How to Focus Better at Work: 7 Effective Tips to Stay Focused

written by Dan Silvestre
Focus, Productivity

how to focus better at workIn this article, I’ll share 7 effective tips to focus better at work and stay focused.

Do you ever find it super hard to keep your brain on track at work? With all the beeps from your phone and the endless internet rabbit holes, it’s like your attention is being pulled in a million directions.

You’re not alone.

“How to focus better at work?” is one of the questions I get asked the most.

I get it, the world is a distracting place. Offices certainly are distracting places.

Today, it’s hard to stay focused at work for more than 10 minutes without being interrupted.

But here’s the deal:

Making your brain stick to plan and focus isn’t as hard as it looks.

All you need are little adjustments to how you’re working and you’ll find it easier to focus.

You’ll get through your tasks faster and have more time for fun stuff.

Here’s how.

#1 How to Focus Better on Your Computer

This tip is so simple I’ve decided to include it first. I’m using it right now as I’m writing this piece.

And you can start using it right now to focus better at work.

You see, most people don’t have trouble with focusing. They have trouble with deciding since there are so many options.

The computer and the web offer endless distractions.

To avoid them, start working in full-screen mode.

Whenever I use an application on my computer, I use full-screen mode.

If I’m reading an article on the web, my browser takes up the whole screen.

If I’m writing a piece in Google Docs, I’m working in full-screen mode.

I have set up my desktop so that the menu bar disappears automatically.

When I am working, I can’t see the time, the icons of other applications, or any other distractions on the screen.

It’s funny how big of a difference this makes for my focus and concentration.

If you can see an icon on your screen, then you will be reminded to click on it occasionally.

But if you remove the visual cue, then the urge to be distracted subsides in a few minutes.

Full-screen mode forces you to get completely immersed in whatever it is you’re working on. And this allows you to focus better at work.

#2 How to Single-Task Your To-Dos, One at a Time

When the word ʺpriorityʺ came into the English language, it was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing.

Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.

Yes, we are capable of doing two things at the same time, like cooking dinner while watching TV.

But you can’t concentrate on two tasks at once.

Multitasking forces your brain to switch back and forth very quickly from one task to another. This is known as context-switching.

Doing more things does not drive faster or better results. Doing better things drives better results. Even more accurately, doing one thing as best as you can drives better results.

So here’s what you should do to focus better at work:

Assign one (and only one) priority to each workday.

Although you can plan to complete other tasks during the day, your priority task is the one non-negotiable thing that must get done.

The power of choosing one priority is that it naturally guides your behavior. It forces you to organize your life around that responsibility.

Your priority becomes an anchor task, the mainstay that holds the rest of your day in place.

If things get crazy, there is no debate about what to do or not to do. You have already decided what is urgent and what is important.

When you’re single-tasking, it helps to only see one task at a time.

Here’s a simple way to do this:

Write your one priority in a Post-it note and put it in front of you.

When you complete your most important task, you can throw it away.

#3 Design “Focus Zones”

how to focus better at work focus zones

To focus better at work, Alexander Graham Bell had a unique secret. He used location-based prompts to prime his mind for certain tasks.

In the words of his biographer:

“Convinced that his physical surroundings induced specific trains of thoughts, he established particular workspaces for particular purposes.”

Some neuroscience shows why Bell’s location-based prompt method can be effective.

Every thought and action you take corresponds to a series of neurons in your brain. And these neurons connect to other neurons to make what researchers call neural maps.

As Caroline Webb notes in How to Have a Good Day:

“If you once spent an afternoon cranking out great work while settled into that window seat [at home], your ‘window seat’ neural network might be connected with the one representing ‘extremely productive and focused behavior.’”

Once this connection is established and reinforced, the brain begins creating a well-worn neural pathway:

“If I sit down in X location, then I do Y.”

These if-then connections between particular locations and particular behaviors/thoughts can help you settle down to work quicker on a task and prime the flow of certain ideas with less effort.

So design different locations for different tasks. See if there are places that feel naturally conducive to working on certain things.

You might choose to always do budget-related work at the kitchen table, or read in your easy chair.

Then do your tasks in their assigned locations as consistently as you can.

Try not to use the same location for other tasks as this will create interference with the association you’re trying to create.

Make certain places part of certain rituals and you may find it easier to focus better on your tasks.

Do what Bell would — experiment and see if it works for you.

#4 Take Advantage of The Pomodoro Technique

The brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Switching between tasks has damaging costs to your work and productivity.

The Pomodoro Technique is one of the simplest yet most effective hacks to focus better at work.

The hardest thing about focus is getting started.

So let’s remove that obstacle right now.

Here’s how to use the Pomodoro Technique:

  1. Choose one task and one task ONLY
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes
  3. Work on that task until the timer rings and then put a checkmark on a tracker
  4. Take a 5-minute break
  5. Repeat 1-4 three more times, followed by a 15-minute break

Focusing for 25 minutes might not sound like a lot. But remember that’s 25 minutes of completely uninterrupted work.

The Pomodoro Technique is a simple way to start training your focus.

I suggest one variant though:

If you’re still focused when the timer rings, keep going.

I find 90 min of complete focus better than 3 sessions of 30 min.

Take a longer break after this and come back.

Now, maybe you’re only going to resist 30 or 60 minutes before your mind starts to wander.

That’s ok. It’s expected.

Train your focus little by little.

Sometimes you just need to break the seal for your body to remember that it feels good to be in a flow state.

#5 How to Stop Being Distracted Mid-Task

how to focus better at work distracting brain

I always have a notebook next to me.

Here’s why:

Your brain is the greatest distraction to your focus at work. It puts a million things in front of you aside from the things you should be doing.

“I can’t forget to buy apples the next time I go grocery shopping.”

“I should call John, I haven’t seen him in ages.”

Your brain is intelligent.

So intelligent that it tries to trick you into stopping whatever you’re doing and working on something easier instead.

And it does this constantly!

It’s your job to control it.

We’ve all been guilty of working hard on something and then remembering something else and just doing that instead.

And then it takes a while to get back to what we were doing (if we go back at all).

I‘ve been there.

It‘s very frustrating.

Here’s a simple trick to avoid those distractions:

When you think of something you need to do while you’re working on a task, write it down in your notebook.

Instead of going ahead and acting on the stuff that your brain is telling you to do, have a list.

A notebook next to you or the notes app on your phone – and dump your random thoughts in there as you are doing your task.

That way you won’t be task-switching a lot and will still keep everything you need to remember later down.

#6 Make Focus Easier by “Clearing to Neutral”

When you walk into the kitchen and see 50 dishes in the sink, you’re much less likely to cook.

The same holds when you come back to your computer and have 25 open windows. Or when you have to clear a pile of stuff off your desk before you start working.

Enter the idea of “clearing to neutral”.

When you return to a neutral environment, you are much less likely to put off what you want to do. It eliminates all the friction you would have otherwise had to get started later.

You make it easier for your “future self” to get started.

There are two ways I use this technique:

  • When I finish a task I close all apps and windows
  • When I finish my workday, I clean my desk and prepare it for the following day

By clearing to neutral, you’re closing the loops associated with work. You’re telling your brain it’s time for a break (either for a few minutes or until the day after).

Sometimes I find that even during this process, my brain is still processing other things.

I’m cleaning my desk and puff, a thought comes into my brain. It could be anything really: a new task, a reminder, a new title for a chapter of this book.

Again, I open the notebook and write it down. I don’t do anything about it in the moment, it’s up to the “future me” to decide how great is the idea or how important is the task.

Simple, but effective.

Plus, you get to reap the benefits of a clutter-free environment.

The bottom line:

If you find yourself procrastinating, it might not all be in your head.

It might be that you don’t return your environment to “neutral” to be ready for the next time you need to get stuff done.

#7 Find the Right Sound to Focus Better at Work

find the right sound for work

I listen to different music depending on the type of task:

  • For creative work, I prefer to listen to Binaural Beats. Here’s my favorite playlist
  • For boring tasks or when low on energy, I normally listen to Daft Punk (this or this)
  • For more relaxing tasks, I’ll normally put on my Bossa Nova playlist and sing along

I’m also a big fan of movie songs to get in the zone.

My go-to playlists are LOTR Soundtrack, Ramin Djawadi’s music for Game of Thrones season 7, and Hans Zimmer’s best hits.

Find the sound that works for you.

Create a “focus state” playlist by choosing repetitive music without lyrics. Electronic, classic, or jazz music is great for this.

The writer Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side, The Big Short) likes to listen to repetitive music:

“I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.”

Repeating the same song or 2-3 songs allows the songs to fade into themselves. They become a more or less continuous stream.

And here’s a bonus tip:

Always wear your headphones.

Just the idea that you have headphones on will discourage other people from breaking your focus.

It’s a great trick to block out the outside world.

How to Focus Better at Work

Being focused at work doesn’t have to be hard.

Here are the adjustments you can make to focus better at work:

    1. Work in full-screen mode. Remove the visual cue and the urge to be distracted subsides in a few minutes
    2. Assign one (and only one) priority to each workday. Write it in a Post-it note and put it in front of you.
    3. Design Focus Zones. “If I sit down in X location, then I do Y.”
    4. Use The Pomodoro Technique. Work for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break
    5. Always have a notebook next to you. Dump your random thoughts in there when your brain distracts you in the middle of a task
    6. Clear to Neutral. Make it easier for “future you” to get started
    7. Find the right sound for focus. And remember to always wear your headphones

Thanks for reading!

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