In today’s digitally connected world, staying on task can be tough. Whether you’re trying to meet a work deadline or training for your first 5K, diversions are always at your fingertips. Even during rare quiet moments, you can scroll through social media, check emails and mindlessly binge on YouTube clips.
In the midst of all of this noise, it takes a concerted effort to stay focused and on task. “Recent research suggests that increasing distractions, particularly those due to digital multitasking, are contributing to stress, burnout, poor focus and reduced productivity,” says Lisa MacLean, M.D., a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health.
Honing Your Focus
Your ability to focus is directly related to the number of distractions in your environment. Helping your kids with homework while trying to catch the evening news? You’re probably not doing either very well. Scrolling through emails while making dinner? Something is bound to boil over.
The good news: There are a number of things you can do to become more focused and productive.
- Limit distractions: Diversions are everywhere, from the notifications on your smartphone to the television noise in the background. While you may not be able to silence every potential intrusion, you can take steps to minimize interruptions. Silence your cellphone (or turn it off), close your office door and alert your coworkers and family members that you will be unreachable for a specific period of time.
- Focus on one task at a time: Multitasking is a myth. “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly,” Dr. MacLean says. The problem is, there’s a cognitive cost to this constant switching: Tasks not only take longer to complete, but you’re also more likely to make errors along the way. Plus, studies suggest multitasking with digital devices is fundamentally changing our brains so we’re less efficient.
- Organize your time: At your best at the beginning of the day? Focus on mentally challenging projects in the morning and save administrative tasks like responding to emails and entering data for the afternoon. Feel more inspired in the evening? Carve out time a few hours before bed to attend to more creative pursuits.
- Set a timer: If staying on task for the duration of a project seems impossible, set a timer for 15 minutes to start. You can accomplish more than you think with just 15 minutes of uninterrupted focus.
- Take short breaks: When you’re laser-focused on a specific project for long periods of time, your attention begins to break down and distraction sets in. For best results, build in breaks. Studies show taking short 10 to 15-minute breaks can help sharpen your mental focus and enhance performance.
- Be present: It’s tough to stay in the moment when you’re worrying about the past or anxious about the future. To stay mentally focused, set aside physical and mental distractions and tune in to the present. After all, if you want to focus on one thing, you have to be able to ignore everything else.
Bolster Your Brain Power
Improving mental focus may seem impossible in today’s constantly connected world, but it’s not. Consciously eliminate distractions — power down your phone, work in a quiet room and clear off your work surface. And when you’re not working on a focused task, challenge your brain with these brain-boosting activities:
- Read about a subject you know nothing about.
- Do crossword puzzles.
- Try brain games.
- Connect with others.
- Practice mindfulness.
If you’re still having trouble with focus after implementing changes in your daily life, talk to your health care provider. There are a number of potential culprits, including aging, cognitive decline and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and some of these issues are treatable.
Dr. Lisa MacLean is a psychiatrist specializing in adult ADHD treatment at Henry Ford Behavioral Services in Detroit. She is also the director of physician wellness for Henry Ford Health, using her expertise to help doctors optimize wellness and find balance by teaching them healthy coping strategies so they can better serve their patients.