How to Get Focused: 8 Ways to Train Your Brain

Despite our best efforts at self-improvement most of us find ourselves on unplanned mental wanderings at least a few times a day, and wondering where the time went.

In this piece we’ll discuss eight strategies proven by science on how to get focused and eliminate procrastination.

If you implement even one of these on a regular basis, you’ll gradually level up your mental strength and find yourself getting focused more quickly and consistently.

how to get focused

1. Treat your mind like a muscle

Your mind is not a fixed object: it has habits, good and bad, which can be changed. Over time, you can develop the mental strength to focus more and more easily.

So where should you start?

One of the most effective strategies is to remove distractions from your environment — stack the odds in your favor.

You can do this literally by creating a space where you’re physically insulated from people and other distractions. But you can do it with your calendar as well, by reducing the number and frequency of demands on your time, and elongating the blocks of time dedicated to work. When you have bigger chunks of time, you can absorb the impact of the occasional (or frequent) mental wandering.

Finally, if you’re feeling more advanced, you can barricade yourself mentally by refusing to give in to distracting thoughts. But distracting thoughts will return if you don’t capture them: try out David Allen’s technique of keeping notepad handy at all times. Use it to jot down errant thoughts to revisit later.

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Do you work from home? Eliminate procrastination and get productive instantly with Focusmate. Our video-based virtual coworking tool provides you with live, 1-to-1 peer accountability on demand.
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2. Avoid multitasking like the plague

Multi-tasking is easier and more widely accepted than ever. But it has been proven to reduce productivity and wither your mental strength.

The problem is that multitasking is often invisible, showing up in two especially insidious forms.

One of these insidious forms of multitasking happens when we sometimes remember things we need or want to do but don’t have a reliable system to capture it for later. Because of this anxiety, we start doing the task immediately, regardless of its importance.

To conquer this demon, it’s important to create a system that effectively captures your todos. As noted above, keeping pen and paper handy is critical. We also recommend using a robust ToDo list app. (Our favorite here at Focusmate is Workflowy, thanks to its ability to quickly expand and contract visually and it’s easy to use tag and search functionality.)

Multitasking also takes the form of what we call “open tabs”.

This could be literal browser tabs (if you’re not using a tab, it’s unnecessarily draining your attention). But open tabs could also mean having a messy desk, where objects in your line of sight continuously cry out for attention. It could even mean having a well-organized desk with too many things on it.

So long as non-essential objects fall in your physical purview, they will drain your attention. You will effectively be multitasking without knowing it.

3. Finish your greens first

Tending to the high value (and less tasty) items on your plate ensures that you finish those tasks regardless of how much else you get done that day (or how much you eat after your greens).

We call this the Salad First technique: Place your most valuable task front and center and gobble it up before even considering other items on your plate.
[bctt tweet=”How to get focused: Eat your greens first! Do your least favorite task at the beginning of the day.”]

Getting the less enjoyable things out of the way prevents the inevitable cycle of dread from creeping in.

Crossing off your most important items early in the day also builds momentum and a sense of accomplishment, training your mind to relate to yourself as someone who reliably gets important work done.

4. Sync up with your circadian rhythm

how to get focusedTo get the most from your day, you need to dedicate your best hours to your most important work. Unfortunately, many people treat social obligations and meetings like immovable objects.

Instead, strive to synchronize your body’s natural cadence to your schedule.

This is easier than it sounds.

To begin with, just notice when you focus best and block out those times to work on your toughest and most time intensive tasks. For most of us, cognitive abilities peak in the late morning and slump during mid afternoon.

But there’s an important caveat to this rule:

Creative abilities tend to peak during times of fatigue when the mind is allowed to wander more freely. So if your job has more and less creative aspects, consider using those slower hours for tasks like brainstorming.

Now, listening to your body isn’t just about productivity. Ignoring your circadian rhythm has been linked to depression and obesity, says Steve Kay, a professor of molecular and computational biology at the University of Southern California.

5. Catch up with the world later

When you wake up, your brain is a sponge, ready to absorb everything it can. So it’s important to ask: What would you most like your mind to absorb?

We can easily convince ourselves of the merits of “high brow” media consumption — a recent senate hearing, a PBS special about Syria — but in doing so you’re consuming some of your brain’s most creative energy.

If your work doesn’t absolutely require you to know what’s going on in the world, consuming TV, newsletters and social media is just cluttering your mind.

To make the most of your spongy morning hours, consider shifting your media consumption to the afternoon or evening and spend those early morning hours working on your main goals.

6. Prepare the night before

how to get focusedOne way to strengthen your mind is to remove  obstacles that send you back into your bad habit cycle. Picking out your clothes, making coffee and organizing your day in the morning fosters a habit of allowing mundane tasks to distract you from getting to work.

If instead you were to decide your wardrobe, set a coffee timer and schedule tasks at night, you would reduce the number of decisions you need to make in the morning and set yourself up to use your peak focus time efficiently.

Now, here’s a real pro tip:

When you end your day, consider leaving your most important task in process on your computer screen. Leaving a task in process engages what Wharton professor Adam Grant calls “pre-crastination”. By leaving an open loop that your mind wants to resolve, you are unconsciously motivated to resume and complete the task at the next opportunity.

7. Keep a dream journal

Dreams are responsible for major scientific and creative discoveries in human history including Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry and Niel Bohr’s discovery of the structure of the atom. Besides unleashing creativity, documenting dreams strengthens focus throughout the day because it allows your mind to let go of emotions evoked in dreamland.

But there’s an even better hidden benefit to keeping a dream journal.

Dream journaling forces you to exercise your memory and deal with anxieties that might otherwise distract you during your waking hours. Jayne Gackenbach, a dream researcher at MacEwan University in Canada, says, “The dreaming brain is going to do what it’s going to do — it’s going to solve problems, it’s going to give you creative inspiration, it’s going to regulate your negative emotions — but the more you can be aware of the process, the more transparent it is, the more you’re able to manage those [processes] while awake.”

In other words, noticing patterns in your dreams helps you deal with personal issues more quickly, freeing up valuable brain capacity for focusing on other things.

8. Use music therapy

Music therapy may sound like quackery but make no mistake: music therapy has been proven to improve physical, behavioral and psychological issues. It mitigates the effects of Autism, Dementia and Alzheimer’s so it’s no surprise it also helps enhance focus.

Music therapy works by activating the parts of the brain that signal emotion, motivation and reward. One study asked 25 kids to complete as many math problems in 10 minutes as they could under two different scenarios – once with appropriate music and once with no music.

The results?

The music test group improved their scores by 38% compared to the non-music control group. According to the research, “The idea is to have music in the background, providing a groove and constant sound to drown out distracting thoughts.”

Of course, finding the right music is key. In particular it’s important to avoid songs with words since words consume more attention, but you’ll have to play around with tempo and genre until you discover your sweet spot. One resource we like here at Focusmate is

. . .

These eight techniques are proven to build mental capacity and enhance focus. However, remember to be patient and understand that long-term changes are dependent on practice and commitment. Consider trying some of the easier techniques first (like music therapy and preparing the night before) and work up to more difficult techniques (like tapping into your circadian rhythm and keeping a dream journal). Most importantly, keep experimenting until you’ve cracked the code on how to get focused.

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Do you work from home? Eliminate procrastination and get productive instantly with Focusmate. Our video-based virtual coworking tool provides you with live, 1-to-1 peer accountability on demand.
Register (free) today.


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