There’s construction outside, the cat is sleeping on my hand, my sister is calling me, and I just ran out of coffee. I’m typing, I’m typing, oh wait will that thing I ordered come in the mail today? I should check the tracking number. I’ll just check that tracking number and then I will finish my article.
Several hours later I realize I have just wasted three hours of my life on a website that has nothing to do with my job (coughimgurcough).
Losing focus is easy, really easy, it’s getting it back that’s the hard part.
The average office worker is distracted every three minutes.
After being disrupted, it will take that same office worker another 23-minutes to regain focus on their original task.
Instead of providing you with an environment conducive to focus, workplaces have done exactly the opposite. There’s simply too much going on around us and when that happens, your focus suffers.
How your brain chooses what to focus on
Your brain is always on and always receiving input. It’s always trying to find out which input deserves the most attention.
There are two types of selective attention:
Top-Down: This is our voluntary focus, it is goal oriented. It takes place in our prefrontal cortex (or the thinking part of our brain). It’s responsible for seeing the big picture and uses your past experiences to figure things out. This is what you use when you study for an exam.
Bottom-Up: This is stimulus driven focus and it occurs primarily in the parietal, temporal lobe, and brainstem. This kind of input is attention grabbing, you can’t help but focus on it. This is what you use if you heard a loud noise, or saw someone pop out of the bushes.
Information is carried over gamma waves to different parts of the brain. Use of the thinking part of the brain is associated with low frequency gamma brainwaves. High frequency gamma brainwaves are associated with disturbances in your concentration and trigger a response from the sensory driven part of your brain.
Your brain uses these different gamma wavelengths to focus in on one input or another, it’s what allows you to drown out other distractions and switch between different sensory inputs. If you hear a loud noise, or something startles you your body will automatically focus on this as part of your fight-or-flight response.
Say you are trying to read a book. The thinking part of your brain (prefrontal cortex) controls the focus you have on that book. The visual cortex translates the image of words on a page and sends them across your neuron pathways.
Neurons in the prefrontal cortex and visual cortex will begin to fire rhythmically and synch up with one another. As this happens, your focus on the book will intensify and you’ll be able to drown out other distractions.
However, no matter how in synch your neurons are, they stand no chance if your brain is given too much input. Your focus is not an infinite resource.
Focus is finite
Have you ever noticed that your focus gets worse as the day wears on? That’s because paying attention for long periods of time takes up a lot of energy.
Your brain derives energy from glucose—a simple sugar. You need around 420 kcal's in order to maintain normal function—that’s around 100 pistachios or 4 bananas. Try planning snacks through out the day to boost your brain function. The more mentally taxing a task, the more energy your brain uses.
Multitasking won’t help
Let’s say you decide to multitask so you check your e-mail, and begin to prep for a meeting that you have in a half-hour. Before you do that you want to be sure no new e-mails have come in. Meanwhile there are a group of people chatting a desk near yours.
That’s a lot of input and your brain is trying really hard to choose which stimuli to focus on. If you are trying to focus or perform two tasks that draw from the same resources pool, both of these tasks will suffer. There’s only so much attention and concentration to go around.
Interest in a task determines your focus
Have you ever been just about to start another task only to find yourself daydreaming about ten minutes later?
When you don’t believe that the task at hand is important enough to warrant your unmitigated attention, your brain begins to process other stimulus it has come across. This is your brain activating its default network, its what you use when your brain is no longer focused on the outside world.
As soon as you are in-between tasks your default network activates and it creates its own stimulus. When you daydream or your mind wanders, your brain is exploring inner thoughts and experiences.
Getting your focus back
If you’ve ever been trapped in a no-focus infinity loop, you know how hard it can be to get out of. Sure, it might not be easy, but you can definitely regain control over your focus. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind the next time you are in a focus rut:
Your brain learns by doing. That means the more you engage in disruptive behavior the easier it becomes to continue to engage in it.
Your brain is receiving some kind of reward from the destructive behavior you are partaking in. What that essentially means, is you have to stop yourself before you even start. If you begin the destructive behavior it will be that much more difficult to stop.
Instead you have to fight against the destructive behaviors. Each time you begin to engage in one, stop it as fast as you can. If you find you check your e-mail 20,000 times a day, each time you open up your email client (or think about opening it up) go for a walk instead.
You taught yourself how to be distracted, you can teach yourself how to be undistracted.
Do focus intensive tasks around your brain’s schedule
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this as you’ve probably already experienced it, but the brain works better on certain tasks at different times of day.
Your peak distraction times occur between 12-4 p.m. and you will find that you become sleepy at 2:00 p.m. Your brain’s energy reserves and alertness begin to slip during these times. You can work around this though.
Your brain handles tough cognitive loads best in the late morning hours (after 10 a.m.). At this point in the day your brain is fully awake, it’s (hopefully) fed, and humming along quite nicely.
In the afternoon try switching up tasks and going for a walk to snap your brain back into an alert and active state.
Most of our daily routine has to do with receiving as much input as possible. We want to have 15 tabs open and our e-mail, and be on the phone with our boss, and drinking coffee. Receiving input faster doesn’t make you better at work, quite the opposite.
No, I’m not suggesting you give up on e-mail completely. Instead try working from a different part of the office for a while, one that is free from distraction, and please don’t take your phone with you. Create a space and choose a time that will be your distraction free time.
If your task is writing or reading intensive, try disconnecting from the internet. You will be horrified and shocked at how reliant you are on something that just ends up distracting you. There are even apps you can download to help you from being distracted by the internet.
Yes, this sounds weird, but research shows that chewing gum increases the oxygen flow to the parts of your brain responsible for attention. It also improves your long term memory and injects a bit of insulin into your blood which may help give your brain that added energy boost.
I’ll take 19 packs of Trident please…
If you want a real surefire way to lose focus, be stressed out about something. Stress is a focus killer of epic proportions. Which really sucks considering that we are most likely to be stressed when we need to focus the most.
Try taking five minutes for yourself, choose one of your senses and concentrate only on this sense. Identify what your body and mind is feeling, what are you touching, smelling, seeing, hearing, tasting? This exercise will help increase your mindfulness at work.
Finding your focus is really about being mindful, as so much of productivity is. Mindfulness is about living in the right now, not in the ten-seconds from now, and not in last year.
By the time you have finished reading this article, you will have been distracted at least two times. If you’ve made it to the end, thank you and congratulations, you are a statistical anomaly.
Focus doesn’t have to be anxiety inducing, we just need to start thinking about focus in a more helpful way. The fact that our brain is able to focus at all is actually amazing.
Finding your focus is really as simple as just making things a little bit easier on your brain. Reduce the amount of stimuli that your brain has to put up with, work around your brain’s schedule, and be mindful. For all of tips and tricks, what I’m really saying is this: Create an environment that brings focus to you, not one that takes focus away.