How to focus: Tips to get things done in a distracted world

Caeleigh MacNeil contributor headshotCaeleigh MacNeilNovember 8th, 202110 min read
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Summary

Focus is more than just concentration—it’s an approach to work that can help you minimize distractions, take charge of your time, and protect yourself from burnout. Learn about common barriers to focus and their solutions, and get science-backed tips to help you stay in the zone.

Picture this: you’ve got a demanding task to accomplish, but it feels nearly impossible to focus. You try to force yourself to concentrate, but the work just drags on and seems to take much longer than it should. 

Sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone. 

The truth is, being able to focus isn’t as simple as just deciding to do it. There are lots of factors that can impact your ability to focus, from digital distractions to a lack of clarity around which tasks are most important. In this article we describe common practices that can prevent you from focusing, with science-backed solutions to help you stay in the zone. 

What is focus? 

Focus is a mental state when we pay attention to a single task and ignore outside distractions. In today’s fast-paced work environment, that means true focus is often an act of prioritization—because in order to concentrate on one thing, you have to ignore many other things. Or as the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said, “focusing is about saying ‘no.’”

Focus is essential to tackle difficult tasks, think creatively, and work efficiently. It can help us get things done better and faster, avoid burnout, and end each day feeling like we’ve accomplished something. 

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What’s sapping your focus? 

In the modern workplace, focus is often elusive. Here are the four most common reasons you (or your team) can’t focus, plus how to solve them. 

Trying to multitask

According to our research, nearly three in four employees (72%) feel pressure to multitask during the day. But while multitasking may feel more productive, it’s actually just task switching in disguise. 

Our brains aren’t wired to truly multitask, so when you try to do two things at once—like drafting emails during a meeting—you’re actually switching between those tasks at lightning speed. And since we pay a mental cost for every switch, we’re actually getting less done and making more errors when we try to multitask. 

Multitasking is a myth. In reality, it’s rapidly switching from one task to another, and then back again. And every time you make that switch, you pay a ‘tax’ on both your time and your energy. For that reason, it’s almost always more efficient to monotask: Focus on one thing and move on when you’re done, so you don’t pay unnecessary switching taxes.
Read: 5 multitasking myths debunked, plus 6 ways to be productive without task switching

The solution: Schedule focus time

Instead of toggling between different tasks throughout the day, schedule dedicated time to focus on one specific project. Two common methods for scheduling focus time are timeboxing and time blocking. Timeboxing is a time-management strategy in which you estimate the amount of time a task will take and box out time to complete it. During a timebox, you ignore all other tasks until the box is over. The concept of time blocking is similar—but instead of boxing out time for a single task, you group similar tasks together and complete them all in one time block. For example, you might schedule a time block to answer emails. 

Regardless of of which method you choose, here are some tips to help you schedule focus time: 

  • Block out time on your calendar. Set a status (like “do not disturb” or “in a focus block”) on any instant messaging apps you use, so your colleagues know you’re in heads-down mode. 

  • Eliminate distractions. Turn off notifications for email and instant messaging, and close out of any applications or windows you’re not using for the work at hand. Put your phone in a drawer or out of sight so you’re not tempted to answer phone calls or text messages. 

  • When you’re done, take a break. If you can, get away from your computer and do something physical, like stretching or taking a walk. 

Empowering your team to carve out focus time can significantly boost productivity. According to productivity research from UC Berkeley’s Becoming Superhuman Lab, when leaders encourage “Focus Sprints” for their teams (dedicated focus time when team members don’t switch between apps or monitor their inbox), people report being 43% more productive. 

Monitoring your inbox 

80% of knowledge workers report working with their inbox or other communication apps open. And while many people feel pressure to respond to messages immediately, this constant monitoring comes at a cost. When you check notifications while you work, you’re constantly task switching and losing momentum each time a new message pops into your inbox. In fact, it can take upwards of 20 minutes to regain momentum after an interruption—so if you check your inbox three times in a span of two hours, that’s half your potential focus time lost. 

These focus-draining notifications make it impossible to tap into flow state or deep work—a mental state in which you can focus without distraction and accomplish difficult tasks faster and more effectively. 

Most people I know don't have a workday anymore. They have these little pockets of time, between meetings and calls and answering emails, where they have 15 minutes here, 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there, and that’s their workday.”

The solution: Answer emails and messages in batches

According to a 2016 MIT study, people who check their email in batches report higher productivity compared to those who rely on notifications to answer messages. Batching involves checking email and messages only during dedicated times throughout the day, so you can avoid costly interruptions when you’re trying to check important tasks off your to-do list. 

Here’s how to do it:  

  • Schedule time to process messages and email. The frequency you choose depends on the nature of your work—for example, an account manager may need to check messages more frequently in order to maintain contact with clients. If you can, try starting with two 30-minute blocks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. 

  • Turn off notifications. Whatever communication apps you use, snooze notifications or turn on Do Not Disturb mode to ensure you don’t see distracting icons and banners flash across your screen when you’re trying to focus. And if you really need to concentrate, close out of email and messaging apps completely. 

  • Let your team know when you’re available. Share your communication preferences with your team and let them know when you typically answer messages. If you’re a manager, encourage your direct reports to do the same. And if your team uses an instant messaging app like Slack, set statuses to indicate when you’re focusing or available to chat. 

Read: Why Inbox Zero isn’t what you think it is

Long virtual meetings

According to cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Sahar Yousef, we use significantly more brainpower to pay attention during a video call than during a face-to-face meeting. In fact, a 2020 Microsoft study showed that video fatigue sets in at the 30-minute mark for virtual meetings, meaning it becomes much harder to focus past that point. On the flip side, we can usually maintain focus for 45 to 60 minutes when we’re talking face-to-face. 

Video conferencing is actually physiologically more draining and requires more neurological effort to stay alert and maintain attention. At the end of the day, when your body is tired and your attention is completely sapped, it isn’t your fault—your brain is overloaded.

The solution: Plan virtual meetings intentionally 

Making your meetings shorter (30 minutes or less) and more efficient is the best way to reduce video fatigue. Here are some tips to set your meetings up for success: 

  • Consider whether you need a meeting in the first place. Sometimes, a status report or asynchronous update can work just as well as (or better than) a call. As an added bonus, asynchronous updates give your team more uninterrupted time to focus on work that matters. 

  • Share an agenda and any materials attendees should read in advance. An agenda helps you move efficiently from topic to topic and ensures you don’t miss any critical pieces. Plus, sharing materials in advance helps attendees come prepared to discuss and propose solutions.

  • Consider team preferences. Ask your team when they prefer to meet and when they’re typically in heads-down focus mode. For example, if the majority of your team likes to reserve their mornings for focus time, try to schedule meetings in the afternoon. 

  • End meetings a few minutes early. Back-to-back meetings can quickly drain everyone’s mental reserves. A few minutes break between sessions can help your brain reset, especially if you step away from your screen. 

  • Turn off self-view during video meetings, or cover the image of your face with a sticky note. Seeing your own face during a video call activates the part of your brain responsible for facial recognition and is an extra drain on your focus. “Imagine if someone walked into a conference room carrying a full-length mirror to watch themselves,” says Dr. Yousef. “That’s essentially what we’re doing when we see our own faces on a video call.” 

Read: Do your work meetings waste time? Use these tips to improve.

Lack of clarity

When you experience clarity at work, you know what goals you’re working towards, the responsibilities of your role, and how to prioritize your tasks. But without that clarity, it’s hard to prioritize work and determine what’s in (or out) of scope. As a result, you might end up splitting your focus between too many projects, getting lost in small tasks like chat and email, and feeling like you’re not accomplishing enough. 

Lack of clarity is a common occurrence. According to our research, 29% of knowledge workers feel overworked due to a lack of clarity on tasks and roles. 

Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.

The solution: Create (and communicate) clear goals

Clear goals are like a compass. They help you decide what’s important to focus on and what you can deprioritize. For example, imagine you have a quarterly goal to improve engagement on Instagram, and a smaller short-term goal to write 10 Instagram posts per week. With that goal in mind, you can decide to use your next block of uninterrupted time to draft and plan social media copy rather than answering emails. In this example, your goal helps you focus on work that matters and avoid getting sidetracked with less-important tasks. 

Here’s how to create clarity with goals: 

  • Create and share SMART goals with your team. SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. They provide a clear roadmap and finish line for your project. For example, a product team could set the following SMART goal: “In Q3, partner with the customer service team to create a chatbot for our desktop website.” 

  • Track progress towards your goals. Goals are a powerful motivator because they ensure that your day-to-day work has a clear purpose. But in order for goals to be effective, they should be connected to your work. That means you should make a plan to regularly check in and update your progress—for example, at the end of each day or week.  

  • Set daily MITs (most important tasks). Every day, write down 1-3 things you want to accomplish. This helps you focus and gives you permission to clock out once those tasks are accomplished—the key to avoiding burnout and maintaining focus long-term. When cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Yousef tried this method at her lab, the team saw a 28% increase in individual productivity and a 42% reduction in burnout. 

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5 tips to boost your focus

We’ve covered the four most common reasons you might struggle to focus, plus ways to get around them. If you’re still having trouble, try these five tips to get in the zone and maximize your productivity.

1. Create triggers to tell your brain it’s time to focus 

According to Dr. Yousef, our brains have memories. When we pair a certain environment with a specific stimulus (like sitting at a clean desk and writing), our mind creates a cognitive association—it remembers and anticipates that stimulus in the future. That means the next time you clear off your workspace and sit down to write, your brain will be predisposed to focus on that task. 

If you’re having trouble concentrating, try creating cognitive associations to let your brain know it’s time to focus. Here are some ideas: 

  • Light a candle.

  • Drink a specific beverage, like a cup of coffee or tea.

  • Listen to a specific type of music. 

  • Wear specific clothes—if you’re working from home, this could mean dressing up like you’re going to the office.

  • Clear your desk space. 

  • Go to a specific location, like an office, coffee shop, or a specific area of your house reserved for work. 

2.  Tap into your biological clock

Your personal biology may influence when you’re most productive during the day. According to Nobel Prize-winning research, every person has a “chronotype”—a pre-set circadian rhythm that determines the fluctuations in our daily energy levels. And when you know your chronotype, you can schedule focus blocks during your peak hours and save less-demanding tasks for when you have less energy and your attention span is shorter. Most people fall within these three categories: 

  • AM-shifted: You naturally wake up early in the morning and feel most productive at the start of the day. If this sounds like you, tackle creative tasks first thing in the morning, and leave your afternoons for less demanding work. 

  • Bi-phasic: Your peak focus time falls between 10am and 2pm, with an energy dip midday. You may experience a “second wind” of energy in the evening. Focus on big tasks before lunch or later in the day after your afternoon slump. 

  • PM-shifted: You prefer to wake up later and do your most product work in the late afternoon and evening. If you’re PM shifted, ease into the day with tasks that don’t require as much brainpower and reserve your late afternoons for focus time. 

Read: The secret to stop procrastinating at work

3. Consolidate tasks in one tool

When you rely on your memory to keep track of tasks, you’re taking up valuable brainspace trying to remember things. But when you write down everything you need to do in one place, you can use that mental energy to focus on completing those tasks. This is one of the concepts behind David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method—because in order to prioritize your work, you need to capture it all first. 

The way you record tasks matters. Instead of using paper lists or spreading your attention between multiple online tools, try using a single project management tool to organize all of your project information and tasks. That way, you can track and share action items in the same place where work happens.

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4. Try a time management strategy

The right time management strategy can go a long way in helping you focus by helping you avoid multitasking and understand how you’re spending time. While the approach you choose depends on your personal work preferences, here are some options to get you started:  

  • The Pomodoro Technique: You don’t need to focus for long periods of time to get things done. This technique uses 25-minute work sessions and 5-minute breaks, so you can tackle one task at a time and reduce mental fatigue. 

  • Time blocking: With time blocking, you schedule out every single part of your day. This technique can help if you want to reclaim your day and understand how you’re spending your time. 

  • Timeboxing: Timeboxing involves creating a “timebox,” during which you aim to finish a specific task within a certain time frame. This method can help if you struggle with multitasking and checking notifications throughout the day. 

  • Eat the frog: This method involves tackling your most difficult task first before you do any other work. As Mark Twain once said, if you have to eat a live frog, do it first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you throughout the day. 

  • The Pareto Principle: Also known as the 80/20 rule, this principle states that roughly 80% of outcomes come from 20% of causes. When it comes to productivity, this means some tasks have significantly more impact than others—and if you focus on those, you can maximize your impact.

5. Prioritize your well-being

Taking care of your physical wellness and mental health is one of the best ways you can improve your focus. When your body and mind are healthy, you can think clearer, manage stress better, and avoid burnout. While your personal health may depend on a number of different factors, the basics are a good place to start: get enough sleep, build in time for physical activity, eat healthy meals, and take short breaks throughout the day. Even low levels of anxiety can make it harder for you to concentrate—so if you’re feeling stressed, take a break, talk to a friend, go for a walk, or try a mindfulness meditation.

And most importantly, remember to give yourself some grace. No one can focus all the time, and it’s normal for your concentration to vary throughout the day or week. 

Read: Feeling overworked? Strategies for individuals and teams to regain balance

Focus on what matters

Focus is about more than just getting things done. It’s an approach to work that can help you avoid constant distractions, take charge of your time, and protect yourself from burnout. And while work can sometimes feel fast-paced and chaotic, these tips can empower you to step back and prioritize where to spend your mental energy. 

Want more tips? Learn more about how to maximize your productivity.  

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