Set yourself up for better focus

Stefan van der Stigchel, Professor of cognitive psychology and author of ‘Concentration; staying focused in times of distraction’.

We tend to think of focus as something that we either have or don’t have, but focus can be actively encouraged and enhanced. Below you will find a few cool ways to set yourself up – physically and mentally – for better and more extended focus.

Make time and create the mindset for full focus

It takes time for our brain to get into full concentration, especially if we were busy doing other things, even simple tasks like clearing up after breakfast. In scientific terms it is called the ‘attention residue’ – the time it takes our brain to re-calibrate to the task in hand.

The most important first step is therefore deliberately to create time for focus – defined moments when you allow yourself to delve deep into the task with no disruptions or interruptions. This may sound obvious, but with busy calendars, back-to-back meetings and unexpected requests during the working day, creating such a sacred, dedicated space can be a challenge.

Plan for deep, intense work on your top priority task and block this time off in your agenda (morning hours tend to be best for focus for many). Then further prime the brain towards a ‘dedicated focus mode’ by choosing a mentally supportive statement. For example, you can tell yourself ‘I’m delving in right now’ or ‘time for laser sharp focus’or ‘I can easily complete what I set out to do’. Your mind is powerful; use it!

Write down your chosen statement on a Post-It note and stick it somewhere visible on your desk. It will serve as a reinforcing mental cue.

Upgrade your work environment

Ensuring a focus-supportive work environment may sound like a basic step, but like most basic steps, it is often a missed one. Our rational brain is guided by physical and sensory cues and constantly responds to the environment. Imagine having to write an important research piece while sitting in a stadium during a lively football match. Even if you’re not interested in the match, you’ll need to direct much of the energy you were planning to invest in writing to shutting out the auditory, visual, olfactory and other environmental cues. Laying the ground for focused work is well worth the effort.

Below are some straightforward steps to create a work environment which encourages focus.

  • Keep your desk clean, tidy and free of any clutter. You can make this into a morning ritual, giving your brain a cue that ‘this is when work starts’ (see also under ‘Attention rituals’ below).
  • Ensure plenty of good daylight. Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin, associated with boosting mood and helping you feel calm and focused. Choose a sunny room or area in which to work, and support with extra lights on dark days.
  • Allow for fresh air – with fresh air, the oxygen levels in your blood go up. More oxygen then circulates to your brain, which helps you feel energized and improves your ability to concentrate. If keeping a window open is not possible or desirable, go outside for a few breaths of fresh air every hour. It will be a short, refreshing break in itself and it will help make your mind clearer, sharper and calmer.

Set up an attention ritual

A ritual is an activity or habit that gets you in the zone – it helps you to get into the state of mind necessary to perform a task. In the business world, before COVID-19, for example, shaking hands when meeting someone is a welcoming ritual. It sets your mind to start engaging with this person. Rituals can similarly be used for focus.

A simple ritual at the start and end of a task you need to undertake sends a clear signal to your brain when it is time to concentrate and when it is ok to relax. Rituals quickly become habits, or automatic behaviors – a brain favorite as they save up energy. They are familiar neuronal ‘operating paths’ within the brain that can be put to quick use with lower energy input. When a ritual becomes a habit, we no longer stop to question it (think, for example, about teeth brushing). We understand the clue and simply get on with the task at hand.

An attention ritual can help create the same automatic response and set the scene for clear beginning and end boundaries to your task. In between these boundaries it is clear to all involved (i.e. you and your brain) that it is ‘full-on focus mode’. Gradually your brain will learn to recognize the signal as dedicated ‘Focus Time’.

Many people have a subconscious attention ritual they are not aware of. In case you’re not sure, here are a few example rituals for setting your mind in the zone:

  • closing the door of your study/room
  • setting everything you have on your desk aside, apart from what you need for your specific task
  • settling down with your favorite beverage
  • putting on the same (instrumental) track of music-for-concentration
  • saying a small blessing or repeating a short mantra (footballers do it, too!)
  • leaving the mobile phone in another room

Minimize audio and visual cues

Have a look at the ‘Circles of Attention’ model shared with you at the start of the Focus block. Our most immediate distractions come from our environment, often in the form of audio, visual or other sensory cues that catch the attention of the wandering mind. Here are some tips to minimize such cues.

  • Phone mute and facing down – Even better, leave it in another room. It is much easier to do focused work when you don’t have any text messages, phone calls, or alerts interrupting your focus. If the phone is left in another room, the very fact that you have to get up and walk to it to check it will likely keep you in your seat.
  • Use a noise-cancelling, over-ear headset to block out noise – passing traffic, neighbors’ house renovations and simple background talk or commotion can all derail your best focus intentions. A noise-cancelling over-ear headset, with or without music (see below) effectively reduces and even eliminates sound disturbance. It also signals to the people around you that you’re in focus mode and prefer not to be disturbed. A simple yet good enough set can be bought for as little as €20, a small price to pay for more silence in your head.
  • Work in full screen mode – if you can see an icon on your screen, then you will be reminded to click on it occasionally. However, if you remove the visual cue, then the urge to be distracted subsides in a few minutes. Thus, if you’re reading something in your browser, let it take up the whole screen. If you’re writing a document, auditing an Excel sheet or doing some programming work, let whatever software you’re using be in full screen mode. You can set up your desktop so that the menu bar disappears automatically. You will not see the time, the icons of other applications, or any other distractions on the screen. Your world narrows down to that one piece of work you’re focusing on.

Consider using music or white noise

Music activates both the left and right brain hemispheres at the same time, and the activation of both hemispheres can maximize learning and improve memory. The right kind of music provides non-invasive noise and pleasurable feelings, thus effectively neutralizing our constant unconscious attention to distracting environmental cues. The use of music is subjective; some people prefer to work in silence. Ultimately, go for whatever works best for you.

If you choose to work with music, then the type of music you choose is important. Given the extreme variation in musical preferences from person to person and the effect music has on mood, the right kind of focus-enhancing music is a matter of personal choice.

The most common types of sounds found to be helpful in research provide a smooth, pleasant, low key, predictable background. They include

  • white noise, like the drone of airplane engines. White noise is monotonous, repetitive and devoid of any emotional links. It is ideal for muffling background noises.
  • soft classical music
  • ambient music without lyrics

Some people swear by video game soundtracks, perhaps not surprising considering that the purpose of the video game music is to help create an immersive environment and to facilitate (but not distract) from a task that requires constant attention and focus.The types of music that are most likely to draw your attention and are therefore best avoided include;

  • chaotic and unpredictable music, like free jazzmusic with lyrics (human speech and vocalization is something our brains pay particular attention to)
  • any music that is emotionally significant to you (likely to carry you away into past memories and favorite moments)high volume.

Try Spotify and YouTube for a large choice of suitable music (search under ‘focus’, ‘concentration’, ‘study’, ‘relaxation’ and ‘white noise’). Or, which generates audio patterns scientifically proven to enhance focus and concentration.

Focus on one single task at a time

Technically we are able to do two things at the same time, for example talk on the phone while cooking dinner, or read email notifications while working on an Excel sheet. What we can’t do, however, is concentrate on two tasks at the same time. During any single moment, you’re either focusing on the person you’re talking with, or on the pasta sauce you’re preparing for dinner. You’re either thinking about the formulas to include in your sheet or you’re thinking about the request made of you in the incoming mail. Our brain cannot possibly concentrate on two tasks simultaneously, even if this seems technically feasible. One of these two (or more tasks) will always be at the forefront of your attention while the other will be background ‘noise’.

Multi-tasking forces your brain to switch continuously backwards and forwards between two different tasks. Every time you transition from one task to the other, you pay a mental price, called the ‘switching cost’ – the price you pay in time, attention span and efficacy for trying to do the impossible. This is true not only for switching backwards and forwards between two or more tasks in the moment, but also throughout the day. Jumping back and forth, especially when the previous task was not completed, costs you time, efficiency and productivity.

The myth of multitasking is that it will make you more effective. In reality, remarkable focus on one single task at a time is what makes the difference. Set your mind on one task at a time, however small it may seem, and finish it. It may look simple, but it gets the results. Multi-tasking may make you look or feel busy, but it could end up wasting a significant part of your working hours. When we’re laser focused on the work at hand, it’s easy to become fully immersed in what we’re working on and complete the task at hand.

Have realistic expectations – and take breaks to recharge the concentration network of your brain

However focused you may be, setting the bar too high for what you can achieve in a day leads to frustration and feelings of inadequacy. Accept your (human) limitations and set realistic, achievable goals that support a sense of completion and achievement. Get clear on what you’re trying to achieve and assess whether this goal is sensible considering the day ahead. It may well be that you would need to break a big piece of work into smaller chunks. A completed chunck of work, even if small, makes us feel better and more motivated.

Lastly, the golden rule – take regular breaks. Realistically our maximum focus time is 4-7 hours, broken into 40-50 minute bits. The brain can only focus for so long without taking a break.

Stefan van der Stigchel, Professor of cognitive psychology and author of ‘Concentration; staying focused in times of distraction’.

Giving your working memory a short break (including eyes off the screen) helps you stay alert and maintain your focus when you resume your work. Coffee breaks, a short walk, a couple of minutes of mindful breathing or gazing aimlessly into the horizon are all good examples.