic breathing (or something else in their environment), blocking out all distractions for a period of time. If you practice this daily, even for just a few minutes at a time, you’ll have higher emotional resilience, and a greater capacity to shut down distractions throughout your daily life. This can also help you remain more in control of your thoughts and feelings, which can help you make a better impression on others.
13. Exercise daily.
Another great way to improve focus at work is to commit to physical exercise daily. Physical exercise has a number of powerful benefits, relieving stress, and giving you a chance to clear your head. Again, if you practice daily, you’ll find yourself less easily distracted—and less stressed overall. In the immediate wake of your workout, you should see a boost in your focus potential, so try to exercise before work (or during your lunch break).
14. Practice holding your attention.
Your ability to concentrate is like a muscle; the more you train it, the stronger it’s going to get. In line with this, you can practice holding your attention to increase your ability to focus on work. If you’re new to the practice, you can start with simple things for short periods of time; for example, you might focus intently on the ticking second hand of a clock for a full minute. Eventually, you can build to more challenging scenarios, like focusing on a single brick of your wall for 5 minutes. It may seem silly, but if you do this consistently, you’ll be naturally better able to focus on what matters.
15. Memorize things.
You can also engage your mental faculties by memorizing things as a mental exercise. For example, you might memorize short poems, passages from your favorite books, or quotes from people who inspire you. It doesn’t take long, but it requires you to pay strict attention to your source material, and keep it in your head as you practice. Plus, pulling out random lines of poetry can be a cool party trick—an added bonus in your quest for higher focus.
16. Read slowly.
People often struggle to focus on what they’re reading because they’re trying to read too fast. They’re in a hurry to get to the next page, or the next project, so they blitz through the sentences to try and discern the high-level meaning. This ends up being counterproductive; you either have to go back and reread the same passages over and over, or you hypothetically finish the material, but can’t remember anything from it. Instead, it’s better to take your time. Read slowly intentionally, and don’t let your mind wander.
17. Permit and quarantine distracting thoughts.
Inevitably, even the most focused worker is going to be forced to deal with intrusive, distracting thoughts. You’ll think about a movie you plan to watch this weekend, or an item you have to pick up from the grocery store. When these thoughts appear, most people do one of two things; they either chase the thought, distracting themselves and heading on a new tangent, or they dismiss the thought, chastising themselves from getting distracted in the first place. A better approach is to allow and then quarantine these distracting thoughts. For example, if you’re curious to look up information about that movie, write down the title so you can look it up later, or if you remember an item to get at the grocery store, take a note of it and move on. This is a good way to bring closure to the thought, and allow yourself to explore it in the future, without letting it detract from your current focus.
Perfecting Your Individual Approach
One important caveat to these tips for how to focus at work is that everyone’s brain works differently. One person might achieve peak focus at work by waking up early with a big cup of coffee and some loud music, while another might achieve similar results late in the afternoon, in total silence and with a stick of chewing gum. Take some time to experiment and find the individual tactics that work best for you; you might be surprised to learn what boosts your focus and what doesn’t.
Also, if you want to maximize your ability to stay focused at work, remember to spend time measuring your results along the way. The only way to tell, for sure, if your strategies are working, is with a measurable increase your overall performance. That’s why you need a tool like EmailAnalytics. EmailAnalytics tells you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about your email habits, from your average email response time to your busiest times of day and days of the week. Sign up for a free trial today, and start analyzing your own performance.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.