How To Stay Focused At Work
Illustration by Mr Giordano Poloni
Four expert tips for maintaining concentration at your desk.
In today’s hyper switched-on world, keeping your eyes on the prize can be a serious challenge at the best of times. And it’s particularly difficult in the office. Between the cacophony of noise that wafts through your typical open-plan workspace and the constant barrage of electronic correspondence, avoiding distractions can feel like an SAS assault course for the mind. In his book Your Brain At Work, Dr David Rock sums up the cost of losing focus:
“One study found that office distractions eat up an average 2.1 hours a day. Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption, it takes them 25 minutes to return to their original task, if they do at all”. Of course, if you’re reading this, it’s highly likely you’ve been sidetracked from whatever you’re supposed to be doing too. So, let’s quickly get on with some pointers, eh?
Switch off distractions when you need to think
In a 2010 interview with Time magazine, novelist Mr Jonathan Franzen described thesomewhat drastic course of action he took to avoid the distractions of the web. “What you have to do," he said, “is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it”. While we wouldn’t recommend doing this to your company PC, there is certainly merit in cutting yourself off from external temptations.
“One of the most effective distraction-management techniques is simple: switch off all communication devices during any thinking work”, says Dr Rock. “Thinking work” is classed as anything that requires the use of the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for your conscious interactions with the world. It is essentially any task that doesn’t rely on autopilot-embedded routines, like driving a familiar route, locking your front door, or copying and pasting data.
If you lack the willpower to resist frittering away the minutes watching Grumpy Cat videos on YouTube, then installing an anti-distraction program could help you stay on track. Apps such as Cold Turkey and SelfControl allow you to temporarily block out distractions by blacklisting websites, or if you only need access to certain sites, you can whitelist the ones you require.
Numerous studies in recent years have found a direct link between sitting for extended periods and a premature death. Apparently, we humans just aren’t designed to sit, and our workstations are killing us as a result. You can at least take steps to ensure you’re comfortable enough to focus on the task in hand and get out of your life-sapping seat sooner.
The first thing to address is your posture: a piece of advice drummed into us since childhood is “sit up straight!”, but that’s easier said than done. Eventually, your back muscles become fatigued and you slump. Instead, try shifting your hips back into your chair as far as you can – the backrest should cradle your back, following the natural “S” shape of your spine. Doesn’t that feel better? The next item in want of attention is your screen – it should be at least 20” away from your face, and the top of it should sit at eye level or just below, to prevent headaches and neck strain. If it’s not in that position when you look straight ahead, adjust it – or if you use a laptop, get a raiser. Your neck will thank you for it.
Work in blocks and take a break
In the late 1950s, psychologist and sleep researcher Dr Nathaniel Kleitman discovered the brain can only focus for 90-120 minutes before needing a break. These findings led to further experiments on optimum working times, including a recent investigation reported by US business title, Fast Company, where a social networking company used a time-tracking productivity app to monitor the habits of their most productive employees. They discovered that that the highest performing employees took 17-minute breaks for every 52 minutes of work. More surprisingly, they didn’t work longer hours than anyone else and often finished their working day earlier.
So, it definitely pays to work in measured chunks on thinking tasks and give your hardworking brain regular breaks. It’s also worth getting the most challenging tasks out of the way at the start of the day, as it’s when your brain is most efficient. “An hour into doing your work, you’ve got a lot less capacity than [at the beginning]. Every decision we make tires the brain”, writes Dr David Rock.
Glugging down a good helping of H2O is also key to maintaining focus. Writing for The New York Times last year, science author Ms Jane E Brody reported that experiments at the University of Connecticut’s Human Performance Laboratory showed that dehydration can “adversely affect vigilance, concentration, reaction time, learning, memory, mood and reasoning and can cause headaches, fatigue and anxiety”. If you’re finding it’s too much hassle to keep making trips to the water cooler, then get a jug or bottle, fill it up in the morning and pop it on your desk. Just remember to actually make use of it.