Every three minutes. That’s about how often we are interrupted or prompted to switch tasks at work. All those distractions chip away at our focus and productivity making it hard to get anything done even during the quiet moments at our desk, according to researchers at the University of California, Irvine.
But these five approaches can help us offset those distractions and the stress they create—enhancing our focus and ability to remember important details, even in this hyper-connected world.
1. Take Tech Breaks
Our always-on technology makes it hard for us to focus even in the quiet moments, says psychologist Larry Rosen, PhD., professor emeritus at California State University, Dominguez Hills and co-author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.” When we shift our attention—even for a second—from our primary task to a text coming in, for example, our brains must also make the shift and it can take several more minutes to refocus and reengage when we do come back to our work.
Instead, close down websites, set a timer on your phone for six to twenty minutes, which is about as long as most people can focus, Rosen says. Turn the phone over, and focus on one thing until the timer goes off. Knowing a break is only minutes away will help you stay on track.
2. Use Music to Stay Relaxed-Alert
Boredom can become its own distraction. Without an adequate level of stimulation, the brain struggles to stay engaged, says Lucy Jo Palladino, PhD., author of “Find Your Focus Zone.” Too much and we are overwhelmed and unable to focus on anything at all. What we need is to move into a relaxed-alert state or focus zone.
Athletes who spend hours training often find that relaxed-alert state by listening to music with a high number of beats per minute when feeling bored, Palladino says. Slower, more soothing sounds can help you relax if you are too amped up.
So, plug in your headphones and listen to upbeat music with no lyrics to help you concentrate on a task. You may have to experiment a bit to find the beats and styles that help you stay in that zone.
3. Clear the Clutter
It’s hard to concentrate and remember information when our brains have to visually filter and process a bunch of irrelevant details. Do you need that pile of old reports on your desk? How about all those sticky notes and the score of open tabs on your browser? Clutter on our desks and screens can distract us from our work priorities, according to research by Adam Gazzaley
Keep your physical and virtual spaces free from clutter—anything that doesn’t apply to the job you are working on—and you’ll have an easier time getting the important work done.
4. Become the Observer
Pay attention to your work habits and so you can modify as needed to eliminate the distractions that slow your progress. Do this by shifting your point of view. Think like an outsider, someone who has come to watch and evaluate how you work. Be honest and objective, but not judgmental; simply tell it like it is. Use this observer self to gently remind you to stop avoiding the work and to stay on track with the task, Palladino says.
5. Remember Your Goal
Using self-talk and visualization to connect to the work you need to complete is another way to help edge out distraction, Palladino says. Write down what you need to focus on, such as finish the report by Friday” or “meet sales goals,” and tape it over your computer or on your desk and repeat it when you feel your attention scatter.
Then set a number of mini-goals to move you closer to those bigger objectives. Work on these for about 20 minutes at a time, before taking a short break. Then get back to work.
The novelty of these mini-goals and action items will keep your brain busy and engaged and help you move closer to your desired outcomes. The breaks in between will give your brain a chance to rest and replenish. The combination will help you stay on task no matter what distractions come your way.