We live in an age of distraction, and focus is the enemy. In fact, you're probably getting some Instagram/Facebook/Twitter/Gmail alerts on your phone as you read this article at your desk in your company's horribly distracting open-concept office. But with a little help, you can train your brain to overpower the deluge of pings, flashes, vibrations, and whatever else plagues your workday.
Here are 12 simple tips to be more focused and get sh*t done.
1. Quit multi-tasking
This one's tough, but it's crucial when you need to get down to business. Like an athlete, your brain adapts and expands as a result of its training, so if you're constantly pivoting from one activity to the next, your brain will grow accustomed to being interrupted, and as such, have a harder time honing in on one activity.
2. Shrink your mental deadlines As any procrastinator will freely admit, nothing dials up the focus (and often, quality of work) like a deadline. To light that fire artificially, experts suggest you determine an amount of time a particular task should take you, then shave it down. For example, if that proposal you've been meaning to finish should take you an hour or so, set a deadline of 40 minutes and stick to it. The self-imposed ticking clock will subconsciously help you better focus.
3. Make promises If you're having trouble sticking to self-imposed deadlines as mentioned above, ask a friend or co-worker to keep you on task. You're more likely to hunker down and get that big project finished when you know there's someone holding you to it, even if they can't dole out any real consequences.
4. Review your productivity at the end of the day
Before you call it a day, make a list of 3 to 5 of the most important things you hope to accomplish the following work day. While you're at it, do an inventory of the 3 to 5 things you had on there today, and if you missed something or think you could have done it better, tack it on to tomorrow's list. Keeping a visual of day-to-day productivity will help motivate you to obliterate unfinished or sub-par work if you start to see it stack up.
5. Make a "stop doing" list There are many ways adhering to a to-do list helps you get organized, but acknowledging on paper the things that get in the way of your concentration will also keep you in line. Whatever they may be, whether distracting co-workers or routines that throw you off, keep the list visible and stick to it.
6. Cut down on internal distractions
This one is admittedly a little more abstract, but it's important to pay attention to paying attention. Don't let unrelated thoughts (what you might be doing after work, that you totally haven't bought a Mother's Day gift yet, etc.) interfere with the task at hand. Consciously discard it until you're done. You'll have even better luck doing such things if you embrace the next step.
7. Meditate, man!
Studies have shown that sticking to a long-term meditation regimen can help you more effectively block out distractions on command, especially innocuous—albeit destructive—thoughts.
8. Change your mood with special music Ever heard of brain entrainment? It's the practice of listening to a series of specially formulated tones and beats that have been shown to engage particular behaviors and mindsets. There are pages and pages of free focus-specific tracks on the Web, but this one is a good place to start. If the whole abstract beats thing isn't your bag, there's always a good ol' music playlist. Spotify has a solid list of focus-friendly (lyric-free) ones to choose from, including this one.
9. Remove focus-shattering triggers Every time you lose focus on a particular activity, it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back in the zone. If you're not fortunate enough to have your own office with a door to shut out the midday riff raff, invest in a quality pair of sound-proof headphones, and perhaps even a desk divider. And to control against the temptation to check your e-mail or Facebook every five minutes, there's a sea of browser plugins that will prevent you from visiting any number of time-wasting sites.
10. Get to know your biorhythm
Not to go all science nerd on you, but each of our bodies is aligned with different rhythmic patterns that dictate our behavior. Those ultradian patterns—ones which recur regularly over the course of 24 hours—can be measured on any number of levels (physical, emotional, etc.), but you'll want to focus in on your intellectual rhythms. To find out when you're personally at peak performance or concentration levels, create a spreadsheet and log your energy and concentration levels every hour during the workday for one or two weeks. Then, plot them on a graph to find out what time of the day you're typically feeling most concentrated, and schedule coffee breaks, lunch, or more menial stuff (replyling to emails, etc.) around them. It's a little involved, but it may be well worth it in the long run.
11. If you need to be creative, start early No matter your particular biorhythm, everyone's brain gets tired later in the day. Experts suggest that if the work you're doing requires creativity (or more brainpower in general), reserve time early in the day to knock it out.
12. Treat yo'self It's important that you lock in a schedule and stick to it, but it's equally important that it comes with built-in rewards. For example, if you set aside an hour or two to finish building that big presentation in the afternoon, make sure you're treating yourself to something once it's finished, be it a delicious cookie, Facebook check-in, or a brief YouTube binge.
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor. His biorhythm is best described as a samba or bossa nova.