There’s a developing research group about how counterproductive multitasking can be. While we may feel like we’re accomplishing more, the reality is that regular multitasking can leave us with a diminishing capacity to focus.
That is great to know. But if you’re a chronic multitasker who finds it hard to focus, is there any hope of getting your attention span back?
While neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal and author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession won’t speak definitively for everyone, he says there are some general things most of us can do to improve our focus. Put these practices into place to sharpen your focus and be more effective.
1. GET MORE SLEEP
While we may instantly think of task-related issues that affect focus, our capacity to focus occurs inside a greater physiological context, Levitin says. If you’re not getting enough sleep or feeling a great deal of stress, you may find it hard to focus, even in the best circumstances.
Caffeine can increase focus in some individuals but may undermine it in others, causing them to feel anxious or “jittery.” Understanding your own needs to feel rested and able to focus and tending to them is truly the initial step to enhancing your ability to hone in on what’s got your attention for longer periods of time.
2. WRITE DOWN WHAT IS DISTRACTING YOU
When individuals try to meditate for the first time, it’s common for their minds to wander or for unwanted thoughts to creep in. “We call that the monkey mind”—and the same thing can happen when it’s time to focus, says Diana Raab, author of Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey. This is where keeping a journal or even a list can be useful. Write down the idea or to-do list items that pop into your mind so you can let them go or manage them later, she says.
3. TURN OFF DIGITAL DISTRACTIONS
Like any practice, focus happens best when you set yourself up for success. Make sure you have the resources and materials for the job at hand and block out time to work on the task. Also make sure to turn off notifications for email and social media. When push notifications are activated, other individuals are deciding on what you are focusing.
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4. COMMIT TO WHAT YOU’RE DOING
It sounds simple, but in order to concentrate on something, you have to commit to doing it. Without such commitment, you’re going to be distracted by your thoughts or other demands on your time. You’ve got to decide that this is the work you’ll complete now, without multitasking and do it.
Recovering it may require practice. You may need to start out with 10 minutes at a time, forcing yourself to remain focused. Then, work on incrementally increasing the amount of time you’re focused on a task. The goal is to get yourself staying focused on task for between 25 and 90 minutes, depending on the type of work you’re doing and what your personal focus thresholds are.
6. INTEGRATE “DISTRACTION” BREAKS
In between periods of focus, taking brief breaks can really help you enhance your focus even more. While the break that’s most effective will differ for many, the key is to shift to something very different than what you were previously working on.
“It’s stopping work completely to read an aviation book or make myself a coffee or check out something on Politico. Something completely different that actually allows me to reset for a second so when I am working, I’m working at my full efficacy instead of this deep-down distracted sense,” he says.