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How to *Actually* Focus

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

There are a LOT of focusing tips and tricks floating around the internet. My Google algorithm must know that I've been feeling extra distracted/exhausted lately, because I've been inundated with half-hearted tips such as, "be more mindful," "focus on small, reachable goals," and my favorite, "write a to-do list," because writing things down makes them R-e-A-l.

Focusing might feel hard right now because there's a worldwide pandemic occurring (read more about that here). We're all spending more time in front of screens which (no wonder) has been shown to negatively impact our ability to concentrate. Below are some tips and tricks to help you focus (these will not solve all your problems).

1. Get Outside & Exercise

Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D, psychologist and author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, writes that a quick walk outdoors is an effective way to reset your brain and return to work more focused. Exercising before you start your workday has also been shown to increase focus and productivity. Even 20 minutes of physical activity can ignite endorphins and boost energy levels. I personally notice a huge increase in my productivity when I exercise before work.

2. Eliminate Pointless Distractions

I really shouldn’t even have to say this.

If your phone is constantly buzzing with notifications and your computer continually dings with new updates you will naturally be distracted. Put your phone on airplane mode, close your office door, or disable desktop notifications so you aren't needlessly distracted by things that aren't important. I like to block my time by focusing on a single task for an hour (or shorter/longer), then allow myself to check my inbox or notifications.

3. Set Small Daily Goals

Setting huge goals is awesome, but you're not going to achieve a large goal in one day. I recently published a book (called "I Like It Cuz It's Pink," find it here) but it took me years to complete. By writing each day, I slowly gathered enough material, then slowly edited it and took my time putting it together in a logical way. I didn't focus on the end result until I was close to the end. Instead, I focused on making small progress each day, which made me feel like I was moving toward my larger goal (and I was). Focus on what you can do today to set your future self up for success.

4. Get Enough Sleep

Nothing will ruin your focus more than consistent sleep deprivation, and it'll make you hungry and irritable too. Neil Patel writes that the most successful individuals in the modern business world attribute much of their success to sleeping well. Most of us need 7-8 hours per night, especially athletes, people who travel often, and people with high-stress jobs.

5. Complete Your To-Do List by “DWYDN”

David Allen, a business consultant and productivity guru, coined the acronym DWYDN. He states that much of the stress people feel doesn't come from having too much to do but from not finishing what they've started. DWYDN stands for “Do what you’re doing now," instead of multi-tasking. It is infinitely more productive to focus on one task at a time rather than to sporadically work on many tasks. Further, focusing on one thing at a time increases your chance of finishing that thing, thereby reducing stress. A great way to keep yourself on task is to say out loud, “This is what I’m doing now!” By saying that, you build a mental “fence” around the task to keep out potential distractions.

6. Utilize the PP478 Breathing Technique

PP478 stands for “Pause and Plan with the 4-7-8” breathing technique. You may have heard of 4-7-8 at a yoga class. Essentially, you breathe in deeply through your nose for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, and slowly release your breath through pursed lips for eight counts.Repeat that cycle three (or more) times and you'll achieve heart rate variability. Heart rate variability (HRV) is the variance in time between the beats of your heart. So, if your heart rate is 60 beats per minute, it’s not actually beating once every second. Within that minute there may be 0.9 seconds between two beats, for example, and 1.15 seconds between two others. The greater this variability is, the more “ready” your body is to execute at a high level. Although HRV manifests as a function of your heart rate, it actually originates from your nervous system, meaning you can *kind of* manipulate it. Read more about HRV here.

7. Change Your Venue

I wrote a blog a while back about how coffee shops aid productivity (read it here) and it turns out there's science behind my oblique observation. Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist, neuroscientist, professor of psychiatry, psychologist, and writer. He writes that insight and discovery are most accessible to us when we break up our routines: “Only when the brain is confronted with stimuli that it has not encountered before does it start to reorganize perception…to provoke the imagination.”

Science says we can reboot our brains with pattern interruption, and an easy way to interrupt patterns is by changing where you work. Going to a different room, different building, or even changing your physical position at your desk can help.

8. Engage in a Recovery Ritual

My old therapist diagnosed me with ADHD which makes focusing doubly difficult. A brain with ADHD is wired without the neurochemicals needed to sustain mental acuity and effort over a long period of time. By paying attention to my brain and body signals, I've learned when to take a break. Even a short break helps, whether I spend a minute or two flowing through some yoga poses, tidying up my space, or taking a short walk. It is impossible to be mentally "on" all the time, and intercepting my work day with brief moments of "off" has helped me stay focused longer.

9. Do Nothing

Ever feel bored and not do something about it? Letting your brain quiet down activates something called the "default mode network," where uncommon neural connections take place. This allows you to solve tough problems, make creative connections, and discover new ideas. It's difficult for me to simply sit still and be bored, but going for a run (or walk), or doing a mindless task (like laundry or dishes) can help me tap into my default mode.

10. Doodle I started doodling in grade school and still do. My teachers used to think I wasn't paying attention but they were wrong; according to a study from the University of Plymouth in England, doodling aids in cognitive performance and recollection. Jackie Andrade, lead researcher on the study, writes "Doodling simply helps to stabilize arousal at an optimal level, keeping people awake or reducing the high levels of autonomic arousal often associated with boredom." Doodling serves as the opposite of a distraction, contrary to popular opinion. Dry out those pens!

P.S. Read some half-baked concentration tips here, eat these WebMD approved brain foods, or read these doctor-approved hacks for working from home.


Sarah Rose

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