How Not to Lose Focus While Working (Backed by Science)

Do you sometimes start working on something important but can’t seem to concentrate? Whether it’s a test that you’re studying for, a big assignment at work, trying to code your app, or doing research that is important for you—you easily lose focus. You’re always eager to enter Instagram or Facebook, go to the refrigerator, or think about almost every other thing that you shouldn’t be thinking about.

The good news is that you’re not alone. Lack of focus is a common issue, and it can affect our ability to get the important stuff done. It can also make people stressed and lose motivation.

There are many types of research on the topic. Perhaps one of the most influential writers about deep work is Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, which explains the importance of profoundly concentrating and how to do so.

I’m going to cover his methods and also others written by experts in the field. One of them is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, Nir Eyal, and also, the author of Can I Have Your Attention?: Inspiring Better Work Habits, Focusing Your Team, and Getting Stuff Done in the Constantly Connected Workplace, Curt Steinhorst.

I’m going to cover other research and researchers and—most importantly—provide you with hands-on tips on how to regain concentration when you lose focus.

The Main Theories

According to Newport, deep work is “deep efforts that create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” In other words, this is the thing that is going to differentiate you from others that do not have the capabilities to create unreplicable work—what he describes as “the superpower of the 21st century.”

Nir Eyal’s superb book summarizes the leading theories and most updated research on the things that keep us distracted. He created an equation that compares time management to pain management. He claims that every time our thoughts wander, it is because there is something we’re running away from.

It can be fear of failure, where we don’t want to start doing something we’re unsure we can achieve, and that makes us watch yet another episode of Friends on Netflix. It can also be boredom, a fear of success, or self-doubt that we’re running away from when we begin to binge-watch our favorite show instead of being productive with our work.

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In his theory of Flow, the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined it as being “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Sometimes, when our capabilities don’t match what we’re trying to achieve, it stresses us out and makes us less focused, making it impossible to achieve a flow state.

There are many theories, and the gist analyzes both internal and external reasons that cause us to lose focus. That means blocking external distractions—such as social media sites and notifications—along with dealing with internal distractions, such as hunger, stress, or exhaustion. These things cause us to lose focus even when there are no outside distractions that keep us from doing what we want.

One relevant framework to solve this was suggested by Curt Steinhorst. Steinhorst offers four vital elements for focused teams: Clarity, Capacity, Want, and Community.

First, you need to understand what you need to do, know that you can do so, make sure that it is aligned with your needs and wants, and have a supportive community. For example, if your boss expects you to answer emails every two minutes, there’s no way you would be able to get deep work done.

6 Tips for Focus Improvement

The good news is that there are many things that you can do if you always lose focus. Just choosing the one you like the most can significantly impact your habits and focus level.

1. Physical Activities

Exercise has been scientifically proven to help people become more focused.

According to an article published in Harvard’s Health Blog,

“Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.”

You don’t have to become a marathon runner. Personally, I go for a short run whenever I’m tired and not focused enough, but you can also try yoga, swimming, or even dancing.

Other proven methods for focus enhancement include meditation, drinking small doses of coffee, eating healthy, keeping yourself hydrated, and sleeping more than 7 hours a night.

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2. Digital Distractions

Although distractions have been here for thousands of years, digital distractions are a relatively new source that impacts our brains and thoughts, making us lose focus. In one study, Microsoft researchers concluded that “for most, cutting off workplace distractions increases focus and productivity.”

There are tons of apps that help you deal with external distractions. Some of the leading ones are Stay Focused, Rescue Time, Cold Turkey, and many others. Notification blockers can also help you stay focused.

3. Internal Distractions

Even blocking any and all possible external distractions won’t make you invincible to distractions. Distracting thoughts will still rear up, despite your very best efforts to create a tranquil environment.

Mindfulness is a great way to stay focused and on top of your thoughts. According to an article in Harvard Business Review,

“Mindfulness is not about living life in slow motion. It’s about enhancing focus and awareness both in work and in life. It’s about stripping away distractions and staying on track with individual as well as organizational goals.”

Other proven methods to tackle internal distractions are music and being in nature. In fact, according to a Stanford study, music can help your brain absorb new information more easily.

To learn more about how to avoid both external and internal distractions, check out Lifehack’s free guide: End Distraction And Find Your Focus.

4. Work Habits

There are some misconceptions about work habits that also harm someone’s ability to focus. One of them is believing that multitasking is feasible. Although some researchers claim that some kinds of multitasking are possible, most believe that it is inefficient and will make you lose focus instead.

According to the American Psychology Association,

“Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity.”

Possible solutions to tackle lousy work habits can help. Some of the methods are:

  • Time Blocking: Block a time in your calendar to work on a specific task, such as making phone calls to clients.
  • The Two-Minute Rule: If you can answer an email within two minutes, do it, and don’t leave it for later.
  • Pomodoro Technique: Work for 25 minutes, then rest for 5. This way, you can know that you’re focused and paying attention for certain periods of time.

Additionally, don’t forget to take breaks, choose specific, measurable goals, and learn to say no to more tasks as they come.

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5. Physical Workspace

For most, a clean workstation can help you stay focused. Princeton scientists determined that our brains like order, and when our brain gets visual reminders of disorganization, it drains our cognitive resources.

Temperature is also a factor when it comes to being focused. According to a Cornell University study,

“Chilly workers not only make more errors but cooler temperatures could increase a worker’s hourly labor cost by 10 percent. When the office temperature in a month-long study increased from 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit, typing errors fell by 44 percent, and typing output jumped 150 percent.”

6. Behavioral Analytic Tools

You can trick yourself into doing what you don’t like using behavioral economic tools that influence your behavior. One example might be an online tool such as Focusmate, which uses social pressure and accountability to stick with your tasks. You can schedule a time to work on a specific task with someone you don’t know, and both of you ensure that you are, indeed, working.

Another interesting tool is Stickk. They’re using what’s called loss aversion—the tendency to prefer avoiding losses—to help you maintain your important goals in mind.

“By asking our users to sign Commitment Contracts, stickK helps users define their goal (whatever it may be), acknowledge what it’ll take to accomplish it, and leverage the power of putting money on the line to turn that goal into a reality,” they mention in their site. They literally make you pay if you don’t meet your goals. This discourages a loss of focus.

Final Thoughts

Those who often lose focus don’t have to be stuck in the same harmful patterns. There are ways to get back to concentrating and being productive. Choose one of the above tips to get started, and show yourself compassion along the way.

Changing old habits takes time, and it may be weeks or months before you really learn how to refocus. However, know that each step you take will get you closer to your goal and a more productive lifestyle.

More Tips on How Not to Lose Focus

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