Having trouble focusing? Modern culture inundates us with alerts and information that continually divert our attention. We’re wired for instant gratification, and our electronics and social media provide it. If we’re dreading a project and don’t know where to begin, it’s a lot more fun to watch entertaining YouTube clips — that is, until our procrastination keeps us from getting stuff done.

Chronic procrastination can have adverse health effects, such as:

  • Vulnerability to conditions like cardiovascular disease and hypertension
  • Excess stress, which can have an exhaustingly negative impact on our bodies
  • Postponement of important preventive health measures such as annual physicals

If you have trouble staying focused, try these tips for concentrating your attention:

  • Limit multitasking. Many of us believe we’re better at multitasking than we actually are. It’s easy to multitask when we’re performing actions that don’t require mental energy and are habitual, like talking while walking. However, when we’re trying to do two tasks that require higher cognitive functioning, it can negatively affect productivity. Doing too many things at once can weaken our mental focus so that we’re not doing individual tasks well. As the cognitive demands of multiple tasks increase, time lost flitting between them increases. Additionally, our brains become accustomed to constantly switching from one thing to the next, making it harder, over time, to focus on a single activity. 

 If you’re trying to do multiple tasks that use the same brain channel for processing data, mental conflicts will arise. Choose your main task based on your priorities and stick with it. For example, if you have to put together a presentation, allocate a certain amount of uninterrupted time to work on it, then designate time to answer emails. Avoid responding to emails as they come in because it can compromise your focus. Another strategy is grouping related tasks together. Like your body, you can train your mind. Sticking with tasks builds a foundation of increased focus; consider this mental endurance training.

  • Take breaks. The brain can only stay focused for so long. According to Nathaniel Kleitman, our bodies operate on 90-minute rhythms throughout the day. Some researchers refer to this as our ultradian rhythm – as opposed to our circadian rhythm, which drives sleep. Our bodies tell us when we need a break, with signals such as fidgeting, hunger, drowsiness and lack of focus. Often we ignore them and reach for caffeine or sugary foods to get an energy boost instead. When we override break cues, our brain moves into sympathetic arousal aka the “fight or flight” mode, making us less capable of clear thinking, reflection and seeing the larger picture. When people take a break after 90 minutes of hard work, they’re able to focus more during times of exertion.
  • Set aside 90 minutes for top priorities. As a result of these ultradian rhythms, everyone should schedule one 90-minute block of uninterrupted time each day to focus on a challenging project or important task, preferably in the morning. For most adults, cognitive performance is better in the late morning.
  • Most of us keep to-do lists, but it’s time to create a to-don’t list. Determine your distractions and put them on the list. Hooked on social media? Add it. Vow that you’ll refrain until important tasks are complete, then use it as a reward for your hard work. Or consider only checking it at the top of each hour (or the next 90-minute mark).
  • Allot less time for tasks. If something typically takes you an hour to complete, commit to finishing it in 40 minutes. Deadlines can prompt a sense of urgency. If this isn’t enough motivation, enlist someone to hold you accountable.
  • Reduce internal distractions. Don’t think about the birthday card you need to send, when you’re finishing a big report. Write down tasks that come to mind and save those chores for a time when you can address them. If you have trouble doing this, incorporate meditation into your lifestyle. Research shows that people who meditate are more effective at blocking mental distractions.
  • Minimize opportunities for interruption. If you get distracted by chatty co-workers, wear soundproof headphones. Better yet, listen to motivating music on those headphones. Many online music sites have playlists dedicated to helping you stay focused. Constantly checking Facebook? Install a plugin on your computer or remove the app from your phone to block access.

Commit to a goal of increased concentration. Take time at the end of the day to review your productivity and note areas for improvement. It’s also a good idea to identify the time of day you’re most energized, to learn when it’s best for you to tackle projects requiring mental stamina.

Workplace Application

Implement a temporary companywide policy to avoid internal meetings during the first two hours of the workday. Or better yet, try to ban them before noon to provide an uninterrupted block of time to focus on priorities. If this is unrealistic, challenge your employees to limit internal meetings on Monday mornings, to allow everyone the chance to set aside time at the beginning of the week to work on important projects, plan for the workweek and prioritize tasks. If this experiment proves valuable to your team, determine if it’s feasible to implement this approach long term.