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June 22, 2015

Simple tips to stay focused

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Letting your mind wander is key to creativity, which is vital to innovation, problem solving, and general wellbeing. But when it comes to turning ideas into action and achieving goals, focus is key.

Of course, focus is hard to find in a world full of digital distractions and where working women “can have it all” (including the majority of unpaid (yet vital) caring tasks). The good news is there are a multitude of tools and techniques proven to increase focus, and we’ve made it easy to find one that may work for you. 

Start by selecting the reason you’re struggling to focus:

How to focus if you’re a multitasker 

Whether by nature or nurture, studies have substantiated the common claim that women are better multitaskers than men. However, these studies also tell us that multitasking — even if “good at it” — does more harm than good. 

“Multitasking is a myth. In reality, it’s rapidly switching from one task to another, and then back again. And every time you make that switch, you pay a ‘tax’ on both your time and your energy. For that reason, it’s almost always more efficient to monotask: Focus on one thing and move on when you’re done, so you don’t pay unnecessary switching taxes.” 

Dr. Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley

Although it may seem counterproductive (and incredibly uncomfortable for the chronic multitasker to accept) we can achieve more by doing less. 

💡 Top tip: Not sure which task to prioritize? Start by listing all the tasks on your list and then organize them into four quadrants, known as an Eisenhower Matrix. 

  1. Urgent and important 
  2. Important but not urgent 
  3. Urgent but not important 
  4. Not urgent and not important 

Eisenhower matrix

🧰 Top tool: There are multitude of free online project management tools that make it easy to visualize and organize your to-dos, such as Trello. From weekly activities to one-off big projects, Trello users can create boards on which individual tasks are added, organized, and ticked-off one at a time. 

How to focus if you’re easily distracted 

From the family WhatsApp group to your team’s Slack channel, we’re more accessible than ever. And while the instant connection afforded to us comes with a multitude of benefits, it also means we’re more open to unnecessary distractions. And it certainly doesn’t help that the devices on which these channels are hosted also house a world of online wormholes for us to slip into.

💡 A University of California study found that after each interruption, it takes over 23 minutes to refocus. And, as explored in The Extra Hour, the interruption can even reduce the brainpower – the equivalent of dropping 10 IQ points.

💡Top tip: Studies prove that the brain works more effectively when given regular breaks. As such, one of the most popular and effective techniques for anyone struggling to concentrate is the Pomodoro Technique. This involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, which is a reasonable amount of time for you to focus purely on one activity. You then take a three-to-five minute break and begin again. 

🧰 Tools to help: Willpower is a finite resort and is rarely powerful enough to help us protect our focus.  As such, we recommend using software or apps that help you take control of your workspace. Examples include Freedom or Cold Turkey, which are  website blockers that access to specific domains or apps during your chosen timeframe.

How to focus if you’re a procrastinator 

Procrastination is the act of task avoidance and, to overcome it, you need to first understand why it’s occurring. Spoiler alert: It’s unlikely to be because you’re lazy or lack time management. 

As the professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Tim Pychyl, explains: “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem”. In other words, procrastination is a result of individuals choosing a more mood enhancing activity over the current task at hand. And while this may simply be a sign you need to find a more fulfilling role, it could be the symptom of a mental health or neurodevelopmental disorder such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and ADHD. 

💡Top tip: First and foremost, if you suspect your procrastination is a result of a mental health or neurodevelopment disorder, please seek professional help. This may be available to you as part of your company’s Employee Assistance Program.

🧰 Top tools: Again, the tips and tools in this article should not be seen as a substitute for a professional diagnosis and help with more serious causes of procrastination.

However, for those who suspect a less serious cause for their procrastination, meditating apps have been proven to help. For example, one 15-minute session of the meditation app Headspace resulted in a 22% reduction in mind-wandering. Procrastinators can also benefit from the techniques shared above, such as the Pomodoro Technique and Eisenhower Matrix

What works for you? 

If you’ve got a tip, tool, or technique that’s transformed the way you maintain your focus, our community would love to hear it! In fact, we’d love for you to be part of all the supportive career conversations occuring in our online communities:

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About the Author
WORK180 promotes organizational standards that raise the bar for women in the workplace. We only endorse employers that are committed to making real progress so that all women can expect better.

Looking for a new opportunity?

Our transparent job board only has vacancies from employers we endorse and lets you see what benefits, policies and perks come with the job.