Few things are more frustrating than knowing you need to finish a project and absolutely
not being able to focus on it. In these moments, everything — email, Facebook, tying your shoe — seems more exciting than the task at hand.
Fortunately, there are dozens of ways to filter out distractions and improve your ability to concentrate for extended periods of time. To find out what some of these strategies are, we sifted through the Quora thread, “How do I improve my concentration and willpower?” and highlighted the most practical techniques.
Some of them involve small tweaks (think changing the way you write your to-do list), while others involve a bigger commitment (like a daily meditation practice). All of them will make you more productive in both your professional and personal lives.
Each day is chock-full of experiences that can sap your willpower, from turning down a coworker's freshly-baked brownies to ignoring the siren call of your overflowing inbox. By the time 3 p.m. hits, it may be hard to muster up the cognitive resources to focus on anything work-related.
That's why Vince Favilla says, 'You need to work on your most important tasks early in the day, while you still have the focus and willpower to complete them.'
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal offers another reason why willpower may be highest in the morning: The brain is refreshed by sleep. (That's also why an afternoon nap may work to boost your willpower and productivity.)
Physical activity has myriad benefits -- but one of the less obvious is that it helps sharpen focus.
Other research suggests it might not take too long to reap the cognitive benefits of exercise. Kids who engaged in 10- to 40-minute bursts of exercise showed an immediate increase in concentration and mental focus, probably because of improved blood flow to the brain.
A growing body of research highlights the importance of incorporating regular break times into your work schedule.
That's possibly because prolonged attention to a single task hurts performance. One study found that people who took two breaks during a 50-minute cognitive task performed much better than those who worked straight through.
The question is: How long do you have to toil away before you can take a respite? Some research suggests the perfect formula involves working for 52 minutes and then taking a 17-minute break.
Eric Pepke recommends more frequent pauses: 'Take a five-minute break at least every 20 minutes, get up, walk around, and reset your brain. It not only makes it possible to do (the task) for a longer time, but it makes every 20-minute chunk much more effective.'
Jan Kulisek says he only checks his email and Facebook when he's got at least ten new messages. That way, he's able to resist the urge to continually refresh his inboxes instead of buckling down on whatever project he's supposed to be working on.
Of course, you should probably tell your coworkers that you've instituted this rule, so they know to instant-message you or stop by your desk if something's urgent.
Mindfulness is the general term for cultivating greater awareness of your experiences in the present moment, and it can help you stay focused on the task at hand.
One simple mindfulness practice is to 'do what you are doing with full focus,' says Paras Trehan. For example, Trehan says, pay attention to every bite of food you take, including the taste, the temperature, and the texture. Eventually, you'll get accustomed to zeroing in on single tasks, while minimising external distractions.
Deepak Dev has a clever strategy for getting better at focusing: Find out why the task is important.
'If it's a 'dry' subject, get to know the applications of what you're studying or the history of how the concepts of the subject (have) evolved,' he writes. 'Think about what you could contribute/achieve in your field after you acquire deep knowledge in the subject.'
So if your current assignment involves inputting numbers in an Excel spreadsheet, remind yourself how this task fits into your company's work as a whole. How is your work on this project helping to advance the organisation's mission?
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