8 Tips to Improve Your Academic and Work Focus

Have you ever found yourself faced with an important task but been unable to focus on it long enough or well enough to get it done effectively? Does this happen to you too often for comfort?  Certainly, the occasional inability to concentrate is nothing unusual, but it can be particularly annoying (or even worrisome) if it becomes common.  Your school work can suffer, as well as any professional or even personal commitments.

To be sure, you are not alone if the above applies to you.  In a 2015 study, the company Microsoft concluded that the average human has an eight-second attention span, and this dismal figure is continuing to dwindle due to a growing reliance upon the digital components of our world.  Drawing upon this finding, Stephanie Vozza has compiled eight ways to help improve your ability to focus and, thus, your academic and professional performance. (https://www.fastcompany.com/3050123/8-ways-to-improve-your-focus).  This presentation relies on Elie Venezky’s assertion (Hack Your Brain, 2014) that “focus” is a skill like any other, and therefore, your “focus muscle” can be exercised and improved!

Following this conclusion, eight tricks and tips are offered to help eliminate distractions and to pay attention when needed:

1. Prepare Your Brain

Before a task, calm your brain, says Venezky. “Take a minute or two to sit in a comfortable position and breathe deeply.” Calm your body down before you start your work.

2. Understand Where Your Focus Needs To Be

A firm understanding that the task at hand is worthy of your attention is also important.  Ron Webb at the American Productivity and Quality Center, suggests that taking time to clearly identify where your focus is needed and then blocking dedicated time for these tasks, helps to eliminate the clutter of less important, “focus-killing” distractions.  You might find it helpful to record these dedicated times on your calendar.

3. Unplug Your Email/Social Media For 30 Minutes

According to Jan Bruce (meQuilibrium: 14 Days to Cooler, Calmer, and Happier, 2015), focus can be stimulated by logging out of email and social media for a while, “even if you live and die by email…You won’t believe how much you can get done when you’re not always interrupting yourself to return emails.”

4. Coffee!

Your morning coffee not only helps you to wake up; it helps you focus on the upcoming day. Moreover, an afternoon jaunt to your favorite coffee shop can also give you a moment to reflect on upcoming tasks.  French neuroscientist Astrid Nehlig has identified a connection between caffeine and cognition. While caffeine is not reported to appreciably improve learning or memory performance, Nehlig found that it does increase physiological arousal, which makes you less vulnerable to distraction.

5. Set the Right Temperature

Simply put, if the temperature is not right for your optimal work environment, it can have a negative impact on your focus. Cornell University research found that workers are most productive and make fewer errors if the ambient temperature of the workspace is between 68 and 77 degrees F.  The Helsinki University of Technology in Finland has found the optimal temperature to be 71 degrees F.  Sweaters or fans can help if you cannot actually control the thermostat.

6. Music Can Help

With too much background noise, your attention can be distracted.  However, a report published by the Wake Forest School of Medicine and the University of North Carolina in Scientific Reports noted that playing music can help you focus your own thoughts, provided that the music is to your personal liking, not just random beats of boredom.  “Given that musical preferences are uniquely individualized phenomena and that music can vary in acoustic complexity and the presence or absence of lyrics, the consistency of our results was unexpected,” the researchers wrote.

7. Take Short Breaks

Make distraction your friend!  Instead of letting distraction…distract you, build it into your schedule, according to the University of Illinois. Psychologist Alejandro Lleras found that participants who were given short breaks during a 50-minute task performed better than those who worked straight through.  The university’s findings cited a phenomenon called “vigilance decrement,” or losing focus over time.  Taking a short break in the middle of a long task reenergizes the brain; brief mental breaks actually help you stay focused on your task.”

8. Doodling and Scribbling

Let’s be honest.  Long meetings can be boring, and boredom is distracting.  So, if you are caught in a session of death-by-PowerPoint, you can improve your focus by…doodling.  According to the University of Plymouth in England, doodling aids in cognitive performance and recollection.  Lead researcher Jackie Andrade noted that “doodling simply helps to stabilize arousal at an optimal level, keeping people awake or reducing the high levels of autonomic arousal often associated with boredom.”

It would be unrealistic to expect to be on top form every day and to be able to consistently dedicate razor-sharp attention to every task on demand.  However, by taking into account these tricks and tips, we can improve our overall powers of concentration and reduce some of the frustrations and anxieties associated with a heavy work load or burdensome time schedules.


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