No matter how hard you try to focus at work, it’s not always possible. Whether you’re distracted or drained, sometimes our concentration just lapses. That’s totally normal and expected – and all part of being human. But that’s not to say it’s completely out of your control either.
Improving your concentration doesn’t require any particular genius. You just need to understand that your attention is a finite resource – you need to be more careful with how you spend it. Here are five ways you can work within its boundaries to improve your concentration at work.
Know your boundaries
Improving our ability to concentrate starts with understanding that attention is a limited capacity resource. We drain it every time we introduce a new step into our work, attend to a message stimulus, and switch contexts by moving between tasks and apps. Many of us don’t realise how much we do the latter, but research suggests that 68% of us switch apps a staggering ten times an hour.
Multitasking can feel productive, but we need to remember that our brains can only focus on one complex task at a time. The trick to improving concentration isn’t to cram as much stuff into it; it’s to respect its limits and work strategically within them to sustain focus over long periods of time.
5 ways to improve your concentration
While there are myriad routes to achieving the above, some are especially useful for keeping hyper-connectivity in check. The following five techniques are quickly becoming essential for locking focus, controlling distraction and preventing burnout in our noisy digital work environment.
1. Prevent digital distraction
There seems to be no end to the number of distractions competing for our attention in our digital workspace. Email notifications, Slack pings, document comments, news pushes, social media updates... all of these non-essential notifications crowd our space for deep thinking, creating an environment of perpetual distraction.
Even if you have the willpower not to respond to them immediately, just seeing them can set your mind wandering, opening you to distracting tangential thoughts – or attention residue. When outright deleting apps is not an option, anti-distraction apps are the next best thing. They can shield you from disruptive notifications whenever you want to concentrate and even block specific websites, should you need a firmer hand.
Constantly having to make decisions – whether it’s about where you’re going to work or which task you’ll start first – quickly becomes exhausting and leads to poorer decision making itself. Concentration requires commitment: we need to have the cognitive clarity to prioritize a certain task and stick with it when it gets difficult. But decision fatigue can quickly kill this willpower.
The easiest way to manage decision fatigue is to introduce simple productive routines. These act as cognitive shortcuts, making sure unimportant questions don’t sap your attention. Plan out your week in advance, wherever possible, using time boxing to structure your days. Frontload your complex tasks and save ones that raise clusters of low-value questions for the end of the day. Once your working routine becomes second nature you no longer have to waste energy on simply knowing what’s coming next.
3. Automate low-value work
No matter the job, few of us can entirely escape low-value documentation work. Whether it’s invoicing, tracking time, updating task management tools or filing expenses, these uninspiring, low-value tasks fritter away our time with very little to show for it. But in being so repetitive, they are also often some of the easiest to automate.
Luckily, these days there’s an app for everything – including those low-value tasks we dread. Outsourcing these essential admin jobs to smart tech helps save your energy for solving the complex problems which move your career forward and give you the greatest intrinsic reward.
Sustaining concentration for long periods of time requires complete presence – where you are fully immersed in one task. “Deep work” methodology offers this meditative approach to working. In practice, it’s about regularly creating the conditions for prolonged, uninterrupted flow. Deep work can help people access new levels of focus, with the added psychological benefits that come with dedicating space to important work.
But to really reap the benefits of deep work, you have to prioritize it. That means regularly scheduling sessions and gradually pushing yourself to focus for longer stretches at a time. Don’t just see it as a way to get more done; see it as an antidote to unproductive multitasking.
While doing deep work for hours is possible, you still need to take strategic breaks to boost your limited concentration. Taking deep breaks gives your brain time to recharge while setting you up to dive straight back into your flow. Deep breaks are about taking small, non-task related actions that can be completed in five or ten minutes. These actions shouldn’t raise complex questions and stresses, or introduce attention residue into your day.
Taking a walk, getting coffee and running a small errand are all great examples. But simply taking stock of the bigger picture is useful too. When you’re busy concentrating on the micro scale, it’s easy to lose sight of the macro. Your work should always exist within a wider strategy which helps you gauge what you’re working towards, what value you’re adding, and when you will have achieved a given goal. Using these breaks just to remind yourself where you are and how you’re doing is a really powerful way to keep you focused and prepare you to jump back in.