Modern living and increasingly competitive working conditions are a recipe for both stress and fragmented attention span. Combine these with technology addictions and multiple social media accounts and you can see why mental focus becomes a challenge. Distraction is generally only noticed with hindsight, but by then it’s too late; we all want to be able to focus but it seems to be one of those unavoidable things.
To make matters worse, procrastination is practically pandemic; if pushed, most people will admit to struggling with it from time to time at the very least. Procrastination makes those spontaneous forays on to social media seem like a naughty treat rather than a bad habit; but however you view it, it certainly isn’t helping your mental focus. In a digital age where the mind easily falls prey to sensory overload, we need to hone our focusing skills if we don’t want to be constantly fighting to remember what we were supposed to be doing. Here’s a few tactics you can try:
1. Set a timer
When it comes to getting things done, our mental energy is as important as our physical energy. It helps to acknowledge that constant focus is a lofty goal, but it is possible to achieve beneficial daily periods of focus for increased efficiency and productivity. Even managing 20 minutes per day is helpful for most people.
If you know how roughly how long a task should take you, set a timer. It will be in the back of your mind that it’s ticking away, and encourage you into a deeper focus period. Remember to use it as a tool, rather than a way of exerting pressure on yourself to beat the clock; that would be counter-productive.
2. Get organized
Although multitasking is a great skill to have, it can cause confusion if not done in a methodical manner. Successful multitasking does give us a sense of achievement, but at a mental price. A mind under pressure can react in a chaotic way, juggling tasks erratically in a bid to meet deadlines. It has even been shown to reduce IQ — not a very palatable byproduct. At the very least we are likely to make avoidable mistakes and increase anxiety levels.
What’s worse, the brain adapts to this dysfunctional tactic and it becomes a habit. The way to combat this is discipline; prioritize realistically, list tasks for each project in order and then work through them methodically. Again, set a timer if it helps. Some people even put checking social media in their multitasking bracket rather than the procrastination bracket; a form of self-delusion guaranteed to disrupt mental focus.
3. Know your body clock
Are you on form in the morning and sluggish by early evening, or do you struggle to get out of bed and have plenty of mental energy well into the night? Knowing your natural patterns and working with them is a sensible endeavor. For example, if you’re a morning person who has to fit into standard working hours, it makes sense to do your most creative work in the morning before you run out of mental steam. Factor this in to your priority list, leaving the less challenging stuff until last.
Likewise, know your ideal working conditions. Do you work better in the office, or do you have your most productive hours in the quiet of your own home? If you can influence your working life to fit these rhythms and preferences, you’re likely to have far more mental focus.
4. Exercise daily
Don’t leave out the physical aspect; body and mind are intrinsically linked so if you’ve been slouched in that office chair for the last five hours, your body will want a break. Get up, go outside and walk around the block for 20 minutes in the fresh air. Doing this as a daily practice will give your mind a break as well as oxygenating your system; it’s a fast route to feeling refreshed and ready to take on a new task.
If you can bring yourself to do more vigorous exercise on a regular basis, the benefits will be relative. The faster your metabolism, the more active your mind is likely to be too. Another benefit is that your immune system will function better; there’s nothing like illness to give you brain fog. Exercise will positively impact your sleeping patterns, leading to a refreshed and capable brain each morning.
5. Meditate regularly
By now most people know about the benefits of meditation. At first it might seem impossible to control your thoughts for more than 30 seconds, but that’s normal. Like anything, with practice you become more adept. The idea is not to pressure yourself into having a completely blank mind at all times; it is enough to focus your attention on something simple like your breathing pattern or an inanimate object. Focusing on the breath naturally draws the mind chatter to a temporary close. Not only will you feel calm but over time you will find that the ‘monkey mind’ is not in the driving seat as often; this will naturally spill over into tasks that require mental focus.
Despite our best intentions, focus sometimes seems hell-bent on disappearing down the toilet. If you embrace the above practices, you should be an organized, efficient, physically fit Buddha in no time. Well, it’s something to aspire to at least.