Learn what interrupts your focus and how to manage distractions
All of us have trouble focusing sometimes. Here are eight of the most common concentration killers—and what you can do to manage distractions.
- You think you’re the multitasking queen—juggling a lot of things and getting more done in less time. But you’re wrong. Research suggests you lose time when you shift your focus from one task to another. So working on four projects simultaneously actually takes longer than doing them one after the other. The fix: When possible, tackle one project at a time, especially if it’s a high-priority task. Break out your multitasking skills when the chore isn’t urgent. It won’t hurt to talk on the phone while washing dishes.
- Social media makes it so easy to keep in touch with friends and stay on top of breaking news that we feel connected. The truth is Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest pull your attention from the work at hand—sometimes many times an hour. How many times have you logged into Facebook for “a few minutes” only to realize you’ve fallen down the the status update black hole for an hour? The fix: Don’t visit social media sites while you’re working. Still feel compelled to check in? Limit your logins to break time, when the steady stream of posts won’t interrupt your concentration. If you’re facing a big deadline but can’t resist the allure of social media, take your laptop someplace where you won’t have Internet access.
- One of the biggest concentration killers: your cell phone’s ringtone. Taking a call not only eats up the time you spend talking, but it also stops your forward momentum on your current task. The fix: Use your caller ID. If the incoming call isn’t urgent, let it go to voicemail. If you’re not expecting a specific call, turn off your phone. Check voicemail at a designated time. Listening to all your messages at once can be less disruptive than taking every call as it comes in.
- Worrying about errands or unfinished housework can make it impossible to focus on the work in front of you. The fix: Jot down the errands and other tasks you need to complete later. Once you commit these thoughts to paper, you may be able to let them go for a while.
- If your brain is low on fuel, you can’t focus. This makes hunger a top concentration killer. Some research shows short-term memory and attention suffer when you start your day on an empty stomach. The fix: Always eat breakfast. Choose high-protein snacks, such as cheese or nuts. Skip simple carbs (sweets are a serious culprit); instead select complex carbs, such as whole grains.
- If you’re fatigued, it’s tough to concentrate, even if you have few distractions. Too little sleep saps your attention span and short-term memory. The fix: Get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Make this the year you make sleep a priority. This will help you get more done while you’re awake. Pay attention to which times of day you feel most alert. Schedule your most intense tasks during those times.
- When you’re overwhelmed by everything on your to-do list, it can be hard to focus. And stress takes a toll on your body, too. Headaches, tight shoulders and a racing heart—all of which can chip away at your ability to concentrate—are your body’s way of signaling stress. The fix: Practice stress reduction techniques, such as yoga or meditation. One study found that people who took an eight-week meditation course improved their ability to focus.
- Children aren’t the only ones who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In fact, more than 50 percent of kids with ADHD continue to experience symptoms as adults. The classic signs: a short attention span and difficulty focusing on tasks. The fix: If consistent trouble focusing is your calling card, and you had attention problems as a child, talk to your physician doctor about ADHD. The condition can be managed with behavioral therapy or medications.