How to Hack Your Brain for Insane Focus and Productivity, According to Harvard Research

The science-backed tips to destroy distractions and stay productive in the digital age.

Studies indicate that most of us have incredibly short attention spans (in fact, some have found that we have shorter attention spans than goldfish), and it’s only getting worse.

So, in today’s world of constant digital bombardment and work demands, how do you actually stay focused?

Our brains, while extremely powerful, are pulled in so many directions at once that we really limit our ability to do any one task very well. And while multitasking might sound nice on a job posting, people who juggle several streams of content do not pay attention, memorize, or manage tasks as well as those who can “monotask” by focusing on one thing at a time.

Thankfully, according to the experts at Harvard, there are steps that you can take to out-smart your brain and have laser-focus (without overdosing on caffeine) — no matter what distractions life and work throw your way:

Do your ABC’s.

No — not the alphabet, but this trick from Harvard Business Review is just as simple to learn. It’s a way to stomp “your brain’s brake pedal” when a distraction pops up, and it involves three steps:

First, become aware of your options — you can either give into the distraction, or keep going. Next, breathe deeply. Finally, choose what option you’ll move forward with. Most likely, after taking these steps, you’ll be able to continue on with your task.

Set your intentions.

The experts at Harvard recommend that we are deliberate about our attention and that we set an intention for our attention before we are caught in the moment of distraction.

As we start our work day in the morning we should first ask ourselves what is most important to us today? What is our mood? What expectations do we have of our colleagues?

Once you recognize your position, make two lists: what will you focus most of your attention to (because it is most important to you today) and what information do you have the likelihood of missing (because it does not match your mental state or goals)?

Classify what matters most and set a positive intention. If your direct report made a mistake that has created a setback for the team, you should choose to focus your attention on moving forward, rather than hammering the details of the mistake that was made.

Use technology to fight back.

Our attention spans have a pretty small window when competing with all of the beeps, flashing lights and vibrations coming from our computer monitors, smart phones and fitness watches.

The research found that these alerts send a message to our brains that something else is urgently needing our attention, when in reality, it is rarely actually urgent or even relatively significant.

Filter your email, automate your news, and use simple, free tools to help manage your social media presence. Seeing a notification releases dopamine in our brain, causing us to be addicted to these digital signals. Using technology to automate will help you abandon the idea that every notification is urgent, or that you have to share every article on four different networks.

For instance, Tiffany Sauder, founder and president of Element Three, said that the first time her company landed a big client, she felt like she worked for her inbox and not for herself. She realized how detrimental a loss of focus can be for a fledgling company, so she began using Gmail filters and setting aside specific parts of her day to tackler her inbox. Her productivity — and her company — have thrived, and yours can too.

Tame the tide of negative emotions.

Sometimes, it’s not an iPhone that hijacks our focus — things that bring about negative emotions can be just as dangerous for your attention span.

Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. and psychology expert, recommends a 3:1 balance of positive and negative emotions for optimal focus. Why? Negative emotions are regarded as threats by our brain, inhibiting our ability to do other cognitive work.

Just taking a short break from whatever it is that is triggering a negative reaction can all help keep this balance in check. In its place, do something to trigger a positive emotion, like talking with a coworker you enjoy or taking a walk, to improve your brain function and increase your productivity.

Create Space.

“Recent research indicates that meditating for just a few minutes a day, spending just one hour a week in nature, or jotting down a few reflective notes in the evening has a noticeable impact on well-being,” said Ed Batista in Harvard Business Review.

We have the ability to create additional attentive space by committing to routines such as sufficient sleep, meditation, keeping a journal, exercising or simply spending time in nature. Being consistent in these practices allows us to better sieve through distractions, concentrate on the task at hand and organize emotionally.

In their early years, individuals who sacrifice these types of activities (put off exercising and sleeping due to a lack of time), will experience success. However, those who are successful for the long-term, those who eventually become the leaders of major businesses, invest their time in these types of activities which allows them to perform at their peak.

Yes, it may be true that humans have a tendency to get distracted. But by using these brain hacks, you can lessen the effects of your distraction and train your brain to regain your focus on achieving more and becoming your best self.

Do you have any tips for overcoming distractions and staying focused? I want to hear about them — reach out to me on Twitter or leave a comment!

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