Here’s How To Improve Your Focus (And Stop Distracting Yourself)

You’re not an unfocused person, you just need a little practice

Oh, no.

You’ve got so much work to do, and you really need to just sit down and do it, but you can’t. Every time you try and focus, something else steals your concentration. Maybe it’s your phone reminding you that someone has texted you, or the pile of laundry in the corner that needs to be folded. No matter what it is, it’s a distraction — and it always ends with you not doing what you originally set out to accomplish.

The inability to focus on work is a terrible habit, but one that almost everyone struggles with.

Fortunately, there is a way to improve your concentration— at least, according to Elie Venesky, the author of Hack Your Brain.

“Focus is a muscle, and you can build it,” Elie says. “Too many people labor under the idea that they’re just not focused, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Once you drop this mistaken belief, you can take a much more realistic approach to building focus.”

But how do you do this?

Figure out where your focus needs to be at

Sometimes, we don’t even know what we should be focusing on. With a long day ahead of you and plenty of tasks to complete, it’s difficult to determine where you should be first.

A good way to establish your focus is by making a to-do list or calendar. List everything you need to accomplish that day, week, or month, and then categorize these tasks by priority.

Cooking dinner might be a high-priority task while getting new socks is low-priority. Cleaning out the garage might be a low-priority task but picking the kids up for school on time is high-priority.

You can apply these same tactics to an individual task too. When I sit down to write an article, the first thing I focus on is actually writing it. Coming up with a catchy title, or picking a thumbnail image doesn’t get my attention till after I’ve finished typing it all out.

But, no matter how you do it, the first step in focusing is establishing where your concentration needs to be at.

Prepare to focus

We don’t always prepare ourselves to focus for long periods of time. Which is why, ten minutes into a task, we start to feel antsy.

Elie Venesky says the solution is to calm our bodies: “Take a minute or two to sit in a comfortable position and breathe deeply into your stomach. You don’t have to sit cross-legged or chant. Let your body calm down before you approach your work. You’ll find it really helps you concentrate.”

Before I sit down to write, I always take a few minutes to adjust my mindset. I’d like to think of my brain as a radio with different stations. Most of the time, I’m on the “multi-task” station, which allows me to focus on different things at once. But, when I go to write or draw, I picture myself changing frequencies and landing on the “long-term focus” station.

It sounds a little odd, but it actually does help keep me concentrated.

Get rid of potential distractions

Whenever I used to write or draw, my biggest distraction would be my phone. Thirty minutes into my task, and I suddenly have the urge to check my Instagram or scroll through Reddit. I only intend to look through social media for a few seconds, but I end up wasting twenty minutes looking at cute cats.

The solution to this problem has been simple: get rid of the distraction. Whenever I know I need to focus for a long period of time, I stash my phone in another room.

Now that my phone is no longer in reaching distance, I’m forced to focus on my work — and it’s been surprisingly effective.

Of course, not all distractions are as solvable as locking away a phone. You can’t stash your kids in a closet, or get rid of a chatty spouse. These distractions require a different approach.

If you’re trying to work on something portable, I recommend actually leaving your house. Writing that article or finishing that paperwork at a library will give you some peace and quiet. It will also place you in an environment where your brain knows it’s supposed to be focusing on work.

If your task isn’t portable, and you need to do at home — in the midst of all your familial distractions — maybe it’s time for a talk. Communicate with your kids or spouse that you need to work for the next couple of hours, and shouldn’t be bothered unless it’s an emergency.

Bottom-line, some distractions might be tricky to get rid of, but once you do, you’ll find your focus has improved exponentially.

Don’t be afraid to take short breaks

It is, for anybody, almost impossible to stay focused for hours at a time. Even if you do manage to do so, you’ll likely be exhausted by the end of it — and there’s a reason for this.

Alejandro Lleras, a psychology professor, defines this as “vigilance decrement”, which is the idea that when we focus on one thing for a long time, our brains eventually stop registering it. Think about it: we wear clothes all the time so our brains stop paying attention to the sensation of clothing on our skin. We know it’s there, but we’re not thinking about it.

The same can happen to our focus. If you’ve been staring at the same article for five hours, it’s likely that you're not even thinking about it anymore.

Lleras does say that there’s a solution to this problem: take small breaks. He found, in a 2011 study, that people who take brief breaks during long tasks didn’t experience a decline in their concentration.

So, in other words, trying to power through can actually make things worse. If you start to feel exhausted, maybe it’s time for a water break. You don’t want to spend too long away from your task, but a five or ten-minute break will help you come back to your work with a clear head.

We all struggle to focus sometimes but taking a few steps to prepare yourself — and get rid of those distractions — can go a long way. It’s not that you’re an “unfocused” person, you just need to retrain your brain.

When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats.

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