Between our cultural obsession with multi-tasking and an ever-increasing supply of distractions—from overflowing email inboxes to pinging phones—the ability to focus is becoming a rare commodity. In fact, one study found that the average office worker changes their focus every three minutes and loses an average of two hours to distraction each day.
These constant tugs on our attention are a problem because, like a muscle, the ability to focus weakens without proper use. Luckily, also like a muscle, it can be strengthened with practice, so you can choose where your attention goes—rather than letting it choose for you. Here are four proven ways to filter out distraction and flex your focus muscle:
1. Plan Ahead
Plan what you’ll work on before you get into the focus zone. Why? A little advance work boosts your productivity by lightening your cognitive load. “Decision-making takes energy, and when you can show up and just start working, instead of deciding what you’ll do, you can channel all of your energy on execution,” says Laura Vanderkam, author of Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. In other words, when you take the time to make a detailed to-do list, you’re able to tackle each task with your full attention.
2. Celebrate Each Step
Sure, it’s great to have milestone goals—but without breaking them down into doable steps, these goals can be so overwhelming that when you have time to work on them, you freeze up or fritter it away.
That’s why it’s crucial to prioritize incremental progress when tackling a big project or goal. “Collecting wins, no matter how small, can chemically wire you to move mountains by causing a repeated release of dopamine (the neurotransmitter associated with positive feelings),” writes Monica Mehta in her book The Entrepreneurial Instinct. “But to get going, you have to land those first few successes.” If you need to create a PowerPoint presentation, for example, make one of your to-dos to open up the program and save a new file. It sounds simple, but once you take that first step, your brain will encourage you to keep going in search of its next dose of dopamine.
3. Be an Early Bird
We all know how frustrating it feels when you have ambitious plans for the day…but the next thing you know, the sun is setting and your to-do list is still a mile long. That’s why it’s best to get up and get started first thing in the morning, says Vanderkam.
Mornings are prime for productivity, she adds, because “you’ve had your first cup of coffee, crises have yet to arise, and no one wants a piece of you.” Research backs this up: According to behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, we tend to be most productive in the first two hours after we become fully awake. More of a night owl than an early bird? Try to dedicate two evenings each week to get-stuff-done time—you’ll have similar quiet conditions as those early morning hours.
You can apply this “hit the ground running” approach not just to each day, but also to each week: In her research, Vanderkam has analyzed how hundreds of successful professional women have spent thousands of days. “I noticed that many of the most productive women actively scheduled their most important work for Monday mornings. If you accomplish your most important weekly priority by noon on Monday, how could it not be a great week?”
4. Listen to Music
A 2013 study published in Scientific Reports found that listening to Mozart appeared to reduce cognitive dissonance, the mental strain that comes from processing two pieces of conflicting information at the same time. In the study, researchers had groups of people perform the same task under three different sets of conditions: Once in complete silence, once with Mozart playing in the background, and once with a version of the Mozart that had been manipulated to have dissonant intervals (meaning the music notes were clashing, rather than in harmony). Both groups performed best while listening to the un-doctored Mozart.
The music you listen to doesn’t have to be classical to promote your focus—another study on the psychology of music found that when study participants chose the music they’d like to listen to while performing a task, they experienced a positive mood change and sharper focus as compared to the control group.
When you flex your focus muscle, you can take advantage of each day and spend more time and energy on what’s important to you, like reaching towards your goals.
Kate Hanley is the author of How to Be a Better Person and Stress Less and a personal development coach. She writes regularly on how to manage stress and take care of the many important parts of life. Visit her at katehanley.com