You’ve identified your most important task (MIT) for the day, grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down to work on it. Ten minutes in and the urge to check your email, send a text and visit news sites kicks in. You do your routine check and get back to your MIT and, after another 10 minutes, you are on your routine check again.
Most people think this is normal and this way of thinking forces them to spend way more time on a task than it actually requires. No wonder why work weeks aren’t 40 hours anymore.
On Focused Attention
The ability to focus for a long time on a single task is diminishing in 21st-century knowledge workers despite it being one of today’s most valuable skills. It’s not something you put on your resume but it’s something you actually use on a daily basis to get stuff done.
I’ve always wondered how come I can complete my tasks well ahead of the other people at work. I noticed that most of them allow all kinds of distractions while working so they end up spending way more time to complete their tasks.
We all know what these distractions are and they aren’t going anywhere soon. So, instead of talking about distractions, we will focus on the solutions to help you get more things done in less time.
Today, I am going to share three powerful strategies that I have implemented and tested in my personal and work life. These are the strategies that taught me how to improve concentration.
Redefine Your Friendship with the Internet
The Internet is the core of all distractions, so let’s start with it.
These days, most of us have social media, emails or instant messaging apps open while working on a task that requires a lot of brainpower.
Most people think they can focus on a cognitively demanding task while surfing the internet and receiving constant notifications. It’s a huge misconception and research has proven it, too.
If you want to improve your focus, you need to look at how you are using the internet. Is it making your life easier or is it distracting you from your most important task (MIT) on most days?
If it’s the source of distractions, then you need to set new terms. This requires three elements.
A. Get notified on your own terms
Don’t let an email message from a coworker or social media notifications ruin your flow.
Turn off notifications from all social sites as well as your email on your smartphone. If you really want to get notified, choose to receive notifications only for emails or messages that are extremely important.
If you can’t turn off all notifications on your phone, at least minimize them. Decide what is important in your life.
B. Acknowledge FOMO (Fear of Missing out)
While working on a task, we all have a tendency to check social media or news sites because we feel like we are missing out on something important if we don’t. Millennials are badly impacted by FOMO and it really disrupts their ability to focus.
Instead of checking social or news sites 633 times during workday, have a couple of times during the day when you can go all in on it. Try it out for a couple days and notice how liberated you’ll feel.
C. Build a cave
If you have an option to work in a separate space, such as in a closed door office or just away from your colleagues, then turn that space into a focus cave for a couple of hours. Here’s how cave environment looks like:
· Tasks to be worked on has been identified already
· No distraction (electric or human) allowed
· Brain music (ex: brain.fm) for focus is on with earphones
· Coffee/Tea is ready to be sipped
Schedule Your Training Sessions
Learning how to improve concentration is like going to the gym to lose weight or build muscles. To improve focus, you need to have training sessions throughout the workweek as well.
The best way to do these training sessions and get stuff done at the same time is to use the good old Pomodoro technique. No one can beat Pomodoro technique when it comes to focusing.
If you aren’t familiar with the Pomodoro technique, here it is in a nutshell:
· Select your MIT.
· Set the timer for a specified time (example 30 min).
· Work on one task for the set time period with no distractions allowed.
· Take a quick break of 5-10 mins and then get back to another session Tip: Take a break away from your
Tip: Take a break away from your workspace.
You can download a Pomodoro timer easily from the internet. I use a tool called Tomighty.
If you can do 4 to 5 sessions of 30 to 45 minutes a day, you can’t even imagine how much stuff you can get done. Beginners find it hard to complete 4-5 sessions, so if you can’t, don’t get discouraged. Just start with 2 or whatever is comfortable for you.
If you are a beginner, you won’t be able for focus for 30 minutes straight on a single task because your brain isn’t used to it yet. Just start with a small number and increment from there.
Learn to Multitask
So far, hundreds, if not thousands, of research papers have proved that multitasking is bad for the human brain. Am I stupid to recommend multitasking then? No.
Even with all the research and literature proving multitasking is bad, more and more people are getting into it every day. One common complaint people have is that they have so much to do so they have to multitask.
To make a better use of it, learn how to differentiate your tasks. Some of them can be done simultaneously but others require intense focus.
For example, you can easily fill out a status report while chatting with your colleague on an instant messaging tool. On the other side, there are tasks, such as writing software design documentation, that require 100% focus and can’t be done effectively while multitasking.
So, the takeaway here is to look at your list of tasks every day and decide which tasks require intense focus and use Pomodoro technique to go through them.
Pro Tip: Use afternoons for multitasking and morning for tasks that require focus.
Steps On How To Improve Concentration
Here are the step-by-step instructions on how to apply these three strategies to increase your concentration:
1. Before you start anything else at work, look at your tasks and identify those that require 100% focus and which tasks can be completed while multitasking.
2. Select your MIT (most important task).
3. Make sure all notifications are turned off, except highly important ones.
4. Set your Pomodoro timer to your desired working time.
5. Work through that time and resist the urge to give up, browse the internet or check your phone.
6. Once the time is over, take a break for 5 to 10 mins. Step away from your desk and get some fresh air if possible.
7. Return to your desk for another intense session. Continue with your existing task or start a new one.
8. After you are done with your most important tasks, you can continue completing the other tasks on your lists which you can do even while getting interrupted.
It sucks to be late for deadlines or to stay late at work just because you can’t finish your tasks due to all the distractions. However, if you follow the methods outlined above, I can promise you that you can accomplish your tasks in half the time. Now, imagine having extra time for things you love to do because you learned to curb distractions and save time due to improved focus.
What are the common barriers that prevent you from focusing on a single task for more than 30 minutes?
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