Tell me if this sounds familiar: You sit down at your computer, ready to put a dent in some project, open up the tools or programs you need to use and…little gets accomplished over the course of hours. Sometimes, procrastination isn’t the enemy, lack of actual productivity when attempting to work is. Time will fly by, but most of it will not be spent doing actual work. The bogeyman in this situation is focus, or more aptly, lack thereof.
It’s not surprising that tasks can be difficult to concentrate on in our modern world with an endless hoard of distractions at our fingertips. Facebook and Reddit are a new browser tab away. Instagram and Snapchat are just calling to you from your phone. Internet flame wars are calling to you to fight the good fight against anonymous strangers. Stamina just recharged in Fire Emblem Heroes and you really need to clear missions to get orbs for those crazy Easter costumes.
It seems so simple to fight back against these productivity black holes, yet we lose to them time and time again. Get a leg up on those focus fleecers with these five simple tips.
Off With Her Phone!
I already mentioned the ever present allure of social media or other apps on your smartphone. It’s more than just browsing today’s feed of memes and clickbait political articles, though. Temptation to hop in on a focus-dividing conversation is just a few screen taps away. Even if you don’t have any apps open, an email or comment notification can derail you to a different train of thought. Plus we can’t forget that long-forgotten function of phones the voice call, which will likewise bring progress on any task to a screeching halt.
When it comes to focusing on a task, the only good phone is an off one.
Of course, completely shutting off one’s phone isn’t always a practical or wise decision. Chances are if you’re trying to focus on a task at work, you probably need to be able to take work calls too. This is when the Do Not Disturb setting on both Androids and iPhones comes in. You can selectively mute which apps notify you and which ones don’t.
When you want to be productive, cut the notifications to a bare minimum and for the love of Godzilla, stay away from the social media rabbit hole.
Tabs to Infinity
This next focus drain is less like a leech and more a tapeworm infestation. If your attempted project involves a computer (whether it be writing, coding, art, or otherwise) and you’re struggling to stay on task, chances are you may have too many browser tabs open. They’re easy to justify. It’s helpful to have quick access to your resources, right?
Unfortunately, this can be more of a bane than a boon. First and foremost, the sight of numerous open tabs at the top of the screen creates a cluttered work environment. Just as a physically cluttered work environment is scientifically proven to sap focus, too many open browser tabs divide attention just the same. Each little tab calls to you, and each one holds its own potential to drag you into a rabbit hole of following links and reading different pages.
The solution? Close all but the necessary ones for the current task, or section of the task. You may feel that you need to have a certain website open for a different step of your task, but if it doesn’t directly apply to what you’re doing in that moment, it needs to go. That’s what bookmarks are for, closing it won’t make it lost forever.
For non-work projects (or small business owners), many people default to working on at home. After all, what’s the point of packing up your laptop and going somewhere else when you can tinker away from the comfort of your couch? Unfortunately, even if you’ve removed the distractions of the phone and extra browser tabs, our homes bring their own distractions such as family or roommates, pets, or the leisurely state of mind that a familiar living space. This in turn breeds procrastination. Additionally, familiar environments stifle creativity, since new ideas and stimuli are typically not present.
Many professional creative talents, such as screenwriters and novelists, book extended stays in hotels to isolate their focus on their projects. For those of us who can’t drop that much money to work on a project, coffee shops and public libraries provide a wonderful alternative for a few hours of solid work. Changes in environment stimulate creativity. Distractions that occur in homes and offices are eliminated. Just to keep the conditions ideal, rotate coffee shops to keep creativity from stifling.
To keep ideal focus, sometimes you just need a change of scenery.
Timing With Tomatoes
There is an image of massive productivity being accomplished in long, uninterrupted bursts of work lasting for hours on end. While that may end up being what a lot of college students do when a project they haven’t started on is due the next day, it’s far from an ideal method. Just like major goals should be divided into increments, so should your work.
Instead of thinking, “I’m going to sit down and have a crazy uninterrupted day of progress,” divide that time into increments. Commit to a manageable amount of time, let’s say a half hour. For that thirty minutes, you will focus only on your task at hand and eliminate all other distractions. Use your phone’s timer, or the ever popular Pomodoro timer, to keep track of your session. Why a tomato was chosen for this timer shape, I’ll never know.
After the half hour is up, take a short break, then jump back in for another. These smaller increments of time are a less intimidating prospect, and the short breaks give you a chance to take a breather and refocus. Speaking of breaks…
Take a Damn Break
I’m not talking about those short breaks with the Pomodoro technique, I mean a legitimate, put-everything-down-and-do-something-else break. A psychological study by the University of Illinois found that prolonged focus on a task depletes attention span and that the brain struggles to continually regard the task as important. The researchers observed that even short breaks would replenish a person’s ability to focus on a task.
It’s just like with exercise: Over time, you tire out, and just just need to either catch your breath or walk it off before you can get up and go again. Speaking of, step up and walk away from your desk when you take this break. A little bit of physical activity gets the blood flowing and sends some needed oxygen to the brain.
Lastly, a break to talk with a friend or a watch a video gives the brain a chance to break the mental cycle it’s in and open our perspective to other ways to look at the task at hand. When we focus on a task for too long, we can become trapped in a mode of thought and not be able to see alternative ways to approach it. A brief mental diversion breaks the trap of tunnel vision and opens up our full range of sight.
Forge Your Focus
Next time you find yourself stuck on a task or unable to focus, try these five tricks out. Even an hour long burst of focused productivity is more valuable than several hours of meandering. Go ahead, finish that homework assignment or put some time in on writing that sultry Jabba/Sonic slash fiction. Catalyze your focus, maximize your productivity.
And yes, I was using these techniques as I wrote this post.