Tips to Help You Focus When Your Mind Doesn’t

I know my pattern when it comes to difficult tasks: procrastinate, have a sudden moment of inspiration that results in only a small amount of actual work getting done, procrastinate more, look at the deadline, panic, and speed to a completed project on the wings of anxiety and adrenaline.

This is the formula that brought me through high school tests, college papers, and a significant part of my professional career. It’s also the formula for frustration, exhaustion, and feeling woefully unprepared. Needless to say, it’s a cycle I wanted to stop.

Breaking the cycle of procrastination and distraction is difficult. Technology allows us to be available to anyone at all times—even when we are trying to work on something else. When we see a new email or text, it’s human nature to be curious. So you’ll just have a peek…and then quickly draft a response…and then…wait, what were you working on again?

Here are some tips and tricks to help you stay focused in the face of the daily onslaught of technology and information:

Make a List

For those of us who are visual learners, seeing our tasks can be most effective in keeping us focused. Before starting your day, take 10 minutes to make a list of the tasks you need to accomplish. Consider all of the projects you’re working on and their component parts. What needs to be done urgently? What can wait until later in the day? Write it all down and start with the first thing on your list. Plus, there are few things more satisfying than crossing out a completed task, so your successes can be your motivation, too.

Try 90/20

Asking your brain to focus for an extended period of time doesn’t lead to positive results. In fact, the longer you attempt the same task, the more likely you are to make mistakes and less likely to catch the errors you make. Plus, there’s a reason you feel tapped out at the end of a marathon work session—your brain needs a lot of energy to function at a high level, and giving your undivided attention to something for a long time is about as high-level as a brain can get.

For many people, the act of setting a mini-schedule is an effective way for handling brain burnout. The 90/20 Rule functions exactly how it sounds: Work without distraction for 90 minutes and then give yourself a 20 minute break from that task. If the project you’re working on is particularly onerous, maybe try 45 minutes of work and a 10-minute break. Giving your brain the occasional break can improve your focus over time.

Clean Your Workspace

It can be difficult to focus on a task when you’re literally surrounded by distractions. If you have a messy workspace or are working under a pile of papers, take a moment to pick up. It will be easier to stay on task when you’re not working on top of all the other things that need your attention.

Clear Eyes, Full Screen, Can’t Lose

If you’re like me, you probably have about 20 browser tabs open, and about six or seven other programs running at all times. If I am working on one project and I can see my other tasks peeking out from behind the window I’m currently working on, it can be very difficult not to want to check in for “just a second”…and come back 30 minutes later wondering what happened.

Diminish this problem by putting the project you’re working on in full screen mode. If you can’t see the other things on your computer, it’s probably for the better because they can wait until your next 20-minute break.

Shut It Out

Noise is among the most difficult of distractions to overcome. If you’re suffering from the sounds of ringing phones, noisy co-workers, or other keyboards tapping—it can feel like a din that will permanently prevent you from getting your work done.

If your workplace allows it, you might find that you are better able to concentrate with the help of quiet music. Most free and paid music streaming services offer playlists from different musical genres specifically designed for studying, focus, and concentration.

Be Silent

If your email client provides a pop-up every time you have a new email or your phone dings with every text, find a way to silence those notifications before you start a new task. It’s impossible to focus on, say, formatting a spreadsheet when you’re also trying to instantly respond to emails.

Or, on those days that seem like your inbox is never going to stop filling up with new messages and your impulse to respond to new messages is too strong, temporarily shutting down your email client might be your best weapon.

You’ll still receive messages during the time you’ve decided to opt out, but you won’t see them sitting in your inbox until after you allow the electronic floodgates back open. And chances are you can easily respond to many of those messages during your next break from the task at hand.

Find a Quiet Time

If you need to be responsive during the workday, think about a different part of the day that you could be more productive. First thing in the morning when the caffeine from your cup of coffee kicks in? Late in the day when most people have left the office? Or it could even be during lunch. Set aside a particular difficult task and tackle it at these times when there are less external distractions.

Turning off the daily distractions and focusing on one task is a challenge many of us want to master. While it can be difficult, we hope these tips will get you on the path to fantastic focus. And remember: Concentration is a learned behavior, so the more often you practice, the better you’ll do in the future.