How to Improve Focus: A Comprehensive Guide to Improving Focus in Work and Life
Do you ever feel like it’s impossible to stay focused?
Whether that’s in your personal life:
- Spending time with family
- Reading a book
- Working on a passion project
- Sitting down to write something
- Or get a good workout in, all without checking your smartphone or turning on the T.V.
Or at work:
- Finishing those reports
- Trying to knock out that last bit of code
- Or writing that email, all without checking your desktop notifications
Or maybe it’s long-term. You set a New Year’s Resolution only to lose focus and fall off within a month or two.
Whatever the arena, focus– or a lack of it– makes a big impact in the quality of your experiences and level of accomplishment, from your personal goals and general performance to work and your life as a whole.
There are half-baked studies floating around (like this “study” from Microsoft) saying our attention spans are shrinking, though there’s still not been any conclusive evidence found.
However, one thing is for certain: it’s always been hard to focus, and it’s becoming even harder with the introduction of smartphones and other tech.
Can you improve your focus without ditching technology?
The truth is it’s not just possible but easy to implement a few simple steps that will significantly improve your focus over time, and it has very little to do with how often you use technology.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- What is focus?
- Why is it so hard to focus?
- How to improve your mental focus
- How to focus at work
- And improving your long-term life focus
- As well as additional resources
First, let’s talk a little about what focus actually is.
What is focus?
Focus is defined in many ways, but it’s essentially the ability to maintain consistent mental attention on a thing.
The act of persisting mental attention requires a certain amount of inherent willpower as the truth is (as any regular meditation practitioner will tell you): interruptions are inevitable.
Focus isn’t simply the ability to maintain your mental attention moment-to-moment.
In terms of your life, because interruptions are inevitable, it’s the ability to make similar moment-to-moment adjustments when you become distracted to refocus yourself and get back to the task at hand.
This is part of why mindfulness meditation is so effective at improving at improving focus, as it trains you to do exactly that: refocus your attention when it’s lost.
The value of mindfulness meditation in improving focus
For more than a decade now (starting in 2005), studies have shown that mindfulness meditation expands the area of the brain that’s tied to attention.
Further studies have since shown its ability to improve your focus, including one study reported by the New York Times that reported just three days of mindfulness meditation practice improves not only focus but reduces stress.
And more recently, an extensive study was published by University of Miami psychologist Anthony Zanesco showed that participants who meditated regularly consistently performed better on tasks related to focus and sustained attention.
That’s not the only way mindfulness helps improve focus
However, mindfulness meditation does more than simply improve our ability to focus on the task at hand.
It also helps:
- Reduce the amount of time it takes for you to bring your attention back after becoming distracted, and
- Reduce how often you’re distracted in the first place by settling the “monkey mind”
To get started with some simple mindfulness techniques that can help you improve your focus, check out our guide on managing tech use and finding balance in daily life:
Find balance, take back your life
Learn how to manage tech use, reduce stress, and find balance with our free PDF guide on simple mindfulness techniques.
So then, why exactly is it so hard to focus?
Why is it so hard to focus?
The simple answer is: our mind is a crazy mess.
Daily life piles a heaping mound of responsibility, worries, and to-dos on us to the point that the mind becomes strained from the effort it takes to manage it all.
The more mental “stress” you’re put under– in other words, the more you’re juggling in that mind of yours– the more likely you are to lose your focus as your mind automatically cycles through the things it needs to remember or because the pressure is too great and it looks for relief.
This certainly isn’t the only reason it’s hard for you to focus, but it’s the primary reason and one that’s become exasperated in recent years with new technology such as notifications that are constantly pelting your mind with more mental clutter.
With your new understanding in place, it’s time to get to work. So, before anything else let’s start with improving the actual quality of your mental focus.
Part I: How to Improve Your Mental Focus
In the proceeding sections, we’re going to talk about how to improve your focus when you’re at work as well as how to improve your long-term focus.
However, before we work on that it’s important to start working on your mental focus, the place where it all starts.
Remember, mindfulness meditation is a useful tool that can help you improve your mental focus, being both one of the easiest to implement and one of the few proven methods for doing so, but since we’ve highlighted it already, we won’t be mentioning it in this section.
However, if you’d like to know more and want an easy way to get started with your mindfulness meditation practice, check out our guide below:
Having said that, here are the most important things you can do to improve your mental focus:
1. Change how you operate
One of the most important things you can do is change how you respond to information that’s coming to you throughout each day.
When you go to bed at night, or wake up each morning, you probably have a decent idea of what today will– or should– look like.
However, what often ends up happening is something comes up and throws off your rhythm. This happens on a large scale as well as a smaller one as well.
On a large scale, your boss might ask you to stay an extra hour after work. On a small scale, you might get an important notification while you’re in the middle of doing your laundry on Sunday.
In each of these instances, you’re tempted to change your plan to adjust for these unexpected changes. Sometimes, they can’t be helped. These are often the large scale ones like the example above.
For most of us, however, these are a rarity. Instead, it’s the small interruptions that are constantly throwing us off, whether self-inflicted or not.
The true cost of constant interruptions
In his book, “Your Brain at Work”, Dr. David Rock remarks on several studies that have shown the i
mpact of regular interruptions:
“Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before beingdistracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all. People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.”
There are a few important parts to this, but the most important is this: when you’re interrupted, it takes nearly a half-hour to get back to the same level of focus on the task where you left off.
Needless to say then, a little distraction isn’t quite so little.
So, how do you deal with all those little interruptions throughout your day?
Changing how you respond to all those little interruptions
“No, I’m in the middle of something and will take care of this when I’m available.”
If you’re in the middle of taking care of personal errands and a colleague calls you, and taking that call will interrupt what you’re doing, you have a few choices: answer the phone call and allow yourself to be interrupted, answer the call and tell them you’ll call them back, or simply don’t answer.
By doing the first, you’re allowing that to become an interruption. However, by doing one of the latter, you’re being intentional about how you use your time and saying, “No, I’m in the middle of something and will take care of this when I’m available.”
This simple shift in the way you operate can have a huge impact in your daily life. If you remember something you need to take care of while you’re in the middle of something else, don’t stop what you’re doing. Instead, write down in a notepad and come back to it when you’re done.
Get used to this kind of behavior when potential interruptions arise to condition your mind to focus on the task at hand and put everything else aside until you’re done with what you’re doing.
You can improve your ability to focus; you’re not at the whim whatever your concentration ability is now.
Use this practice to not only improve your focus over time but to create the right conditions to reduce the number of distractions in your daily life in general.
2. Exercise regularly
While mindfulness meditation was for a while touted as a kind of panacea, the truth is, physical exercise is the closest thing we have to a panacea of any kind (though it, nor anything else are true all-cures).
Countless studies, like this one where students were studied before and after taking exams, have found that those who engage in regular exercise are not only physically healthier but have better mental performance as well compared to those who don’t.
In particular, research has found that exercise is really good at helping us develop a resistance to distractions. However, no study to date has been able to pinpoint exactly why this is.
What is known, however, is that regular physical exercise primes your body for better mental performance, including improved concentration.
So, make it a point to work out a few times a week, even if it’s only a half-hour of strenuous exercise.
3. Read regularly
Reading is one of the single best exercises you can undertake to improve your mental focus. If you don’t believe me, pick up a book in your bookcase or pop up an article online and set out to read it from beginning to end without getting up or looking away from the text until you’re done.
Feel that incessant nagging tugging on your brain? That’s the limits of your focus coming into view. And, by reading in this distraction-free manner you’re working your concentration muscles into shape, slowly but surely.
According to a study by Slate and Chartbeart, only about 5% of readers who begin reading an article online actually finish that article. That’s right, just 5%.
The problem with this is, Internet culture is conditioning our short attention spans to become even shorter. However, by pushing back against this you can do the opposite and improve your attention span.
So, take some time today (and tomorrow, and every day) to read a little, whether that’s an article online or a chapter in a new book.
4. Keep your brain running smoothly
The physical body is a tool with which you do all else. So, how well you take care of it will impact your performance in everything, and that includes your ability to focus.
There are many foods that are great for brain function, including memory and focus, but here are a few of the most common / easiest to implement into your diet regularly:
- Leafy vegetables and broccoli
- Fish like salmon and sardines
- Pumpkin seeds
- Coconut oil
- And even dark chocolate
One of the main reasons that these foods improve brain function is because they provide the body good fats.
Foods such as Avocado and eggs provide the body healthy fats that the brain needs to function properly. When the body doesn’t get enough of these, it can’t operate at its best.
So, invest some time in making sure you get enough healthy fats and make sure to get the above foods into your diet regularly.
Part II: How to Focus at Work
Now that we’ve laid the foundation, let’s talk about how to improve your focus at work.
If you’ve worked to implement the foundational steps we talked about in the last section, you’ll begin to notice a big shift in your ability to focus throughout each day, and that includes being at work.
However, work poses several of its own unique challenges, particularly if you work from a computer.
So, here are some tips, tools, and resources to help you focus at work:
1. Take regular breaks using the Pomodoro method
There’s a lot you can do that’s work-specific to improve your focus, but perhaps the most powerful is to simply take regular breaks while you’re working.
A study by psychologist Alejandro Lleras of the University of Illinois found that participants who took short breaks between 50-minute work sessions were more focused and had better all-around performance than those who didn’t take any breaks.
“Our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself,” says Lleras. “Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”
Developed much earlier by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s and since supported by many studies like the one above, the Pomodoro method uses this very principle to increase focus and productivity while working.
By using regular breaks, you give your brain the chance to recharge and recenter itself, allowing it to consistently perform at a high level.
In contrast, working straight through causes the brain to fatigue and begin to lose its edge over time.
How to use the pomodoro method
To use the Pomodoro method, simply take a 5-10-minute break between every 30-60-minute chunk of work.
What that exact break and work number will be for you is find out through experimentation, but the principle remains the same: do a block of focused work, take a break, repeat.
During that break, you should do something that allows your brain to sufficiently step away from the task at hand and preferably rest, such as read, meditate, nap, or even just stare out the window. Anything that relaxes you and takes your mind off your work for a few minutes is fair game.
Tools for using the Pomodoro method
Here are some apps for helping you integrate the Pomodoro method into your regular work schedule:
1. Official Pomodoro software
Cirillo’s official Pomodoro software is a good, simple option that gets the job done.
Download the software, set up the timer to go off every 25 minutes for a 5 minute break and get started implementing this step in a matter of minutes.
2. Do Nothing for 2 Minutes
Just what it sounds like: set a time, do nothing.
The cool thing about this app is it will start over if you move your mouse or click the keyboard, so there’s no cheating.
3. Time Out
Similar to the first, though Time Out has more robust features, allowing you to set up a 5-10 minute break that goes off every hour or even a micro break of a few seconds every 15 minutes.
2. Don’t buy into the multitasking myth
As opposed to the previous point, this one is more a mindset shift than anything.
Let’s get right to it: Multitasking is psychologically impossible. I hate to break it to you.
While at times you might feel like you’re multitasking– let’s say listening to a podcast while writing an email– you’re never truly multitasking.
That’s the brain doesn’t have the ability to focus on two things at a time. What you’re really doing is “switching” between tasks continuously which, when you think about it, is a horrible habit to condition into your mind if you’re trying to improve your focus.
It is, quite literally, the opposite of that.
Not only is true multitasking not actually possible, but this kind of switch tasking has been found in studies to actually be less productive and efficient as a whole than single-tasking, causing more mistakes and reducing your focus power.
Why do we do it then? Because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We feel like we’re getting more done, so we keep doing it.
It’s a dangerous myth that will hurt you in the long-run, so if you want to truly improve your focus, seek to replace the behavior with something else.
What to do instead
Instead of buying into the multitasking myth, use what we talked about in the previous point to create a new kind of work structure for yourself. Don’t just use the Pomodoro method to maintain focus and productivity, use it to organize blocks in your day where you focus on one thing at a time.
For example, for your first 4 Pomodoros (about 2 hours of work), do your creative work as your mind is probably freshest at that point.
Or, do the things you typically put off to get them out of the way and generate a sense of momentum for the rest of the day.
However you decide to work, just know that forcing the act of switch tasking on yourself is only hurting your ability to focus.
3. Manage your notifications
Notifications are one of the greatest dangers to focus and attention in the modern world.
They approach from all sides: at home and at work and from your smartphone in your pocket to your computer on your desk.
According to a recent study, most people get an average of 63 notifications every day. That’s a lot!
But think about it this way: That was 63 times you were interrupted from what you were doing, assuming you’re like most people and can’t resist checking that notification when it pings you (because, the truth is, it’s designed that way).
Remember what we talked about earlier? Every time you’re interrupted it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on task with the same level of focus as you had previously.
However, you’re being interrupted 63 times a day, making it incredibly difficult to attain and maintain a high level of focus.
This easily makes notifications one of the most dangerous threats to your ability to focus not just at work but throughout your life.
So, what do you do about it?
Review your notifications
First, start by deleting any unnecessary apps still sending you notifications.
What apps do you have on your phone, Chrome extensions on your computer, or other programs that are sending you notifications that you really don’t need?
Chuck em’ into the trash.
Reduce your remaining notifications
Next, review the remaining notifications you have. Which aren’t providing you any real value? Which can you live without?
Can you check social once in the morning and at night and forgo those distracting Instagram and Facebook notifications clogging up your day?
Draw a hard line here– remember what we talked about earlier and the impact these can have on your focus and productivity as a whole.
Do you get the same notifications on both your smartphone and desktop (maybe even a tablet, too)? Consider focusing all or most of your notifications onto one device.
If you don’t like the idea of removing all social notifications, you could consider reserving those for your smartphone and removing them from your desktop to improve work focus.
Pause notifications during important work times
Next, consider pausing all notifications during certain blocks in the day.
A study out of Carnegie Mellon University discovered that turning off smartphone notifications for 24 hours can improve your focus and reduce stress levels. Who would have thought?
If you’re wary about doing that, try this: block notifications for the first 3 hours of every day.
How does it impact your day? How did the morning feel compared to your typical mornings? And in what way did it impact the rest of the day?
This is a really effective strategy because it doesn’t mean you’re not getting those notifications, you’re just centralizing the time in the day where you receive them.
Naturally, this makes you run through that group of notifications faster as you skim to find the really important ones and disregard others, rather than giving each one your full attention as they come through one-by-one.
4. Consider desktop focus-enhancing tools
Your desktop– your digital work environment– can be the cause of all kinds of distractions.
That’s a big problem because, for those who work from a computer, that computer is a big part of your digital environment, a place many of us live and work for a large portion of each day.
If your environment is plagued with potential distractions, how well do you think you’re going to be able to focus?
Below are several tools that can help you turn your desktop from a source of distraction to a distraction-free zone, each which serve a different function:
Install a website blocker
Most of us have a digital vice, some of the most common of which are:
- Social media such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter
- News pages such as Yahoo!
- Or checking your stocks every 5 minutes
Chances are one of these is a vice of yours, and it not only eats up several minutes of each day on average but serves as another source of distraction.
To combat this, consider downloading a website blocker such as:
Both tools will allow you to limit access to sites of your choosing for specific periods of time during the day.
For example, you can lock yourself from checking Facebook during office hours or checking stocks until you’re about to go to bed at night.
Set up multiple virtual desktops
Next, you can take things a step further by using multiple virtual desktops.
A virtual desktop is, well, a desktop, and you can make second, or third, or… you get the idea.
By creating multiple virtual desktops, you’re able to set up one desktop as your, let’s say “creative work” desktop while another is your “communication” desktop and maybe even another as your personal desktop if you work from a laptop that you bring home with you.
This gives you the ultimate control over what kinds of distractions and overall the kind of environment you work within.
And the cool part is, what sounds relatively complicated is actually really simple to do on both Mac and Windows, here are instructions for both:
It might sound like a jarring change to the way you’re used to working, but consider it and give it a try to see how it works.
For more ideas on how to manage your digital environment, check out our guide, 10 Mindfulness-Based Tools to Reduce Distractions and Improve Your Focus.
Part III: How to Improve Your Long-term Life Focus
Focus doesn’t just come into play when you’re sitting down to work or trying to get anything done, it also has a big part to play in your long-term goals as well.
It’s arguably harder to focus long-term on a goal than it is a single day on a bit of work.
However, the good news is there are systems and strategies you can use to improve your long-term focus as it relates to accomplishing your life goals.
One of the most effective is implementing a system of personal accountability and charting your goals with reverse engineering.
The value of accountability
Accountability is often used in tandem with reporting your progress to another person who holds you accountable. However, by the very definition accountability is a personal effort.
Only you can ever be accountable to yourself. That might sound scary in terms of your life and what you want to accomplish, but if you look at it the right way, it’s liberating.
Accountability is related to focus because the better personal accountability you have the more likely you are to maintain your focus long-term.
Accountability requires a certain level of dedication to your own efforts to face yourself each week and be honest with yourself, but by using an effective system of accountability like the one below, it can help you stay motivated long-term.
So then, what does this kind of accountability system look like? And how does it help you maintain long-term focus?
Let’s go through it step by step:
1. Reverse engineer your goals
The first step in creating a long-term focus-aid like this is to set a goal.
Assuming you’ve done that, it’s time to take that goal and break it up into digestible pieces you can accomplish on a daily or weekly basis. This is often called reverse engineering.
By breaking your goal up into pieces, it not only makes it more believable that you can accomplish the goal but that new sense that your once enormous goal is now doable does a lot to improve your ability to focus long-term.
And therein lies the power of reverse engineering your goals.
One effective system you can use to do this is the 12-Week Year, a system created and tested by author Brian Moran while he worked with some of the largest companies in the world.
The system is a framework that involves you breaking down your long-term goals into primary tasks– the main things you need to get done to accomplish your goal(s)– then breaking those tasks into 12-week blocks that help improve your focus and increase your chance of success.
2. Create your weekly accountability system
Next, once you’ve broken down your goal, it’s time to set up the system you’ll use to track your progress week-to-week.
This again is a key to maintaining your long-term focus because you can clearly see the progress you’re making week-to-week, which is a huge motivator to continue pushing on and helps make it easier to turn away potential distractions.
Take your goal and begin breaking it down into quarterly (12-week) and then weekly chunks. From there, you can chart a course to hit that goal at the end of the 12-week period.
One a notepad of some kind, make a new sheet each week and list your:
- Major long-term goal(s)
- 12-week goal(s)
- Primary tasks to complete to achieve those goal(s)
- Weekly tasks
- Weekly schedule
Each week, start a new sheet, copying over the first 3 pieces of information and writing your new weekly tasks along with your schedule for getting those done.
One of the things you’ll notice right away that this system does is light a fire under you if you’re having a bad week, which allows you to refocus and course-correct quickly.
Because you only have 12 weeks to hit that first stage of your goal, a single week is highly valuable, and an unsuccessful one weighs heavily on your progress.
3. Assess yourself each week
At the end of each week, review how you performed.
Did you complete your tasks for the week? Why not? What do you need to do differently next week to make sure you hit your weekly goals?
This grading system doesn’t have to be some kind of exact science, just make sure you’re noting two things:
- How you did compared to the previous week
- How you can improve for next week
With those two things in place, you can ensure you’re not only remaining focused but making progress week-to-week.
And if you ever lose focus, this system helps you refocus faster, with less time lost working towards your goals.
More on improving focus
If you’re ready to learn more about improving your focus and removing distractions, check out these other guides from the TFM blog:
- Mindfulness at Work: Practical Tips for Busy Professionals
- How to Manage Your Technology Notifications for a Mindful Workday
- 10 Mindfulness-Based Tools to Reduce Distractions and Improve Your Focus
- Protecting Yourself Against Yourself: Blocking Apps for Focus
- Increase Your Productivity Every Day with Deep Work
- How to Use Multiple Desktops to Maximize Focus
And listen to this episode from the TFM podcast on dealing with smartphone and other tech-related distractions:
And if you’re looking for a quick and easy place to start in your quest to improve your focus, consider implementing one of the practices we list in our guide on how to manage your tech use and find balance: