5 Ways to Improve Your Focus [Even in the Midst of Chaos]

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

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I am trying to write a blog about focus, and I can't focus.

I just sent that message to a friend a few minutes ago.

Tell me you can relate.

Not only is it a challenge for me to put my full attention into tasks on a good day, during a global pandemic it can feel nearly impossible. Strangely enough, during a crisis is exactly when we need to practice focus the most.

Our brains need the relief that focus brings in the midst of the chaos.

It's calming.

And with the high levels of stress and uncertainty surrounding us, we need to create as much calm for ourselves as we can.

Need to increase your ability to focus?

Here are 5 tips that you can implement today:

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1. Stop Multitasking!

It isn’t accomplishing what you think it is.

While multitasking is a point of pride for many of us, it is also a focus killer!

Travis Bradberry stated in his Forbes article, “Multitasking reduces your efficiency and performance because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully.”

In fact, multi-tasking can result in a 40% decrease in productivity!! Yikes!

Not only does multitasking lessen your productivity, trying to focus on too many things at once can slow down your cognitive ability. Researchers from the University of London found that multitasking can lower your IQ similar to that of someone who has stayed up all night.

Pro tip: Reward yourself with a digital break.

Want to scroll social media or watch the news? Great. Just don’t do them at the same time as your work. Instead, save those things for rewards when you have accomplished a few tasks on your to-do list.

Crisis Mode: When you find yourself in a crisis, you will be tempted more than usual to try and multitask. Resist that urge! Instead, a crisis is the best time to identify your top priorities and focus only on those. You will have to extend yourself some grace, you will not be able to do it all. But that is okay-why? Because you are operating during a CRISIS. By selecting the most important things to direct all of your attention to, you will ensure that they are accomplished. Once the crisis is over, you can revisit the rest.

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2. Limit distractions.

Distractions happen. That’s life. But for as much as we can, we need to limit them. Turn off your notifications. Silence your phone, or better yet set your phone to airplane mode. Remove the clutter and other tasks that need attention off of your desk so your brain is not tempted to begin processing them at the same time.

If you are working from a home office, turn off the TV!!

I repeat. Turn off the TV.

The change in sounds and flashing colors in the background are not doing you any favors.

As much as possible, try to remove yourself from piles of dirty laundry or dishes that need your attention-if its not possible to go into another room, find something to put between you and the objects in order to block your view.

And (whenever realistically possible) remove yourself from pets or children-and all other adorable but highly needy creatures. I personally have two toddlers at home, so my best time to work is when they are tucked in for the night (which is exactly how I am writing this blog right now).

Pro tip: Check email only twice a day-and work until your inbox is clear.

Many experts recommend doing so at the beginning and end of your day. However, the most ideal times for you can depend greatly on the type of work you do. If checking your email only twice a day isn’t feasible, try limiting it to every few hours, or at the top of every hour so that it is not a constant distraction to you while you are trying to work.

According to LinkedIn, it can take about 15 minutes to get back to work after answering emails, so the more you can limit the times you allow yourself to check your email, the better.

Crisis Mode: During times of crisis, there will be more distractions than usual. You will have to accept that you cannot limit distractions as much as you prefer, however, there are some strategies to help alleviate the added chaos of distraction. For instance, you can minimize distractions caused by using Zoom during virtual meetings by making some small modifications to the way you use the program. For more information on how to do so, check out LeAnne's recent blog on the ROI website: 3 Reasons We've Got Zoom Fatigue and What To Do About It.

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3. Theme your days (or hours, or minutes).

Ideally, this works best when applied to your days.

Imagine an entire day where your focus is tied to one type of task.

How much more could you accomplish?

However, if a themed day is not realistic, that's okay. This principal also works well with hours, or even minutes. Commit half a day to a specific kind of work. If that is not feasible, try focusing on just one task for 90 minutes and then give yourself a 20 minute break. Research at Florida State University has found that 90 minute intervals of work, coupled with a short break, can be ideal for productivity.

Pro tip: Carve out times for deep work and protect that time at all cost.

If possible, notify your boss, colleagues, or even your family and request to work undisturbed. Set your expectations clearly and honor the time you allotted. If you asked to be uninterrupted for 2 hours, don’t re-emerge 4 hours later.

Crisis mode: If you find it hard to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time, try micro-intervals. Set a timer for small increments, 15-20 minutes, and focus on one task at a time. When the timer ends, move to your next task. As you work, be intentional and only focus on that task at hand-shutting out all external and internal distractions (as much as is realistic). Even with just short bursts of focused time, you will be shocked at how much more you can accomplish.

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4. Recharge your brain.

The time you spend relaxing and allowing your brain to rest, is just as important as the time you spend working. In fact, researchers know through multiple studies that:

“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”

Taking a break to walk or sit outside, sitting in silence, meditating or praying, or even taking a nap can help your brain get the rest it so desperately needs to function at high capacity.

Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson compares the need for your brain to rest to the rest professional musicians or athletes need. These professionals only train 4 hours per day. The time they take to rest allows for restored equilibrium and helps them to avoid injury or burnout.

If you cannot afford to take an extended break away from your work, try some deep breathing exercises or switch to a simple task that does not require too much cognitive thought. But keep in mind these are only temporary fixes, and they do not need to become your main go to.

Your brain needs the time to rest-so let it.

Pro tip: Take a 10 minute power nap.

Researchers at Flinders University in Australia found that 7 to 10 minutes of sleep was ideal for immediately enhancing performance without grogginess. If you take a few minutes to doze off, you may want to increase your naptime to 20 minutes.

For an extra kick, combine caffeine with your nap. Caffeine takes about 20 minutes to kick in, so consuming some before your 10-20 minute power nap means you will be waking up refreshed right as the caffeine begins to kick in. The British scholars who discovered this method claim the combo works better than just caffeine or a nap alone.

Crisis mode: You will need frequent breaks when you are operating during a crisis, and they may need to be longer than usual to fully recharge you. Expect tasks that require more cognitive power to drain you more than usual and plan time to step away more than you usually would.

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5. Balance your emotions

Have you ever felt like you are in a frenzy?

The Harvard Business Review calls frenzy “an emotional state, a feeling of being a little (or a lot) out of control. It is often underpinned by anxiety, sadness, anger, and related emotions.”

Our powerful brains are keen to process negative emotions as threats, and those threats can impair our ability to solve problems or complete complex tasks. On the other hand, positive emotions can help us. They have the ability to improve the brain’s uncanny talent to create or solve problems and to get things done. If you find yourself feeling frantic or frenzied-pause and turn your attention to a more positive train of thought. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recommends a 3:1 ratio for positive to negative emotions. If you find yourself out of that ratio, it may be time for some intervention. Reach out to a trusted friend or colleague to vent. Take some time to rest and recharge. And if the pattern continues, seek professional help.

Pro tip: Keep a notebook handy.

A notebook close at hand is a great tool to alleviate the pressure on your brain to remember and process all of the information and emotions we experience throughout the day.

Here are some ways to use a notebook to help increase your focus:

  • It can be a great place to calm a racing mind by engaging in a brain dump-simply writing down all of the thoughts in your head.

  • A notebook can also be useful for listing out reminders and tasks that come to mind when you start to relax or focus on a specific task.

  • Lastly, a notebook is a great place to journal about your feelings or emotions. This can be an incredibly effective tool for negative emotions. According to researchers from Berkley University, “If we let painful thoughts rattle around in our heads, they seem to constantly resurface and demand our attention, hoping to be resolved and processed.” Writing down those emotions helps to end the cycle so your mind is free to move on.

Crisis mode: Negative emotions, anxieties and fears are prevalent during a time of crisis. Keeping a gratitude journal can help you stay grounded and help to balance your positive to negative emotions ratio. If you write down at least 3 or 4 things you are thankful for each day, your mind will have an anchor of positive thoughts to return to. As an added bonus, writing these before bedtime can even help improve your sleep.

I know that trying to focus on a good day is a challenge, and focusing during a global pandemic can feel near impossible. But when you stop multitasking, limit your distractions, start theming you days, allow time to recharge your brain and balance your emotions, you can help your brain find the calm it so desperately needs in the midst of chaos and beyond.

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