How to focus your mind: 5 ways to keep on track in a distracting world

Have you ever had one of those days where you can’t focus? Where you’re constantly daydreaming or looking at your to-do list and getting nothing done? Don’t worry you’re not alone. It happens to us all, and probably more than you’d expect.

A study by Matt Killingsworth found that staggeringly 47% of the time, people are thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing.

Depending on the activity people are partaking in the amount their mind wanders varies from a high of 65% when people are taking a shower or brushing their teeth; to 50% when they’re working; 40% when they’re exercising, and incredibly 10% when having sex.

How the study worked

To test the relationship between focus and happiness Killingsworth and his team developed an app to measure people’s thoughts and feelings at various times throughout the day.

At different times the app would release a signal and ask the user a number of questions, starting with: How do you feel? Followed by an activity question: What are you doing? And finally a mind-wandering question: Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?

“The idea is that if we can watch how people’s happiness goes up and down over the course of the day, and try to understand how things like what people are doing, who they’re with, what they’re thinking about, and all the other factors that describe our experiences relate to those ups and downs in happiness, we might eventually be able to discover some of the major causes of human happiness,” Killingsworth explains over at Greater Good.

Mind Wandering and Happiness

Not only does mind wandering affect our productivity, it also has a detrimental affect on our happiness.

Killingsworth’s studies highlighted the fact that when our mind wanders, we tend to feel less happy than when we are focused on the present moment. The study shows that even if we’re faced by an un-enjoyable task, we’re still better off focusing on the task in hand, than letting out mind wander off to something else.

Findings from Killingsworth’s studies

Focusing on the present

Many of us spend our day-to-day existence chasing happiness, or counting down to an up-coming event. However, when we’re focused on the present our happiness is significantly higher, as Killingsworth explains in his TED talk, “happiness has a lot to do with the contents of our moment-to-moment experiences.”

5 ways keep your mind focused

Nowadays, more than ever, we’re surrounded by distraction. If you’re like most people, you’ll sit down to focus on a task and it won’t be long before your mind will wander away into this evening’s plans, that up-coming deadline or that email you need to reply to.

As we’ve discussed, a focused mind can bring increased happiness and productivity. So here are five ways to stop your mind from wandering and enjoy life in the present:

1. Focused Attention Meditation
Meditation has a number of benefits for both mind and body; stress reduction, better memory and increased creativity, are just a few. Oh, and of course, increased levels of focus.

Essentially, meditation is the practice of focusing our attention and as a result, meditation actually improves our focus even when we’re not meditating. It doesn’t take long either, just 20 minutes per day (under 1% of your day) is enough to get beneficial results like increased focus and stress reduction.

2. Limit your distractions
Distraction is all around us, especially for those of us who whose job involves digital communications. With tweets, emails, texts and alike constantly able to distract us, disconnecting from it all can greatly increase our focus.

There are various apps out there to help you disconnect from distractions. Freedom will lock you away from online distractions for a pre-determined amount of time (set by you); Nanny is a Chrome extension that blocks of websites you may get distracted by and StayFocused does a similar job by limiting the websites you can visit for a certain amount of time.

3. Split your day into 90 minute windows
At high performance, our minds can only focus on any given task for between 90-120 minutes. By splitting your day into 90-minute windows and giving yourself a 20-30 minute break between each window you can ensure your brain is in the best shape possible to stay focused on the task in hand.

4. Single task
Having a long to-do list can be a distraction in itself. In order to stay focused, avoid the temptation to multi-task, instead focusing on one single thing you need to do. Work through your list giving each task your full attention for a certain period of time.

5. Take notes
If you’re in the zone, working away and another thought or idea comes out of nowhere, write it down, take a breath and re-focus on your task. By writing down your thought you’ll be re-assured you won’t forget it and will be able to re-focus quickly, rather than being distracted for a sustained period of time.

Oh, and one more, if you really want to remain focused, make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

Over to you, how do you stay focused throughout the day? I’d love to hear your thoughts, insights and experiences on this topic.

About the author:
I’m a freelance community manager, social media strategist and aspiring writer, with a passion for sports and making the most of life. Find out more about me here and catch me tweeting (most likely about sports or social media, maybe both) @ashread14.