6 Scientific Hacks to Keep You Focused at Work

Updated 01/31/18
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There are countless reasons we become distracted during the course of a day (loud noises, social media, temperature, you name it). Needless to say, it doesn't take much for our attention to float away 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). So what scientifically backed strategies can we take to help our brains stay focused?

After some heavy reading, we uncovered six psychology- and science-approved hacks that will improve your concentration at work. Not sure how to resist looking at your Facebook notifications? Are those email alerts keeping you from working on the task at hand? Don't worry—maintaining your focus at work is possible. Ahead discover a few key tips for staying focused at work to meet deadlines like a pro.

how to stay focused at work
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Reach for Healthy, Slow-Carb Snacks

Glucose, which is produced when our food breaks down, keep our brains awake and alert. However, while any foods can get glucose into our bloodstreams, quick-release carbohydrates (high-sugar processed foods like pretzels, popcorn, and 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 for 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.

Take brief mental breaks

Though it may seem counterintuitive, a study by University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras found that taking brief mental diversions can dramatically increase your ability to stay focused on a task. "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," says Lleras.

This finding supports the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management strategy developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. 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 on to 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's a walk to the water cooler or chatting with a colleague.

Avoid email for dedicated periods

Though you may feel that your work is inextricably tied to email, being constantly connected to your inbox may impair your focus. When following 13 information workers (mechanical engineers, physicians, etc.) for five workdays, a study by UC Irvine and the U.S. Army 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 when they weren't stressing about their 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 middle or 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.

Listen to music that you like

Does music help you focus, or does it distract you? It helps… but only if you like it, a study by the Music Research Institute of University of North Carolina Greensborofound.

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.

Meditate

A 2010 study by the Association of Psychological Science found that "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 believed 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.

Clear your desk

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" (aka 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 workspace (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.

This story was originally published on July 29, 2015, and has since been updated.

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What tactics (scientific or otherwise) do you use to stay focused? Share them with us below.

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