Looking to stay focused, improve your productivity and get more done? If so, keep reading – these 7 hacks were designed for you.
Do One Thing at a Time
Are you a multitasker? Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk can multitask with ease, answering phone calls during a meeting without losing track. Other people fail dismally when they attempt the same feat, messing up both activities at the same time.
It’s hard for the brain to process two complex and unrelated tasks at once. Driving while phoning is only possible (but not legal!) because our brains have delegated most of the requisite mental activity from higher to lower parts of the mind. Our cerebral cortex is then free to think about the conversation we’re having, while the motor cortex uses ingrained habits to steer the car.
This extraordinary ability of the mind to delegate its processing tasks is one that features prominently in Jeff Hawkins’ book “On Intelligence.” In this perceptive work he postulated the idea that intelligence is essentially the ability of the brain to access memories — not “processing” as such. “The memory of how to catch a ball was not programmed into your brain; it was learned over years of repetitive practice, and it is stored, not calculated, in your neurons.”
Not only does this idea feel right, it’s since been proven right with further investigation into how the brain operates. Scientists at the University of Southern California discovered that learning multiple motor skills depends on the constant wiping out of short-term memory to store the information into long-term memory.
Cut Out Distractions
There’s a line in T. S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” — part of the Four Quartets — which runs: “Distracted From Distraction By Distraction.” Written in the early 1930s before the Internet age (and before the other Quartets), it points to how modern life diverts people from their chosen path.
Eliot himself — who worked full-time in a bank as well as being the world’s most famous living poet — had exceptional powers of concentration. Paul Johnson has written: “He [Eliot] could set to work immediately, first thing in the morning, without any time-consuming preliminary fiddling or rituals.”
Can you do the same? Or do you check your emails, read the news on Google, and get distracted by a video on Facebook of a man being attacked by an amorous capercaillie.
Cutting out distractions needs only a modicum of willpower. All you have to do is ignore them until you have some spare time.
Take a Break
You can reward youself with short, scheduled spells of spare time after sustained periods of concentration. However, it’s important you don’t take a break every time you run into a problem with your work. Recognise the difference between taking a break and being distracted.
In case you need reminding, a long, organised break is called a “holiday” or a “vacation.” These words are placed in scare quotes because so many people don’t actually enjoy long breaks. Arguments, accidents, bad weather and exhausting travel make us long to get back to work. Normally, that would be a positive outcome, but not if we return to work unrefreshed.
Instead of taking two or three weeks vacation, consider short, stimulating breaks: city weekends, or just two or three days on the beach. As much as anything else, it’s the change of environment which has the effect of relaxing the mind. If you spend too long in the hills of Tuscany or diving in the Maldives you’ll find it hard to regain concentration on your return.
Turn Off Your Phone
Nothing could be simpler. When you go to a concert, a play or a lecture you’re obliged to turn off your mobile phone. Why not turn it off during lunch and dinner as well?
Above all, turn off your phone when you need to concentrate on an important task. Surgeons don’t answer their phones or check their email in the middle of an operation. Why should you do so when trying to write a marketing report or draft a speech
Acknowledge that the task in hand is important and worthy of your complete attention. Messages, emails, texts, phone calls and general news are important too, but it’s a question of priority.
Start by creating half-hour, phone-free intervals — and see how it goes from there.
Simplify Your Life
Unfortunately, simplifying your life can actually be quite complicated until you make some real progress. It can involve anything from paring down your social activities to decluttering your home and office. Neither of these tasks is entirely free from complication, nor is moving home in order to be closer to work, or keeping regular hours instead of staying out with friends.
High-tech bosses often opt for a style of dress that frees them from having to spend time making choices. Steve Jobs wore polo neck sweaters and jeans; Mark Zuckerberg wears a grey T-shirt every day.
In fact, Zuckerberg has explained exactly why he does it: to make himself more productive. In answer to a question at a press conference in 2014 he said: “I really want to clear my life to make it so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve this community.”
Hmmm, good answer! Was it a planted question and a pre-prepared reply? We shall never know, but he’s undoubtedly right. Simplify your life to achieve success.
Get Some Exercise
Human beings did not evolve as static, cerebral creatures who sat around all day drinking cups of cappuccino while staring at a laptop. We evolved by being active, fighting our neighbours, chasing our food, running after mammoths and shooting them (until we ran out of mammoths).
Exercise releases endorphins, reduces pain, and lowers our level of stress. It requires an initial effort but has the happy effect of energising us unless we overdo it. The modern fashion for running marathons maybe good for charity, but it’s far too extreme for general health. Like short breaks, short bouts of exercise are the better option.
One of the aims of exercise is to strengthen the heart by raising the rate at which it beats. It’s best to this in short bursts. The result is improved circulation of the blood and more efficient functioning of the brain.
Did you know that the heart is not the only blood-pump in the body? We also have “calf-pumps” which squeeze the blood back up our legs when we bend our feet at the ankles. There are a hundred-and-one reasons for taking exercise. Avoiding deep vein thrombosis by using your “calf-pumps” is one of them.
Without nutrients the brain would lose focus and stop functioning altogether. Doctors always recommend a varied, balanced diet for a healthy body and brain.
Today we can augment our regular food intake with useful supplements: adding vital components which may be lacking in our normal diet. They include everything from simple ingredients such as Vitamin D — which many people lack when the sun is hidden on dull winter days — to complex “stacks” of nootropics, a class of supplement for benefits such as sharper focus, memory improvement, and increased alertness.
Many people who have difficulty concentrating suffer from a dopamine deficiency. Dopamine is synthesized in the body and functions as a neurotransmitter when neurons send signals to other nerve cells in the brain.
Likewise, omega-3 supplements — especially when combined with Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D — can help to combat memory loss, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and those unwanted mood swings that can ruin your concentration.
If you’ve skipped to this last paragraph because you can’t focus, please bear in mind there’s nearly always more than one way of tackling a problem. Try all “7 Hacks” and see which one (or two, or three) works best for you.