Everyone's had these messages flash across their mind or their computer screen. Something interesting appears, and before we know it, we've rationalized how "it'll only take a second" and pretty soon we've gone from game statistics to Star Wars trailers and end up on beard ornaments. (There actually are beard baubles. Who knew!) But! Before you Google "beard ornaments," check out this list of how to stay focused!
Nadia Goodman, M.A. in Clinical Psychology, has three excellent suggestions for those who struggle to focus in on the task at hand.
1. Do creative work first.Typically, we do mindless work first and build up to the toughest tasks. That drains your energy and lowers your focus. "An hour into doing your work, you've got a lot less capacity than (at the beginning)," Rock says. "Every decision we make tires the brain."
In order to focus effectively, reverse the order. Check off the tasks that require creativity or concentration first thing in the morning, and then move on to easier work, like deleting emails or scheduling meetings, later in the day.
2. Allocate your time deliberately.By studying thousands of people, Rock found that we are truly focused for an average of only six hours per week. "You want to be really diligent with what you put into those hours," he says.
Most people focus best in the morning or late at night, and Rock's studies show that 90 percent of people do their best thinking outside the office. Notice where and when you focus best, then allocate your toughest tasks for those moments.
3. Train your mind like a muscle.When multitasking is the norm, your brain quickly adapts. You lose the ability to focus as distraction becomes a habit. "We've trained our brains to be unfocused," Rock says.
Practice concentration by turning off all distractions and committing your attention to a single task. Start small, maybe five minutes per day, and work up to larger chunks of time. If you find your mind wandering, just return to the task at hand. "It’s just like getting fit," Rock says. "You have to build the muscle to be focused."
Nadia's suggestions are excellent suggestions for change, and can be implemented slowly throughout our day. The trick is to recognize the potential distractions for what they are, and commit to doing something about them, or to making small changes in our daily schedule, and eventually we will be in charge of our time and our attentive energy.
In addition to making creative work our first priority, allocating time, and retraining the mind, livescience tells us how to implement planned breaks into our day, to ward off monotony.
Enjoy a diversion
Perhaps the simplest way to improve attention span is simply not to pay attention for a little while. Evidence shows that taking a break improves your ability to focus once you return to the task at hand.
Even the briefest intermission can be beneficial, according to research from the University of Illinois, as reported in the journal Cognition in February. In the study, led by psychologist Alejandro Lleras, 84 participants were given a 50-minute-long computer task. The participants who were allowed two short breaks during the task performed it better.
Lleras said that just as the body becomes habituated to a stimulus over time (for example, you're not constantly aware of the feel of your socks), your mind can become habituated to the subject of its concentration.
"Prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance," Lleras said.
In other words, taking a short break in the middle of a long task acts like a "refresh" button for the brain.
Know your limits
In the end, increasing your ability to focus may require you to figure out what distracts you most.
In one study, people whose work was interrupted by emails from a hypothetical supervisor reported higher levels of stress after just 20 minutes.
Surprisingly, the participants were working faster, but at a higher cost: They reported feeling their workload was greater and required more mental effort to complete, according to Gloria Mark, who presented the findings at a 2008 meeting of the Association of Computer Machinery.
Mark said everyone may have a level of interruption that is tolerable, and a threshold for distraction. Exceed the threshold and the quality of work (not to mention the quality of a person's life) declines.
If you're feeling overworked and unable to concentrate, the solution may be as easy as signing out of your email account for a few hours.
By gaining an understanding of how the brain and body respond to distractions and to staying focused for prolonged periods of time, we can gain a greater understanding of our own needs. Taking a few minutes a day to plan out when you'll shut off electronics and focus only on the task at hand, and planning out break times can make small but meaningful changes in your personal and work life.
These principles are applicable to any area of life, so share them with a friend, child, parent, or co-worker. It always helps to have a friend to help when making life changes, so grab another Aggie and take control!