These 8 quick tips will help you focus on boring stuff

You won’t find ‘meditation’ or ‘sleep’ on this rapid-fire, science-backed list of tips to maximize your attention span

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume your focus is a work in progress.

Good for you, friend — for real.

I’m no focus expert either. But I’m working on the basics — meditation, exercise, sleep, and not being a lazy asshole.

Beyond the basics, there are some relatively quick and simple wins you can accumulate in your journey to deeper, more sustained concentration. Quick tips to boost focus and get into the zone.

So let’s not waste any of our precious concentration on the preamble. We’re going to dive right in with something important:

1. Work in full screen

Is there anything more distracting than a flashing Microsoft Teams or Outlook icon?

Our phones and computers are constantly fighting for our attention – and they’re winning.

But you can gain a bit of ground by simply shifting course. To maximise your focus, best-selling author and productivity expert James Clear suggests working in full screen, on only one application at a time:

“ When I am working, I can’t see the time, the icons of other applications, or any other distractions on the screen. It’s funny how big of a difference this makes for my focus and concentration…if you remove the visual cue, then the urge to be distracted subsides in a few minutes.”

Clear argues that we simply cannot do good work if we are distracted.

Make it easier for yourself

As someone who is easily distracted by flashing things (and actually pretty much anything else), I can tell you that Clear is onto something here. Controlling visual cues is a great way to limit distractions; the less obvious distractions are, the easier it is to avoid them.

Next time you need to get into the zone, try working on just one application, in full screen, and limiting everything else in your visual field. In fact, you might even take the full-screen principle into the analog world too…

2. Remove clutter from your visual field

What’s on your desk right now? What about on the walls around you?

Unless you’ve recently become a Minimalist, or a Monk, or a Monkalist, it’s likely you’ve got a few extra bits and bobs (trinkets and treasures!) taking up space on your desk or in your office.

And while a little decoration might give you the warm and fuzzies, a cluttered space can clutter your brain.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University have found that children in highly decorated classrooms are more distracted, spent more time off-task, and demonstrated smaller learning gains than those in plain rooms.

Clutter clogs adult brains, too. Even worse, it makes you stressed.

Researchers at Princeton found the more cluttered your environment, the harder it is to process information, and researchers at UCLE followed 32 families and found a strong link between stress hormones and the amount of clutter in the family home.

It’s time to tidy the f*ck up

If anyone knows anything about the benefits of throwing out those documents from your old job, it’s Marie Kondo, author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

As MK says, ‘The space in which you live should be for the person you are becoming right now, not for the person you were in the past.’

So maybe it’s time to take a hard look at those dry highlighters, empty coffee cups and wired Apple earphones with the old f**king jack that doesn’t even work in the new iPhone (for gods sake willl you STOPs changing the cables Tim) and ask yourself, What kind of room will the more focused, future me work in?

Once you’re done organizing yourself into zen mastery, take a break — the right way.

3. Take a productive break

Let’s be honest — most of us spend our break time scrolling. (And our a good chunk of our work time, too…)

And most of us probably know it’s not ideal, but we do it anyway because…well I don’t know why, I just do it, okay?

Cal Newport, Professor of Computer Science and author of Deep Work, says there a better way. Newport suggests taking Deep Breaks instead:

“It’s possible to take a so-called deep break, which will allow your mind a chance to regroup and recharge without impeding your ability to quickly ramp back up your concentration.”

This means doing anything that will let your mind wander, rest or reset, without becoming distracted or stressed by work, to-do lists, or your phone.

A walk…phoneless…

For example, Newport says he tries “taking a short walk, daydreaming about the good things that could come from succeeding with the task at hand, or summarizing to myself what I already know about the task.”

Personally, I’m a big fan of a quick 10-minute walk around the block — no phone, no earphones, nothing. I’ve found that a little time disconnected, and a little break for my little scrolling thumbs, helps me restore focus and dive right back into the boring stuff that has to get done.

And I’ve found that productive breaks are especially effective when I’m working at the scientifically-proven ideal biological time…

4. Sync up with your Chronotype

Three guys won the Nobel prize in 2017 for discovering that some of us like to wake up earlier and some of us prefer to sleep in.

Doesn’t sound all that groundbreaking, right?

It doesn’t, but it is — the new science of ‘Chronotypes’ shows that you can dramatically improve your focus by working to your circadian rhythm.

Amantha Imber, innovation expert and host of the podcast ‘How I Work’, suggests that we schedule all of our cognitively demanding work based on our Chronotype:

“Larks and middle birds perform best when they schedule deep work for the morning. All digital distractions and communication channels should be switched off. Owls do their best deep work in the evening or at night…”

Imber says that shallow work (such as meetings that don’t require deep thinking or replying to emails) can be scheduled in the afternoon for Larks and Middle Birds, and in the middle of the day for Owls. That way we’re still being productive, without using our precious focus for stuff that doesn’t matter.

I already knew that I was an early riser, but I didn’t quite realize the importance of capitalizing on my natural focus rhythm until I learned about Chronotypes.

But I now block out time between 7:30am-11:00am as my key focus period for the day, and schedule all my most important work (including writing) during that time.

And I’ll be damned — it bloody works. I definitely get more done in that period, and I also spend less time beating myself up for being unproductive during the afternoon ‘dip’ — because I know it’s a real thing, and I’m prepared for it.

But as I’ve become more protective of my focus time, I’ve also realized just how damaging distracting noises can be during the golden hours…

5. Move to a quiet space

I recently came across a study that changed the way I think about open-plan offices.

In 1975, researchers compared the reading scores of children in classrooms that were close to train tracks (about 70m away) with those of children on the quieter side of the same school building.

The researchers found that the reading scores of the children who were closer to the tracks lagged about three months behind their peers on the quiet side.

The passing train noise had a dramatic, negative impact on the kids’ ability to learn.

The same is true for adults, too: according to Scientific American, noise makes us more stressed and decreases the brain’s dopamine production, which in turn inhibits our ability to get into deep focus. Even background noise and white noise can result in impaired memory and learning, and decrease higher brain functions.

The truth is, we can’t get much done in loud environments (including open-plan offices). The best option is to find a quiet space that is conversation-free, to protect your concentration from distractions.

But if you have to work in a noisy room, this next tip is for you.

6. Turn on nature sounds

You might be tempted to roll out some noise-canceling Bose headphones and put on your favorite playlist to block out distracting noises.

But before you do, let’s talk about the optimal music to improve your productivity.

Studies out of the University of Birmingham have shown that background music can help you be more efficient as you perform repetitive tasks — like checking email or filling out a spreadsheet.

But it won’t help you get into deep concentration.

The nature soundtrack

Instead, try nature sounds. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that natural elements in background noise can improve mood and focus.

They used a mountain river stream that was loud enough to drone out any background noise, but was also random enough so that any repetition wasn’t a distraction.

Most of us don’t think about the background noise in our office or home and how that might impact our ability to focus. But if you can find yourself a really quiet space, or switch from tunes to nature sounds, you’re likely to get into a deeper state of focus and find that beautiful flow.

7. Try the 20-second rule

Here’s a quick tip to help dramatically increase the amount of chocolate you eat:

Buy 10 blocks of your favorite (we’re talking sea salt caramel Lindt) and place it enticingly on every visible surface in your home.

Pretty soon, you’ll be Augustus Glooping all over the place and wondering, How did I get like this?

The answer is pretty simple. You made it easier to eat all that chocolate, silly. And you followed the 20-second rule.

Shawn Achor, Harvard Researcher, and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage, suggests that if you want to form a habit, you should make it easier to start. In fact, you should reduce the time it takes to get into it to around 20 seconds.

For example, Achor says, imagine you want to get better at guitar. If your guitar is inside your closet, covered in a bunch of clothes, it’s unlikely you're going to spend 20 long, drawn-out seconds grunting and throwing stuff all over the place to extract that hollow piece of wood, just so you can butcher Blackbird for the fifth night in a row.

But if your guitar is right in the middle of your living room, staring forlornly at you while you watch TV, you might be more likely to pick it up and play it. If it only takes 20 seconds to move your musical butt cheeks off the couch and over to the wall to grab your favorite acoustic, you’ll probably do it.

Then all of a sudden you find yourself deep in a flow state as you hammer out Stairway to Heaven like YOU are the real Jimmy fricken Page.

So if you want to improve your focus, use the 20-second rule to make it easier to start.

8. Work your brain muscles

This final tip isn’t a sexy time-saving hack. But it is the truth:

To improve your focus, you must spend more time focusing.

As Dandapani, a Hindu priest, entrepreneur, and former monk of 10 years says in his TEDx Talk:

“You need to learn to concentrate throughout your entire day. The best way to develop concentration is to integrate [it] into every part of your life.”

Unfortunately, science shows us that the opposite is also true: the more time we spend distracted, the worse our ability to focus.

Research from the late Clifford Nass at Stanford University shows that multi-taskers and heavy media users perform worse on focus tasks.

In one study, researchers asked two groups (one heavy media users and multi-taskers), to look at sets of two red rectangles. Then, they flashed a series of two, four, or six blue rectangles and told the subjects to ignore those distracting blue rectangles and zero-in on the red ones.

The low multitaskers had no problem. But the heavy media users were terrible. They were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue rectangles, unable to filter out the unimportant information.

As Cal Newport says on the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog:

You can’t just decide, “Now I’m going to go focus intensely for the next 3 hours on something.” If you haven’t actually built up your capability to do that, you’re going to have a very hard time. When you’re checking Facebook all the time on your phone outside of work, that has an impact on your ability to perform the next day when you arrive at the office.

Your brain is like a muscle (it’s not a muscle, it’s all soft tissue, nerves and blood vessels).

But the more time you spend working that brain, the stronger it’ll get. And the more time you spend multitasking and scrolling and switching, the less focus you’ll have.

To be more focused, you need to spend more time focusing. That is the real hack.

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