13 science-backed tips to stay focused and avoid distractions

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13 science-backed tips to stay focused and avoid distractions
© BartekSzewczyk/Getty Images 13 science-backed tips to stay focused and avoid distractions

  • To improve focus and productivity, build healthy habits like getting enough sleep and exercise.
  • Multitasking and social media can cause distractions during work, so it’s best to limit them.
  • Breaks are important to stay focused — try a time-blocking technique like the pomodoro method.

Whether it’s fatigue, distractions, lack of motivation, or something else entirely, our inability to focus digs a hole in our productivity and limits our chances of success.

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Maintaining focus is equally about taking care of your mental space and your body, as it is grinding through work. By eliminating distractions, investing time in maintaining physical and mental wellness, and instituting healthy habits, you can improve your productivity.

Here are 13 tips scientists have found that enhance focus.

1. Minimize multitasking

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Multitaskers might seem superhuman, but they pay a big price, according to a 2009 Stanford study. In a sample of 100 Stanford students, about half identified themselves as media multitaskers. The other half did not.

The test examined attention spans, memory capacity, and ability to switch from one task to the next — and the multitaskers performed more poorly on each test.

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“They’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them,” Clifford Nass, who was a researcher for the study, said in a Stanford press release.

2. Meditate

If the saying “practice makes perfect” is true, then meditation is a sure way to enhance focus because it takes a great deal of concentration.

Scientific experiments agree. One study at the University of North Carolina, for example, revealed that students who meditated for just 20 minutes a day for four days performed better on certain cognitive tests.

Another 2011 study found that people who meditated regularly were less likely to engage in “mind-wandering” and were generally happier. The researchers of the study suggest that this was because long-term meditators exhibited a lower amount of what’s called default mode network activity (DMN) — a function of the brain linked with attention issues, anxiety, and depression.

Quick tip: If you’d like to learn how to start meditating, read our beginner’s guide on how to meditate.

3. Exercise regularly

Exercises like running, swimming, and weight lifting aren’t just good for the body. They promote brain health, too, which is important for memory capacity and concentration, according to John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

In particular, scientists think regular exercise may help stimulate the release of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which some research suggests helps rewire memory circuits to improve their functioning.

4. Establish a to-do list

To-do lists not only help you prioritize what tasks you need to get done first, but they can also serve as a record of the loose ends.

Moreover, incomplete work could eat away at your concentration. This stems from something called the Zeigarnik Effect, which is the tendency to remember incomplete tasks instead of completed ones.

Researchers explored this Zeigarnik effect in a 2011 study which found that participants who could plan their work and complete tasks one by one were more likely to stay focused than those participants who were made to go from task to task without completing them.

5. Try a small amount of caffeine

If you’re feeling groggy, grab a cup of joe or other caffeinated substance. Studies suggest that caffeine may, in moderate doses, help to boost focus — particularly in those of us who are fatigued.

But don’t get overzealous with the coffee, or you might get the caffeine jitters, which typically reduce your ability to concentrate. You can also try a cup of tea, which won’t give you the quick buzz like coffee but can provide you energy for a longer period thanks to the L-theanine chemicals in it that our bodies metabolize throughout the day.

6. Take breaks

You might have heard that watching cat videos on YouTube can improve productivity. Well, that’s true … sort of. Whether it’s watching cat videos, taking a walk, or a brief nap, it is critical to take the occasional break from work.

In one study, 84 subjects were asked to perform a simple computer task for one hour. Those who were allowed two brief breaks during that hour performed consistently for the entire time whereas those who weren’t offered a break performed worse over time.

Another widely-noted 2011 study analyzed the decision making process of 1,112 judges and found that more “favorable rulings” were made by judges during the beginning of the day and after they took periodic food breaks. Essentially, this study explored how “decision fatigue” (i.e. how fast and accurately we make decisions) was alleviated by semi-frequent breaks.

7. Listen to the right music

The right background music is ultimately what works for you. Some experts argue that no music is best for productivity because it minimizes the opportunity for distractions.

Whereas other studies have found that listening to background music without words offers better performance compared to white noise or silence. And still another 2005 study found that the time spent on a certain task was longest when listening to no music.

All that is to say, the type of music you listen to and the type of work you’re doing at the time matters. So be conscious of your productivity and choose what music is right for you.

8. Train your brain to focus

Your brain is a mental muscle, and some studies have found that people who are easily distracted will benefit from “brain training” exercises, like those promoted by Lumosity or Cogmed.

But which exercises work — and for how well or long their effects last — is unclear. Therefore, the purported benefits of brain training need further examination, Susanne Jaeggi — who studies the brain and memory at the University of California — told New Scientist.

9. Try the pomodoro method

The pomodoro method is a time-blocking technique that can help compartmentalize your tasks into manageable 25-minute intervals.

To use the pomodoro method work for 25 minutes, taking five minute breaks in between 25 minute intervals. After four of these intervals, you can take a longer 15-30 minute break.

This method of time blocking gives you the needed break in between work sessions to help you maintain focus longer and more sustainably.

Ambient noise, like cars honking or kids screaming, can stimulate the release of the stress hormone cortisol, Mark A.W. Andrews, former director of the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania, told Scientific American.

Too much cortisol can impair function and hinder focus. And, unfortunately, the more we’re exposed to ambient noise, the worse our bodies respond, according to Andrews.

10. Stare at a distant object for a few minutes

Many of us spend most of our waking hours staring at a digital screen, which can strain our eyes and actually make it more difficult to focus on, and therefore process, what we’re looking at.

To refocus the eyes, just stare at a distant object for a few minutes. One doctor suggested the “20-20-20 rule” to a journalist at LifeHacker. It goes like this: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to stare at an object at least 20 feet away.

The idea behind the 20-20-20 rule is that the eye is a muscle and like all muscles it benefits from exercise. Just like how sitting in one spot for a long time can make your muscles feel achy and stiff, staring at one object does essentially the same to your eyes. If you don’t periodically refocus, your vision can become a little blurry or fuzzy after work.

Blue light glasses, which filter out the blue light that screens emit, have become popular to help screen-exhaustion. However, they won’t help with eye strain, but could potentially help your quality of sleep.

11. Get a good night’s sleep

One of the main symptoms of chronic sleep loss is poor concentration. Getting a solid seven to eight hours ahead of a busy work day could be the difference between being frazzled and being laser-focused.

Quick tip: If you’re having trouble sleeping, try a few of these 25 tips for better sleep.

12. Work offline

If you can disconnect from the internet, there are fewer things to distract you from the work at hand. Experts think that every time you flip between tasks — whether it be responding to a friend on Facebook or checking your inbox — a little bit of your attention remains with the task you just left.

Sophie Leroy, a professor at the University of Washington at Bothell, coined the term “attention residue” as the reason for why it’s so hard to change tasks. Eliminating those online distractions can keep you from finding tasks to flip between and help you focus.

Disconnecting from the internet may mean unplugging from social media too. If possible, try limiting or all together getting rid of social media use during your work day. Designating time to look through social media, rather than checking it constantly throughout the day, can help you stay on task.

13. Designate your perfect study spot

Focusing requires a lot of willpower, and so does making decisions. According to a concept called ego depletion, we have a finite amount of mental energy, and both decision-making and willpower can drain it.

To save that energy for concentration, proponents of the theory suggest getting rid of excess variables that require you to make decisions, like choosing where to work. Try working from the same location whenever you need to focus, for example. That way, when it’s time to get the work done, you won’t have to waste time deciding where to go.

Insider’s takeaway

Taking care of your mental and physical well-being are the best things you can do to help stay focused. This means getting plenty of sleep, moving your body, and protecting your eyes from screen burnout. However, maintaining focus doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take breaks.

If you think it could help your productivity, time-blocking and including rest periods between sessions of work can help you organize your time and optimize your schedule.

It’s important to note that some attention disorders, such as attention deficit/hyper-activity disorder (ADHD), make focusing difficult. If you feel yourself struggling to stay focused, organized, or on schedule, you may have a type of ADHD and should schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional who can help determine or rule out a diagnosis.

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