5 Steps To Improve Your Focus

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James Hewitt is a performance scientist, and Chief Commercial & Innovation Officer at OPTIVIO.

Do you dream of being able to focus and complete a single task before moving on to the next, rather that being continually interrupted, switching from one piece of work to another? And if so, what may be stopping you from making this dream a reality? For many of us, the problem is that there is always something competing for our attention. And the reality is, that there always will be — interruptions are inevitable. But, there are some simple steps that you can take to improve your focus.

According to some research, the average worker is interrupted once every 11 minutes. Once we've been interrupted, it takes an average of 23 minutes (1) to get back to the original task. Perhaps even more concerning, a 2014 study (2) found that task error rates doubled after a 2.8-second interruption; about the time it takes to pick up your phone and glance at the notifications, even if you don't read them.

The Cost of Interruption

Evidence suggests that we are quite good at compensating for the time lost to an interruption by working harder and faster, but this comes at the cost of:

  • Increases in frustration

  • A heightened sense of time pressure

  • More stress (1)

Work Smarter, Not Just Harder

We all want to find ways to work smarter, not just harder. We could get more done, in less time, and feel so much less frustrated.

Here’s a simple 5-step process to help you achieve this aim.

Step 1: Prioritize

Start with a 'to-do' list, but then rank each item on the list in order of importance. Next, add a second indicator to each item, to identify which tasks will benefit from focused, uninterrupted time. This process will help you to prioritize the most important tasks that also require the most concentrated focus.

Step 2: Peak

Cognitive performance can vary by about 20% during the average day (3). Pay attention to when you feel at your best, and most focused. For many people this is in the morning, but whatever the case, commit to blocking out two-hours of focused time, during your peak period, one day per week.

Step 3: Pomodoro

The Pomodoro technique is a time-management method from the 1980s. You can think of it as interval training for your brain. Work is divided into 25-minute blocks of focus (each block is called a Pomodoro). Each Pomodoro is followed by a short break of around 5 minutes. Aim to complete 4 x 25-minute uninterrupted blocks during your two-hour peak period, with each block addressing one of your high-priority, high-focus tasks. Create a check-box for each 25-minute blocks, so you can enjoy a sense of achievement when you tick them off.

Step 4: Protect

You must protect your 25-minute Pomodoros by eliminating sources of distraction and interruption, if possible. Put on some noise-cancelling headphones, turn off notifications, shut down social media apps and even switch off your Wifi, providing you don't need it for your priority focus tasks.

Step 5: Progress

Perfectionism is paralysing, and often leads to procrastination, rather than focus. Before you begin your two-hour focus time, set your mindset and commit to aiming for progress, not perfection.

At least once this week, conduct your own personal experiment, and try out this method. You may surprise yourself with what you're capable of achieving. If you follow these simple steps each time you need to focus, you'll be on track to work smarter, not harder, and you’ll get more done in less time. The goal is to perform at your best, with less stress.

References

1. Mark G, Daniela G, Klocke U. The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. CHI ’08 Proc SIGCHI Conf Hum Factors Comput Syst [Internet]. 2008;107–10. Available from: https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/chi08-mark.pdf

2. Altmann EM, Trafton JG, Hambrick DZ. Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014;143(1):215–26.

3. Hines CB. Time-of-Day Effects on Human Performance. Cathol Educ A J Inq Pract. 2004;7(3):390–413.

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