Learning how to focus is vital in a world of constant distractions.
To achieve anything is life, you must be able to focus.
Unfortunately, people who are highly creative are also very easily distracted.
One of the most famous examples was the French writer Marcel Proust, who lined the bedroom where he wrote with cork and used ear-stoppers to help him concentrate.
So, if you find it hard to learn how to focus you are in good company, don’t worry.
Try these science-backed steps for a laser-like mental focus:
1. Choose only one thing to do
Our conscious attention is not really designed for doing more than one thing at a time.
First and foremost, then: choose just one thing to do.
This is easy to say, harder to follow through on.
Often there is a larger task which is chunked down into smaller tasks.
When one task is tricky or you get stuck, it’s easy for attention to slide off to something else.
Keep floating from one half-finished task to another, though, and nothing ever gets finished.
Pick one task or sub-task and stick to it until it’s either done or you’ve decided it really can’t be done now.
2. Concentrate on your best time of day
People are best at how to focus at different times of the day.
For a lot of people it’s the morning, for others it’s the afternoon or evening.
Whenever you feel most focused — or are least likely to be distracted — use that time for tasks that require the focus.
3. Short breathing exercise
Breathing exercises can you teach you how to focus.
Before you start work, do a little breathing exercise.
This is enough to refocus the minds of highly distracted people, recent research finds.
Heavy media multitaskers benefited most from simply counting their breaths.
Simply count groups of nine breaths: nine inhales and nine exhales.
A few minutes of this will do.
4. How to focus: mindfulness
Everyone gets distracted while they are trying to focus.
It’s normal and it’s better to see it as inevitable when you get distracted.
While working away at your task, try to bring the mind gently back to what you are doing.
Don’t chide yourself or get down when the focus slips.
Just note the distraction and nudge the mind back to where it is supposed to be.
5. Brief diversion
Attention gets tired over time — it happens to everyone.
After 10 minutes, 20 minutes, an hour or whatever, the mind starts to fatigue.
It is much better to take a short break when this happens rather than just ploughing on.
Studies show that when people take a short break they return with renewed vigour.
It only needs to be 5 minutes, or whatever works for you.
6. Take a walk, appreciate nature & doodling
Walks work wonderfully as a break from trying to focus.
Often, though, a walk is out of the question.
If so, why not try doodling on a piece of paper.
Doodling helps the mind relax because it is a ‘pointless’ task.
At the very least, try the short breathing exercise again (number 3).
Can’t manage that?
Even just looking at a picture of nature can help your attention.
Try resetting your desktop background.
After a break, it’s time to refocus.
If you are finding this difficult, then use the mindfulness strategy again.
Gently nudge your mind towards what it is supposed to be doing.
Remember to be nice to yourself!
8. How to focus: self-check
It’s easy to get distracted without really noticing that you’re distracted…
However, learning to periodically self-check can improve attention and help people focus better on tasks, recent research finds.
The study’s authors write that attentional lapses occur because:
“…humans do not adequately monitor how well they are attending from moment to moment.
Lapses emerge gradually and may be detected too late, after the chain of events that produces behavioral errors has been initiated.”
9. Adjust the task if you lose focus
Still losing focus?
Try adjusting the task.
Tasks that are either too easy or too hard cause us to mentally check out.
Can you set yourself a time-limit for easy tasks to make them harder?
Can you chunk down a difficult task to make it easier?
Adjust them so the challenge is in the sweet-spot: not too easy, not too hard.
Tasks that fit our skills but push us a bit are easier to enjoy: and so it’s easier to focus.
10. How to focus: listen to your body and mind
If the body or the mind start to ache, give it a break.
There’s a limit to how much we can get done.
When the head starts to hurt, the body to complain, then that’s the sign that it’s time to stop.
There’s no point pushing on and doing bad work.
Give it a rest until later, or until tomorrow.
Dodgy work is a waste of time — go and do something fun instead!