From the infinite scroll of Facebook and Instagram to the temptation of a perfectly sunny day, there are a lot of distractions that prevent you from zeroing in on your work. But as career expert and cofounder of Early Stage Careers, Jill Tipograph, explains, internal interferences are tough to avoid, too.
“With lengthy work hours, increased workloads, boss expectations, and shared office spaces, one needs to have a box of tips and tools to stay focused for longer periods of time,” she says.
So how to you meet your deadlines? Try these focus-forming habits that help to lengthen your unpredictable attention span:
One of the biggest reasons for mind-drifting is idle hands and thoughts. It’s easier to find your flow if you create structure. Tipograph recommends beginning each week with a deep dive into what needs to be accomplished, giving you the opportunity to carve out every last detail of the workweek. Interruptions from colleagues, managers, and clients are bound to happen, so predicting to the best of your ability will ensure productivity.
When in doubt, Tipograph says to over-schedule instead of under-schedule: “From when you will do different tasks of a project, to making calls, answering emails, hold meetings, to when to take breaks and meals, you will accomplish more and feel productive,” she says.
Also, try to schedule calls and meetings back-to-back to better strategize your time. She adds: “It is interruptive to have calls and meetings throughout a day. Block off certain days and times for meetings and calls, allowing the other parts of your day for work.”
What makes your phone so tempting? Career and branding expert Wendi Weiner says it’s part addiction and part happenstance. If it’s there, right by your laptop, you’re more likely to thumb over when you have a brain pause. But if it’s put away? You likely won’t stop what you’re doing to dig for it. That’s why she suggests turning on the “do not disturb” mode when you need to give 100%. This is also great practice for your sleep patterns, too. Weiner says more sleep will dramatically improve your performance, since you won’t be yawning your way through a blizzard of emails.
“Being well rested will definitely help improve your memory and concentration alike, as a rested brain is a stronger brain,” she says. “Remain on a sleep schedule so that you train your body and mind to relax at specific points in the day and night.”
Troublemakers and overachievers are often found at the front of the classroom. Though one was for necessity and the other for the pursuit of success, there’s a reason “brown-nosing” works, even if it’s not your intention to suck up to your boss. As chief engagement and brand officer at EHE, Joy Altimare explains, students who want to excel make sure they have access to a teacher and the chalkboard, so they remain fixated. The same philosophy applies at the workplace. “I have learned to position myself toward that presenter or closer to the screen so I’m more likely to ask questions. It is a small trick that forces me to be engaged in the discussion, and in turn, requires me to be accountable in the meeting,” she explains.
As much as we’d all like to have a swig of coffee and be able to zip through each and every deliverable without exhaling, it’s just not practical for most people. So give yourself a break—literally. Weiner says this can do wonders for your creativity and comprehension, especially if you’re digging through the nitty-gritty details of a brief or experiencing writer’s block. Just keep it short and give it a purpose: “Taking a break to get the mail, grab a snack, or just stretch your legs can revitalize your energy,” she says. “Changing your environment after sitting in a chair reviewing a file or a document can also help expand your attention span.”
Since you spend so much time with your phone, why not put it to work? Tipograph suggests using project management lists to ensure you’re meeting your timelines and goals for various projects. Her go-to is Trello, which helps keep all thoughts (and deadlines) organized in one easy place. If you use Trello, a different app, Google Docs, or a piece of notebook paper to keep track of everything, Tipograph stresses the importances of “checking off” an item when you’re finished. It’s a habit Sheryl Sandberg practices—ripping off a completed to-do list and throwing it away. Why is it effective? It gives a sense of accomplishment and directs attention to what’s next.
If you’re an Android user, Altimare suggests the Peak app as a way to exercise your mental agility. “What I love about it is that it challenges me across different areas – memory, attention, problem solving, language, coordination, and emotion control through the training modules,” she says. “I find myself competing with my personal score, challenging myself to excel across the categories, and checking out my brain map to identify areas of improvement.”
Perhaps you’ve heard of the philosophy behind chronotypes: that each person has a natural time of day they work best. Whatever your type, Tipograph says to utilize those hours to get as much accomplished as you can. “If you produce work better early in the day, schedule your ‘busy’ activities in the afternoon—or vice versa,” she says. If you happen to be an early riser, consider blocking out your schedule so you have time to get into a rhythm without anyone stopping by to chat over coffee. Or if you tend to get the best ideas right before bed, keep a pen and paper on your bedside table so you can scribble down your brilliance.
Is there anything a great sweat session can’t fix? Likely not, if you ask nearly any expert on any topic. Another way to use your heart rate to improve your life is squeezing in a workout before you clock in or halfway through your workday. While not practical for everyone, Weiner says remaining physically active will keep you balanced physically and mentally. “The increase of oxygen to your brain when exercising can reduce stress and elevate the chemicals in your brain for stronger functioning,” she adds.
Whatever type of music you prefer, Altimare recommends music as a secret tool of productivity. “I have found that soothing music with intermittent words, sans lyrics, is the best type of music to listen to when I’m working. I play it often in meetings I host in my office, and it has served as a productive component to keep the team engaged, attentive, and we usually finish our meetings on time,” she says.
The first week you attempt to lengthen your attention span, you might bomb it. But the next week? Likely a little better. Tipograph says to go easy on yourself and consider them all as rehearsals. “Think back to your preparation for the SATs: You took practice tests, having to get used to long periods of time of concentration. You likely didn’t nail it the first time,” she continues. “If you know you have to be focused, working intensely for long periods, create practice projects so you can learn your discomfort zones, and get more comfortable.”