I struggle to focus on a daily basis. The causes can be anything from stress to a lack of motivation or simple laziness. It doesn’t help that my mind is almost always buzzing with random thoughts and unexplored ideas, which makes me easily distracted and highly prone to procrastination.
I used to think I was a hopeless case, because I didn’t know how to deal with my poor concentration. Sometimes, it feels like I’m better at figuring out ways to avoid doing the work I should be doing than just doing the work itself.
If you can identify with what I’m saying, know that you’re not alone, and that it’s not impossible to overcome distraction and procrastination. Here are seven tips I’ve discovered after much trial and error that have helped me improve my focus.
1. Have a plan
Planning ahead is the best way to manage your time effectively in order to achieve your long-term goals. It helps you stay organized and keep on track, especially during stressful times.
Set up your day the night before — or the first thing in the morning, if that works better for you. You don’t have to plan your entire day down to the minute. Just list your goals or tasks for the day (if possible, try to have no more than five things on your list). If yours is a mental to-do list, I recommend writing it down, since the very act of writing can help you remember things better.
Then, prioritize your tasks according to their urgency and importance, and divide each into smaller parts. That way, if there’s anything urgent on the list, you’ll remember to attend to it as soon as you begin your day. Otherwise, choose the most difficult yet important task on your list and start your day with that. Soon, you’ll realize that the task isn’t nearly as hard as it seems.
2. Eliminate distractions
The first and most obvious step here is to put away your phone (ideally some place where you can’t easily access it or where you won’t hear or see it) so you won’t feel tempted to check it every now and then. If your work requires you to have your phone with you at all times, though, then turn off any unnecessary notifications to minimize potential distractions.
Next, take a step back and identify other time-wasters that you find yourself turning to more often than not. This includes not only the common time-sucks like games and TV, but also other seemingly harmless habits that hold you back from doing what you really need to. These are habits that you use to put off hard work — such as those cravings for food, a cigarette, or another cup of coffee.
Learn to remove these distractions and say, “No, thank you” — even to yourself — and you’ll come to see how many things you can (surprisingly) live without.
3. Stop multitasking
Yes, that’s right. If you’re learning to stay focused, then it’s best to stop multitasking.
While many of us today pride ourselves on our ability to multitask, it can actually backfire on us. In fact, according to an MIT neuroscientist, multitasking can affect productivity and creativity as well as cause more mistakes.
When you multitask, you’re constantly switching, backtracking, and refocusing your attention from one thing to another. Essentially, it’s a disguised form of distraction that has to go.
4. Practice mindfulness
Instead of just trying not to multitask, you can direct your attention to practicing mindfulness in your daily activities instead.
Mindfulness in action is a great way to shut out distractions by staying in the present moment and focusing on the task at hand. It is a skill that requires a certain level of self-awareness to notice when our minds wander and to keep calling it back to the current moment. If you’re going through a busy period in life, incorporating a few mindfulness exercises into your daily routine can make a big difference in your personal well-being.
5. Have fun
Believe it or not, fun can be considered a basic human need. While this may seem counterintuitive to our topic at hand, try recalling all the times you felt restless or distracted when doing something. Now compare these moments with the times you did feel focused and “in the zone.”
You may notice that you focus better when you’re doing something fun. So gamify your tasks — try to find an element of fun in your work so that your mind doesn’t get bored and start wandering easily. If a task becomes too stressful to find enjoyable (we all have those moments), find a simple hobby — such as handicraft, dance, music, and exercise — that can help you unwind when you’re not working.
We all know we need to strike a balance between work and play. But we need to add rest into the equation as well.
Aside from taking regular breaks (anywhere between 5 to 15 minutes would be good enough) throughout your workday, nothing is more important than having healthy sleep habits. Ours is a generation of the sleep-deprived. We struggle to make adequate time for sleep because we’re so busy. And then when we’re tired, we dread going to bed because we’re used to thinking that what awaits us when we wake up is just another day of chores.
The antidote is to accept rest as a legitimate need foundational to our well-being, and to embrace it as a practice of surrender and acceptance.
When you rest, what you’re doing is letting go of your worries and trusting in a better tomorrow. Naturally, by resting well, you’ll also be in better shape to focus on other things like work and fun.
7. Have patience
When all else fails, keep in mind that your focus is like a muscle. Like any other muscle in your body, it needs training.
Strengthening your concentration is not a one-time event, but a process of growth. So be patient and give yourself the space to make mistakes and learn from them. After all, the best way to attain a lasting change is to fall in love with the process of achieving it.