6 Scientific Hacks to Keep You Focused at Work
There are countless reasons we become distracted during the course of a day—loud noises, social media, temperature, you name it—and it doesn’t take much to steal our attention from a task at hand. Of course, eliminating distractions is one way to help us stay focused on our work (though easier said than done), but what scientifically supported strategies can we execute to help our brains stay focused?
After some heavy reading, we unearthed six psychology- and neuroscience-approved hacks that will improve your concentration at work. Not sure how you can resist looking at your Facebook notifications? Are those email alerts keeping you from working on the task at hand? It is possible. Ahead, discover a few key steps to becoming a deadline ninja—and props to you if you finish reading this article.
Glucose, which is produced when our food breaks down, keeps our brains awake and alert. However, while any foods can get glucose into our bloodstreams, quick-release carbohydrates (such as high-sugar processed foods like pretzels, popcorn, or doughnuts) cause a sharp rise and decline in your blood sugar levels, only keeping you alert for a few minutes. Slow-release carbs, which rank lower on the glycemic index, will keep your blood sugar levels stable, allowing you to stay focused longer. Examples of these include non-starchy vegetables (spinach, kale, tomatoes, cucumber), fresh fruits, sweet potatoes, nuts and nut butter, steel-cut oats, and quinoa. Keep healthy, slow-carb snacks at your desk to stay alert and focused.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, taking brief mental diversions can dramatically increase your ability to stay focused on a task, a study by University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras found. “Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused,” he says. “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself.”
This finding supports the Pomodoro Technique, a time management strategy developed by Francesco Cirillo in the ’80s. The technique advises that people break down their activities into 25-minute intervals, followed by three- to five-minute breaks to engage in other activities. When it’s time to move onto the next interval, a timer sounds to keep you on track.
Whether you’re using a timer or not, try to give yourself short breaks throughout the day, whether it be to walk to the watercooler, chat with a colleague, or check email.
Though you may feel that your work is inextricably tied to email, being constantly connected to your inbox may impair your focus. Following 13 information workers (professional thinkers, you could say, like mechanical engineers, physicians, etc.) for five workdays, a 2012 study by UC Irvine and U.S. Army researchers found that spending time away from email significantly improved their ability to focus. Results showed that “without email, people multitasked less and had a longer task focus, as measured by a lower frequency of shifting between windows and a longer duration of time spent working in each computer window.” Study participants reported being able to focus more on their tasks and stress less without email.
Obviously, email is an important facet of many of our work lives, so it can be impossible to remove altogether. Instead, sign out of email for dedicated periods—such as the beginning, middle, and end of each day—to help yourself focus for longer stretches. Or just allot yourself specific times of day (say 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.) to check your email for a few minutes.
Does music help you focus, or does it distract you? It helps… but only if you like it, a study by R.W. Wilkins of the Music Research Institute of University of North Carolina Greensboro found. The research discovered that “a circuit important for internally focused thoughts, known as the default mode network, was most connected” when participants were listening to music they preferred, be it Beethoven, Usher, or Brad Paisley. When participants listened to songs they didn’t like, researchers didn’t see any improvement in focus. If someone else is controlling the music playing in your office, get noise-canceling headphones and play your own tunes so you only hear songs you like.
A 2010 study by the Association of Psychological Science found that "Buddhist meditation can improve a person’s ability to be attentive” and to focus “for a long time on a task that requires them to distinguish small differences between things they see.” Published in the Brain Research Bulletin in 2011, another study by MIT and Harvard researchers found that people who trained to meditate over a two-month period were better able to control their brain’s alpha rhythms, or activity patterns that “are thought to minimize distractions and diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention.” The takeaway? Integrate regular meditation into your life—you can even practice mindfulness at work.
In a study on the mechanisms of the visual cortex, researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that having “multiple stimuli present in the visual field”—i.e., clutter—restricts your ability to focus and limits your brain’s ability to process information. So to improve your focus at work, you should clear your desk and working environment (even your digital desktop) of visual chaos. Get rid of items you don’t need, store things you don’t use often, and organize everything that you need within arm’s reach.
What tactics—scientific or otherwise—do you use to stay focused? Share them with us below.