There’s a growing body of research about how counterproductive multitasking can be. While we may feel like we’re getting more done, the reality is that regular multitasking can leave us with a diminishing ability to focus.
That’s good to know. But if you’re a chronic multitasker who finds it hard to focus, is there any hope of getting your attention span back?
While neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal and author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession won’t speak definitively for everyone, he says there are some general things most of us can do to improve our focus. Put these practices into place to sharpen your concentration and be more effective.
While we may immediately think of task-related issues that affect focus, our attention span happens within a bigger physiological context, Levitin says. If you’re not getting proper sleep or feeling a great deal of stress, you may find it hard to focus, even in the best circumstances. Caffeine can increase focus in some people but may undermine it in others, causing them to feel anxious or "jittery." Understanding your own needs to feel rested and able to focus—and tending to them—is really the first step to improving your ability to hone in on what’s got your attention for longer periods of time.
When people try to meditate for the first time, it’s common for their minds to wander or for unwanted thoughts to creep in. "We call that the monkey mind"—and the same thing can happen when it’s time to focus, says Diana Raab, author of Healing with Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey. This is where keeping a journal or even a list can come in handy. Write down the thought or to-do list items that pop into your mind so you can let them go or deal with them later, she says.
Like any practice, focus happens best when you set yourself up for success, says professional development expert Benjamin Brooks, founder of PILOT, Inc., an employee coaching platform. Be sure you have the resources and materials for the job at hand and block out time to work on the task. "Be sure to turn off notifications for email and social media," he says. When push notifications are activated, other people are deciding where your focus goes, he adds.
It sounds simple, but in order to focus on something, you have to commit to doing it, Levitin says. Without such commitment, you’re going to be distracted by your thoughts or other demands on your time. You’ve got to decide that this is the work you’ll complete now—without multitasking—and do it.
Regaining focus may require practice, Levitin says. You may need to start out with 10 minutes at a time, forcing yourself to stay on task. Then, work on incrementally increasing the amount of time you’re focused on a task. The goal is to get yourself staying on task for between 25 and 90 minutes, depending on the type of work you’re doing and what your personal focus thresholds are.
In between periods of focus, taking brief breaks can actually help you enhance your focus even more, Brooks says. While the type of break that’s most effective will differ for many, the key is to shift to something completely different than what you were previously working on, he says.
"It’s stopping work completely to read an aviation book or make myself a cup of coffee or check out something on Politico—something completely different that actually allows me to reset for a second so when I am working, I’m working at my full efficacy rather than this deep-down distracted sense," he says.