By Ahmad Feroz Hematyar
originally published in the 2015 Winter Issue
Being able to focus and concentrate are the keys to increasing your productivity. It doesn’t matter what you’re working on, whether it’s a report for work or a hobby, a project or a task at home. if you can’t focus on what you are doing, it will take a lot longer to complete the job.
Whether you’re being distracted by employers, coworkers, phone calls, family members or random thoughts and worries, every time you restart a task you have to spend time getting back up to speed or back into a productive frame of mind.
Many people struggle to stay focused on a single task or project for an extended period of time. In fact, recent research reveals that almost half of all interruptions are “selfinterruptions,” where people interrupt themselves and start working on something else without any external trigger distracting them.
The good news is that focus and concentration work a lot like a muscle. Just as you can increase the strength and power of any muscle through exercise, you can increase your ability to focus and concentrate through practice.
Here are a few suggestions for building your focus “muscles”.
An athlete doesn’t just engage in his sport during competitions. He practices various aspects of his sport when failure or success don’t matter. Likewise, practice concentrating when you don’t have to so that you’ll perform better when you do. The next two suggestions are exercises to help you practice.
Pick an object in your environment and just observe it. Notice its colors, textures, shapes and any movements it may have. Don’t analyze anything about it, just watch it and notice it. If your mind starts to wander, bring your attention back to the object. Set a timer and practice for one or two minutes at a time.
This exercise is similar to observing an object, but you’re going to focus on your breathing instead. Close your eyes and just notice your breath flow in and out of your lungs. Don’t try to do anything with it. Just practice putting all your focus and attention on it.
When reading or working at the computer, imagine sound-proof walls coming up around you and separating you from your surroundings. This is particularly useful if you have to work in a noisy or busy environment. Practice this intentionally for a few minutes.
Having something to shoot for can help you focus on your work. Start out with a simple challenge, like focusing for 5 or 10 minutes without distraction. Once you’ve conquered that simple goal, start stretching yourself to 15 minutes, and then 20 minutes. Keep increasing the goal until you can focus for 30 minutes without interrupting or distracting yourself.
Don’t focus intensely for more than 60 minutes at a time. Just as your body needs a rest from time to time, so does your mind and the harder it’s working the more often it needs a break. After 50-60 minutes, take a small break to renew your ability to focus.
Stimulants like caffeine and sugar may give you a short term boost, but if you overuse them, they can cause anxiety, irritability and make it harder to focus. If you use a lot of caffeine, try to gradually reduce your use to a more moderate level.
Rather than trying to suppress distracting thoughts while you are working, write them down so you can come back to them later. This will automatically release the nagging thought and free your mind to focus on what you are working on right now.
Let others know that you don’t want to be disturbed and eliminate as many avenues of interruption as possible. Sometimes this may mean coming in to work early when there are fewer distractions or working in an unusual location, like an unused conference room.
If you know something is likely to come up during your focus time, try to deal with it before you get started. This includes getting a snack or drink if you are likely to get hungry or thirsty while working.
If you catch yourself getting distracted by wandering thoughts, just notice that without judgment and bring yourself back into focus.
Sometimes you need a physical cue to reestablish your focus. For example, writing, or typing or picking up a pen can help you get your mind back to the task. Or use the ‘Tunnel Vision’ method and cup your hands around your eyes like blinders on a horse and aim your vision at the work to be done.
It’s easier to focus on something you’re interested in. Think about any aspect of the task that makes it interesting. If the subject doesn’t interest you, maybe you can find interest in how the task will benefit you or someone else. Or maybe you can focus on the skills involved in performing the task. Challenge yourself to improve your performance over time.
When do you find it easiest to concentrate? When the light is bright or dim? When there’s silence or when there’s background noise? Do you concentrate better in a cleared space or do you focus better surrounded by clutter? Can you concentrate better when you’re alert or when you’re calm and maybe a little tired? Plan your highest leverage focus periods for when circumstances are best.
Once you know what conditions promote your ability to focus and concentrate, intentionally set up your workspace and working environment to incorporate as many of them as possible.
To increase the length of time in which you can comfortably focus, every time you feel like taking a break force yourself to go five minutes more and then take your break. Do this until you can focus for 50 minutes without taking a break.
These simple tips and exercises will help you develop your focus muscles and enhance your ability to concentrate on a single project for extended periods. Pick your favorite one and start implementing it this week so that you see your productivity develop.
Ahmad Feroz Hematyar is Business Sales Development Director for Central Asian countries with DataWind Inc. in Toronto. Please forward your concerns and suggestions to his email at firstname.lastname@example.org.