Tips to improve focus and increase your attention span at work

Tips to improve focus and increase your attention span at work

Is it lingering Covid fatigue? Or a post-Christmas slump?

Is it working from home? Or the fact we’ve been living through a pandemic for the last two years?

Is it me? Or is this just what being alive feels like?

These are the questions many of us find ourselves asking as we battle to maintain our focus and stave off brain fog on a daily basis.

Increasingly, in a world of distraction and upheaval, we are struggling with our attention span, with a recent study finding that three quarters of workers are finding it difficult to concentrate.

There are many reasons for this.

As John Earl, mindfulness, wellbeing and leadership coach and director of Goodfoot Development, explains, over the last couple of years, we have been forced to constantly adapt at a rapid pace to ever-changing rules of law, society, work and personal life.

This has lead millions of us being burnt out and suffering mental fatigue – with a shortened attention span.

‘It has become normalised to find it challenging to concentrate on anything; this phenomenon is called a pandemic brain,’ John says.

‘To our brains, it’s the equivalent of canoeing constantly up and down rapids without any training or direction. It’s near impossible for our brains to cope.’

How working from home affects our attention span

Our environment plays a big part in our attention span.

As many of us continue to work from home, this can go either way in terms of impacting our attention span. It can, in some cases, provide distractions that are not conducive to staying focused.

‘Neurologically the brain is set up to operate by focusing on only one task at a time,’ John says. ‘Therefore, if you have to multi-task child care and other home duties simultaneously, it’s simply not going to work.

‘In research I have conducted, I have found people are over 50% less likely to complete a task when they have more than one focus.’

He does suggest that working from home can be beneficial for focus, however – if you have the right conditions.

‘One line manager I am working with has said her team had proven a 30% uplift in productivity since working from home,’ he says.

‘The fear has always been for businesses that staff won’t concentrate and take the dog for a walk or do the washing instead. But from working with people directly, we’ve found the opposite seems to be the case.

‘Productivity goes up. Once given the right tools and direction to cope.’

But it can be hard. So, what are some things we can do to make it better?

Practice mindfulness

John explains that mindfulness is a fantastic tool for improving focus and attention span.

‘One simple technique you can start with is to take some time out to listen to your breath,’ he suggests.

‘Close your eyes, clear your mind, and count your breaths without trying to change or control it. Focus on how your body feels and the sound of your breathing.

‘Breathing exercises are just one of many straightforward ways of taking time out that will help you improve your attention span.’ 

Maya Zack, peak performance specialist, expert mindset coach and hypnotherapist, suggests starting your day off with ‘internal motivation and focus building practices’, in the form of meditation, visualisation and affirmation exercises – or self-hypnosis (which brings all these together).

‘These can be very powerful in setting you up for the day with clarity, confidence and enthusiasm,’ she says.

‘Making this a habit, staying focused can become second nature to you that’ll require little or no effort.’

Daily yoga is also suggested to be beneficial as a way to set your intentions for the day – or to break up your work and help regain focus, by doing a quick ten minutes practice during a break.

Take regular breaks

Regular breaks are really important to clear your head, Maya explains.

If you’re floundering under a large pile of work and struggling to focus, it might feel like the last thing you think you should do but it will help.

How you decide to spend them is entirely up to you – whether you want to rest, get some fresh air, do a blast of exercise – all of these distractions will help to improve your attention span when you then return to the tasks at hand.

The key, according to Maya, is to schedule these in advance into your day – and stick to them.

‘It can be five minutes in the end of every hour, or 15 mins every few hours, whatever works for you,’ she says. ‘But be sure to stick to these when you’re tempted to take a non-scheduled break.’

‘Chunk’ your day

Another simple tip to improve focus is to split up your day and activities into manageable chunks; a technique known as time-blocking.

‘Rather than dealing with one task after another, allot a specific chunk of time for each task (no longer than 120 minutes),’ John suggests. ‘Follow each with a 20-minute break, then change to a new activity.

‘Researchers Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz found we have a maximum cognitive attention span of 120 minutes. When we concentrate for longer, we do not do it well.’

John explains that he often gets clients to build regular breaks into their diaries. They get off their phones and computers and away from their desks every 90-120 minutes, no matter how busy they are.

‘In this rest period, they are not allowed access to digital devices and must rest. Often, clients use this time to walk, eat something nutritional, and even have a short nap.

John says that the effects of managing your attention span like this can be huge, and often do result in dramatically more productive days.

Change your environment

Another technique that can be useful to help re-focus your mind, when working on something for stretches of time is a change in scenery, or a change in the environment around you.

‘Music is a great tool,’ John says. ‘Play music every 90 to 120 minutes (whatever feels most comfortable to you) as “refresh” time.

‘Or, if you like playing music in the background all the time, have a silence period every so often.’

This will work as a signal to your body that it’s time to reset, and help to refresh your attention span.

‘Also, if you have something to think through, go for a walk instead of sitting in the same chair,’ he says. ‘Or move chairs when you change tasks. 

‘The point is,’ he continues, ‘we can’t break work into sections by sitting in the same physical place with the same sounds and sights.’

Want to break the day up into manageable sections? Break the environment up too.

Prioritise your tasks

Rather than spreading focus over multiple projects, John tells us that it’s better to have a task list, working on each one in order of priority.

The Eisenhower Matrix is simple decision-making tool that helps make clear which tasks that are important, not important, urgent, and not urgent – by splitting tasks into four boxes.

John suggests making use of this, to work out the best order for completing tasks.

‘If we don’t take some time to think and categorise, we naturally gravitate towards prioritising tasks with a set deadline,’ he says. ‘We consider things to be urgent because we get fixated on the time element. Even if it has a lower payout.’

Instead, he suggests writing a list and thinking about what’s most important. ‘What will give you the highest reward in the outcome?’ he asks.  

‘There’s no issue per se with working on numerous projects throughout the day and allotting set periods for each task,’ John says. ‘But I don’t suggest working across multiple documents and projects at once.’

‘The best thing to do is plan in advance,’ says Maya. ‘You can plan your whole week ahead, or on a daily basis as you go along – as long as it’s set out before the day so that no ‘decisions’ need to be made as you sit down to focus on getting things done.’

She agrees with John, saying: ‘Your main tasks should be first of all urgent, then the important ones. Anything else that’s neither of these should be secondary.’

Recognise what works best for you as an individual

The key is to recognise how you work best, says Maya.

She explains that it’s important to pay attention to your habits and triggers and be aware of which of these works best for you.

‘Some people are great at multi-tasking,’ she says, ‘as this keeps their mind “fresh”, more engaged, motivated and alert.

‘They might find that focusing on one thing at a time tires them and their mind starts wandering off looking for other things to pay attention to.’

On the other hand, some people are more productive when focusing on one thing at a time, better suited to follow it through to the finish, before moving on to the next one.

‘For these people, ‘more than one thing can cause them to feel overwhelm and consequently confusion and avoidance of doing the tasks,’ Maya says.   

‘Some people are a ‘combination’ type – they might multi-task on some days and then want to give all their attention to one project on other days – sometimes depending on the scale and size of a project, deadlines, importance etc.’

John agrees that it’s important to allow space for your intuition when working.

‘Think of your toes,’ he says. ‘They don’t seem to do much, though we all probably appreciate the big one helps us balance. In actual fact, they are all essential for poise, balance and propulsion. The point is, they do their job and we don’t even think about it.

‘Believe it or not, this equates strongly to the management of our day.’

He suggests not overthinking the time frame you spend on any given task – he explains that while there is a limit, your body will ultimately tell when it’s time to take a break or move on to something else.

‘The critical answer in all this is instinct,’ he continues.

If you are focused and working well, and if there is no ‘feeling’ except being in the flow. Then great! Keep working.

‘But when feelings start to change, take note of that (stiff muscle, bored, hungry, eyes hurting staring at the screen) and take a break, don’t ignore it. But don’t over analyse. 

‘Your mind will naturally learn to focus better with it all, as your toes will naturally help you balance.’

Some tips to improve your attention span

  • Take regular breaks – it’s important to allow yourself to clear your head. You can either rest and do nothing, or use these to knock yourself out with whatever distractions you feel like going for.
  • Set yourself strict working hours and break down your work into daily tasks, scheduling them in a proper planner, in advance. This way you simply follow the schedule, no questioning or letting your mind wander. Unless something is urgent, stick to the plan even if you’re not completely done.
  • Identify and make a list of any optional distractions, as well as how you can eliminate or reduce them. For example: ‘Phone – turn off / put it on silent’. ‘Going onto different websites – close all unnecessary tabs.’ 
  • Set either time or progress limits on activities and then STOP. For example, answer three emails, spend ten minutes on social media. Then move on to the next thing in a timely manner.  
  • Be aware of your senses and environment. Notice what pulls your attention away. These are what you:
    Hear – e.g. chat, music, people, pets, notifications.
    See – e.g. your screen, your surroundings, distracting objects.
    Feel (including taste and smell) – e.g. is your chair comfy, how is the temperature, are you hungry?
  • Once you’ve identified the triggers, list what you can do for each to minimise the distraction.  
  • Try and use this distraction manager to help you.

Tips from Maya Zack, peak performance specialist, expert mindset coach and hypnotherapist for ambitious women in biz.

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