“I have so much to do… ugh, I’m so behin… did I just get a text? Let me check my phon… okay, got an email, have to respon… wait, what was I doing?”
^ How many of you can relate to that type of scattered, interrupted thinking over the course of any given day?
How productive do you find yourself being when your focus is constantly sucker-punched?
Many of us have been programmed to believe that multitasking is a wonderful skill that we should all employ in order to be productive, efficient members of a work group and overall society.
In reality, multitasking has made the vast majority of us jumpy creatures who feel the need to work on a thousand things at once.
This is not a healthy, productive way to exist. At all.
Below are a few ways that you can improve your focus, and in turn, your overall sense of accomplishment and well-being.
Break Tasks Into Manageable Bites
Whether you’re studying for an exam or you have a major project due, you might find yourself overwhelmed and freaking out about just how many things have to be done.
Being overwhelmed like this can lead to procrastination, self-distraction, and overall inefficiency, resulting in either a crappy grade (hello depression and lack of self-worth) or a talking-to by superiors at work.
The key is to be objective about what you have to do, breaking down the task into a list of deliverables.
These deliverables are then ranked in terms of importance, time needed, etc.
Establish a deadline, then create your own deadline a couple of days in advance to allow some spill-over time in case adjustments are needed
Sort out which tasks will require the greatest amount of time
Determine which need to be done first
Create a work-back schedule that accommodates all of them, and mark that schedule on a calendar
Doing this will reduce your stress significantly, because you can schedule X number of hours per day/week for the project, and ensure that you can get it done on time.
Each item can be focused on entirely, in that moment, without the overwhelming stress of everything else that still needs to be sorted out: all has had time allocated to it.
Write To-Do Lists
Once you’ve determined your schedule of deliverables, you’ll break that down even further into lists of what needs to be done on particular days.
Furthermore, you’re going to write these lists with a pen or pencil, on paper: not just in a text file.
There are a lot of fabulous day timers and planners you can use for this, but a simple notepad or a desk calendar placed besides your laptop/keyboard will work just fine.
Why write them out? For two reasons:
The physical act of writing things down helps to confirm them as important in your mind.
It is immensely cathartic to cross things out when they’ve been completed.
Seriously, at the end of the day, you’ll feel a startling sense of accomplishment when you look at all the tasks that have been slashed through with a pen.
Unless you need your phone close at hand because your kid is sick and you’re getting regular updates from the sitter (or a situation that’s of similar importance), turn it off and put it away.
Somewhere out of reach.
Seriously, put it in your coat pocket or something and hang that coat in the closet.
Most of us have gotten into the habit of checking our phones, including various social media feeds, a thousand times a day due to FOMO (fear of missing out), but all those “quick checks” add up.
Not just that, but when you feel the urge to check any of these things, you’re derailing your concentration. Every derailment requires a bit of time for you to get back on track, which can just end up frustrating you and giving you a headache.
If you don’t have enough self-discipline to refrain from checking your social feed every few minutes, install a productivity app that will prevent you from checking or seeing anything for X amount of time.
In addition to those apps, only check your phone hourly when you go on a break, as mentioned next.
Studies have shown that people tend to be most productive when they work for roughly 45 minutes, then take a 15-minute break.
This allows people to focus and immerse properly, while also allowing time to replenish personal energy stores. You can’t draw blood from a stone, and you can’t give and give without putting anything back into storage.
Set a timer, and when it goes off after 45 minutes, stand up and move around a bit. If you can, go for a quick walk, or sneak into an unused office to do a bit of yoga.
Even meditate for a few minutes to re-center and ground yourself before turning back to the task at hand.
Don’t Multitask: Do One Thing At A Time
Remember that bit about multitasking making everyone jumpy? It has been known to increase stress and anxiety, so it’s best to follow the Buddhist perspective of being mindful, rather than mind-full.
When you’re eating, just eat. Don’t scroll Twitter on your phone or look over your notes: just eat. Focus on every bite, savor everything you put in your mouth, and chew slowly.
Similarly, when you’re working on a task, don’t think about the various other things you need to do next: just do what you’re doing in that present moment.
Whenever a stray thought pops in, let it go gently, and return your focus to the task at hand.
Your focus will improve, you’ll get things done more quickly, and you may end up marveling at your newfound efficiency.
Make A Point Of Reading More
Most people today have the attention spans of gnats and can barely concentrate on reading anything longer than a tweet.
Information comes in short bursts, and the closest many get to reading is scrolling through their Instagram feed on their phones during their commute home from the office.
This is absolutely terrible for personal focus, and constantly processing short blips of info from all different directions may contribute to anxiety.
Pick up a book instead, on a topic that you’re truly interested about. If a book seems too intimidating to attempt, then grab a magazine on a similar topic.
You’ll be able to get engrossed in subject matter that sincerely fascinates you far more easily than if you’re reading something because you feel that you “should.”
Get Decent Sleep, Eat Well, And Stay Hydrated
Yes, you’ve come across this advice in other articles, but you know what? It cannot be reiterated often enough.
Your focus (and overall well-being) will suffer if you’re exhausted, dehydrated, and on the verge of getting scurvy because you’re subsisting off stale pizza and ramen noodles.
If you use your phone as an alarm clock, set it to airplane mode while you’re asleep, and don’t look at it for at least an hour as you wind down for bed.
Listen to music if that calms you, or do some gentle yoga, or take a bath… anything that will help you release the day’s tension so you can get proper rest. Good sleep- hygiene is crucial if you want to wake up early and alert.
With regard to food, choose nutrient-dense options over chemical-laden options, and make sure you drink plenty of water!
Most of us are fuelled by caffeine, but coffee is a diuretic, and your brain needs to stay hydrated in order to function properly. Make sure you drink a glass of water for every cup of coffee or other caffeinated drink you consume.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.