Hundreds (if not thousands) of people are jockeying for your attention on a daily basis. The ability to gain and maintain your focus on what’s important to you is key to being a productive and happy person. Resilience to stress and maintenance of focus go hand in hand.

5 ways to improve your focus

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – stress is not all bad. A little stress in the face of an impending deadline will bump your adrenaline leading to greater speed and focus on your project.

BUT (and it’s a big one) we on the whole are rarely NOT stressed. Instead of the choices being not stressed or stressed, they’re really just stressed and MORE stressed. Not ideal conditions for our minds or bodies.

Long term stress leads to cortisol constantly circulating through our systems. At best the excess of this hormone leads to reduced focus, memory, and cognitive function. At worst it may even be toxic to the brain.

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This negative effect starts a downward spiral that can be tough to break. You go through a cycle of

Being unable to focus > Stressing about not being productive > Focusing even less

The initial inability to focus can come from anything – overwork, lack of sleep, not enough breaks, too many distractions. Regardless, it has the same frustrating effect when you desperately need to be focusing. It stresses you out. Which in turn leads to you being even less able to focus.

The trouble with focus is that if you aren’t managing it and staying ahead of it, it slips away until you have so little that you become completely overwhelmed.

If you’ve ever had a major surgery or injury, I’m sure you were educated by the nurses on the tenets of pain management. STAY AHEAD of the pain. You don’t wait until you’re feeling major pain to take your medication, you keep on a schedule and actively manage it.

Focus is very similar to this. If you wait until you’re completely overwhelmed to take a quick break, by then a quick break won’t cut it. But if you had been giving yourself breaks all along, the chances of getting overwhelmed in the first place would have been much lower.

Armed with knowledge and self awareness you will be able to preserve and care for your focus in a sustainable way that will keep you focus sharp and at the ready.

Here are some 5 tips to do just that:

STRUCTURE YOUR DAY

Whether you are an early bird or a night owl, you’re going to have times of the day where you’re at your best and times when you are not. Most of us have a high point, a low point, and a rebound.

Early birds will have their highs in the morning, lows in the afternoon, and rebound in the early evening. Night owls will start the day on the rebound, then have a low, and then peak in the evening.

Regardless of how you operate, the key is being aware of it. Notice when you’re at your best and plan your most important tasks at those times. Save the hours of your peak for creative, time consuming tasks, and push the meetings and emails to your low point in the day.

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DETOX

Part of structuring your day involves taking responsibility in how you start your day. How many of you sleep with your phone on your nightstand and then roll over and grab it before you’re even really awake in the morning?

Chances are you’re checking your email and social media – which is filling your head with other people’s priorities and getting you started on the wrong foot. Break this habit by following Mel Robbin’s advice by leaving your phone in the bathroom overnight. Give your mind a chance to wake up and set your own priorities for the day before you let everyone else’s to-do list take over your life.

PRACTICE MINDFULNESS

By removing the phone from your morning you routine, you leave space to practice some mindfulness. Meditating for even just 10 minutes has been shown to improve resilience and creativity.

Meditation doesn’t need to be this formal practice where you sit on the floor and hum like a monk (unless that’s what you WANT to do). For me it’s just staring at the ceiling when I wake up and keeping my mind clear.

You can also start with a journal like this or you can do morning pages – which is just 5 pages of free writing whatever comes to you (this is particularly useful for creatives).

Whatever practice you take up, make sure it’s something you enjoy and is sustainable. Mindfulness is like exercise – if you don’t enjoy it, you probably won’t do it.

5 ways to improve your focus

MONOTASKING

As much as any of us would love to believe that we’re great multitaskers, the science is against us on this one. As my husband points out he can walk and chew gum and neither task is diminished, but those activities aren’t using a whole lot of cognitive function.

When taking on tasks that require thought and focus, try working on them one at a time. Dedicate a certain amount of time to one task and then switch to another. Each task will be done more efficiently and use less energy and time. And you won’t fry your brain switching between tasks.

TAKE BREAKS

Your brain can only focus for so long. I have said before that this time frame – called ultradian rhythm – is about 90-120 minutes. Some experts such as Brendon Burchard and Daniel Pink advise to only go 55 minutes between breaks.

Whatever time frame you choose the key here is to actually TAKE THE BREAKS. When you feel hungry, restless, tired, or unable to focus, get up and walk away from what you’re doing. Take a movement break, eat something, or take a nap – whatever you need at that time to help you regain focus. Just make sure you’re not just flipping from your spreadsheet into Facebook. This is not a break for your mind or body.

Figuring out what works with you will take some self awareness and experimentation, but it will be worth it. Scheduling breaks throughout your day that work for you will keep you more able to focus on work in your working windows, instead of just wasting your working time and your break times.

In a world where time is our most valuable commodity, our focus is what allows us to get the most bang for our buck. If you’re not focused most of the time, then you’re stumbling through the day allowing it to run you.

By taking some steps to manage your focus, you can use your time more wisely and productively which gives you more time to do the things you want.

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