Focus: The Ultimate Guide on How to Improve Focus and Concentration
Improve Your Concentration
Your personal work environment plays a large role in your ability to concentrate. The more comfortable and welcoming your environment is, the easier it will likely be for you to stay focused.
- Make sure you’re comfortable – Start by ensuring that your chair and desk are at the right height for you to work comfortably. If your chair is too high or your desk is too low, you’ll be uncomfortable, and you’ll be tempted to use this as an excuse to get up and walk away.
- Put up pictures – Viewing a natural scene or watching wildlife can help improve concentration. If you’re able to put up pictures in your workspace, then choose landscapes or natural images that you enjoy. This can help your concentration, especially if you can see the pictures from your desk.
- Drown out the noise – Listening to music can help, especially if it’s instrumental music. Some people even use “white noise” apps – these produce a calming sound like ocean waves or falling rain. This steady background noise can drown out other noise, helping you focus better and ignore distractions.
- Shut out distractions– if you work from home, it can be particularly difficult to get “into the flow.” Pets, laundry, and even family or roommates can keep you from finding your focus. Where possible, try to establish a defined workspace, ideally with a door to shut out those household distractions.
Focus: What It Is and How it Works
First things first. What is focus, really? Experts define focus as the act of concentrating your interest or activity on something. That’s a somewhat boring definition, but there is an important insight hiding inside that definition.
Focus can only occur when we have said yes to one option and no to all other options. In other words, elimination is a prerequisite for focus. As Tim Ferriss says, “What you don’t do determines what you can do.”
Of course, focus doesn’t require a permanent no, but it does require a present no. You always have the option to do something else later, but in the present moment focus requires that you only do one thing. Focus is the key to productivity because saying no to every other option unlocks your ability to accomplish the one thing that is left.
Before we talk about how to get started, let’s pause for just a second. If you’re enjoying this article on focus, then you’ll probably find my other writing on performance and human behavior useful. Each week, I share self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research through my free email newsletter.
Why Can’t I Focus?
What I mean is that most healthy humans have a brain that is capable of focusing if we get the distractions out of the way. Have you ever had a task that you absolutely had to get done? What happened? You got it done because the deadline made the decision for you. Maybe you procrastinated beforehand, but once things became urgent and you were forced to make a decision, you took action.
What is impossible, however, is concentrating on two tasks at once. You’re either listening to the TV and the overflowing pot of pasta is background noise, or you’re tending to the pot of pasta and the TV is background noise. During any single instant, you are concentrating on one or the other.
Multitasking forces your brain to switch your focus back and forth very quickly from one task to another. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the human brain could transition seamlessly from one job to the next, but it can’t.
Have you ever been in the middle of writing an email when someone interrupts you? When the conversation is over and you get back to the message, it takes you a few minutes to get your bearings, remember what you were writing, and get back on track. Something similar happens when you multitask. Multitasking forces you to pay a mental price each time you interrupt one task and jump to another. In psychology terms, this mental price is called the switching cost.
Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our focus from one area to another. One study, published in the International Journal of Information Management in 2003, found that the typical person checks email once every five minutes and that, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking your email.
The myth of multitasking is that it will make you more effective. In reality, remarkable focus is what makes the difference. (Image inspired by Jessica Hagy.)
Get Ready for a Big Day
Want to power up your ability to concentrate? Start with a meal of 100% fruit juice, a whole-grain bagel with salmon, and a cup of coffee. In addition to eating a well-balanced meal, experts also offer this advice:
(1) Liv Friis-Larsen / iStockphoto
(2) Christopher Robbins / Digital Vision / Getty Images
(3) Tom Grill / Photographer’s Choice / Getty Images
(4) Lew Robertson / Photographer’s Choice
(5) Rauzier-Riviere / StockFood Creative / Getty Images
(6) Creativ Studio Heinemann / Getty Images
(7) Alex Cao / Digital Vision / Getty Images
(8) Monika Adamczyk / iStockphoto
(9) Nicki Dowey / StockFood Creative / Getty Images
(10) Dimitri Vervitsiotis / Digital Vision / Getty Images
(11) Stephen Wilkes / Iconica / Getty Images