5 Science-Backed Ways To Stay Focused

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Oct. 29 2020, Published 4:15 a.m. ET

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Between the upcoming election, a second possible COVID-19 lockdown in the US, a shifting job market, and much more, there’s a lot to distract us from our goals.

In a recent survey, 61.1% of participants that worked from home during the COVID-19 pandemic cited social media as the greatest source of distraction from work. On the other hand, 53.7% admitted that their smartphone has affected their productivity during the lockdown.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, distractions come in two forms: sensory and emotional distractions. Sensory distractions are external, or the things happening around you, and emotional distractions are internal and often a symptom of mental distraction or your inner dialogue. 

Try these five science-backed ways to help maintain focus:

1. Set The Mood With Lighting

Exposure to sunlight impacts levels of sleep hormones, like melatonin, and natural light enhances your alertness and mood. If you’re unable to work directly in the sun, try sitting by a window. Research conducted by Rachel Kaplan, a psychologist, explains that the effects of nature in the workplace can make a significant positive difference. Kaplan’s findings suggest that a windowless office decorated with images of nature can foster a sense of well-being.

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Open Office Clean Desk Space for Staying Focused

2. Turn Up The Heat

For decades, 70-73 degrees Fahrenheit has been touted as the best temperature for the office, but according to a new research study by Cornell, up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit is now considered optimal. While the new study doesn’t condone working from tropical temperatures, there is research suggesting that temperatures that are too warm can cause headaches and lower concentration.

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3. Tackle One Task At A Time

Psychologist and author, Dr. David Cohen, suggest to-do lists “dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.” If you want to take it a step further, try tackling the hardest tasks first. Recent research conducted by KC Diwas, Bradley Staats R. Staats, Maryam Kouchaki, and Francesca Gino, shows while choosing to start with easier tasks may fulfill short-term goals, long-term performance can significantly suffer as a result.

4. Try Time Blocking

Time blocking means scheduling tasks by taking a period of time, say an hour or a designated day, and dividing it into smaller segments. Time blocking helps you stay focused by scheduling each of your tasks with a prescribed time allotment. From a psychological perspective, time blocking works a lot like Parkinson’s Law, which explains that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

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5. Frequent Breaks Are Critical 

The ideal work-to-break ratio is 52 minutes of work, followed by 17 minutes of rest. According to Travis Bradberry, co-author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, “the human brain naturally works in bursts of high activity that last about an hour, and then it switches to low activity for a while.” The only way this actually works, though, is if you’re able to disconnect completely. Looking for ways to fill that 17 minutes of rest? Further research suggests time in nature, meditation, or breaking a sweat may be your best options to disconnect. 

Open Office Clean Desk Space for Staying Focused

Whether life feels less distracting post-election, when we’re out of lockdown, or after the job market stabilizes, these tips can always be implemented to stay focused. 

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By: Nicole Loher

Nicole Loher is a marketing strategist, adjunct professor at NYU, and climate change advocate. As an adjunct professor at NYU, she led the creation and development of the school’s first social media course curriculum and social media certificate. She also has overseen the research and publishing of two white papers with a focus on the influence of social media on consumer behavior. Nicole is a Council on Foreign Relations member focused on advancing the conversation around climate change within corporations. And, in her free time, Nicole is pursuing her Master of Arts from Columbia University in Climate Change and Public Policy, a mentor at the Lower East Side Girls Club in New York City, Co-Founder of Cardio Cause—a monthly workout series benefiting a different charitable organization each month, and an avid runner.

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