Struggling to stay focused? How to boost your work mojo
by ARC Laureate Professor Sharon Parker
Sharon is a globally-renowned expert in the field of work psychology. As the Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design, she leads a team concerned with improving the quality of work. She is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; a Chief Investigator in the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing, and a 2019 Highly Cited Researcher.
Here in Perth, we’re having that gorgeous weather that is perfect for gardening in or cups of tea in the sun. We’ve also had quite a few breaks of late. Several people have said to me they’ve “gotten used to doing nothing”. One of my (quite young) colleagues indicated that retirement was seeming attractive. It seems some of us have lost our work mojo…
So, how do we maintain concentration and focus to stay productive?
1. Plan your day.
The days that I lose my focus usually correspond to the days in which I start the morning checking my email – and inevitably, I fall down the email rabbit hole. Before I know it, my precious 90-minute non-meeting time that I keep aside for writing in the morning has gone… And after that, I never quite seem to recover, and I flounder my way through the day.
On the other hand, I usually have a good day - a focused day- when the first thing I do is plan what I’m going to do. I look at my Trello board, which has all the things I need to do that day and that week, and I look at my calendar for my meetings. Then I merge the information from these and write down on a piece of paper what I am going to do every hour of the day.
Research supports me here. There’s a huge amount of evidence showing that setting goals improves productivity , and having concrete and specific goals focused on ‘means’ rather than ‘ends’ also helps . For example, rather than having a goal like “learn a new skill” (which is both vague and ends-oriented) your goal might be “identify and enrol in an EdX course for project management”.
Now… your particular rabbit hole might not be email… It might be Whatsapp, or reading the news, or deciding to quickly clean the house. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do these things, but they need to be structured into your daily plan….
2. Schedule important but non urgent tasks
On a good and focused day, the first thing I try to do is some academic writing. This is mentally demanding work, so I do it in the morning when my brain is fresh. Most importantly, this is an important but not urgent task that will not get done unless I schedule it. I’ve put this in bold because it’s so important. Let me explain some more.
Many of you will be familiar with the basic time management tool in which you consider your tasks in terms of their urgency and their importance (see below). This tool identifies four quadrants:
For more detail, see our website here: https://www.womeninresearch.org.au/time-management
Fairly obviously, you will need to focus on the important and urgent tasks, managing carefully your time in order to them them done.
Also fairly obviously, you should limit the low importance/ low urgency tasks (e.g., online shopping) as these hold little value and mostly are distracting. Try using these activities as a “micro break” and as a reward for your concentration.
You will also need to avoid or minimise engaging in tasks that are not important but urgent. These are the hardest tasks sometimes to deal with. For me, emails fit into this category, and its why I refer to the email “rabbit hole” because sometimes when I start doing emails, I can get hooked into wasting a lot of time, preventing me from more important tasks.
The biggest mistake many of us make is that – because we get sucked into the urgent tasks, including the unimportant ones, we then fail to focus on the important yet non-urgent tasks.
A crucial lesson I have learnt throughout my career with regard to time management, is that I must schedule these important yet non-urgent tasks if I want to get some focus on them. My assistant, Sana, always tries to keep the first 90 minutes of my day free for this purpose, and I use those 90 minutes to do those academic writing tasks I mentioned earlier (writing in our profession is crucial for success, and yet it usually doesn’t have deadlines). In non-pandemic times, I spend this block of time in a coffee shop where there is no internet connection or colleagues to distract me so that I retain focus.
If you don’t schedule your important yet not urgent tasks, one of two things will happen. First, you never do the important task, meaning you neglect critical aspects of your job. You never ever put in that funding application, for example, which hurts your finances and career.
Second, you only do the important task when it becomes urgent. This second option can mean that you then put yourself under unnecessary pressure and stress, and create a vicious circle of never getting on top of things. If every day, you lurch from one urgent and important task to the next, this can be stressful over the longer term.
Now that I am working from home I find it harder to focus on those important not urgent writing tasks. As I’ve already confessed, I sometimes fail and fall into the email vortex. Hence the importance of writing my daily plan, before anything else. This keeps me honest, and makes me consciously schedule those tasks into the day.
3. Engage in short bursts of concentrated activity
When we concentrate, we use our frontal cortex in our brains. Neurological studies show that its harder to keep this part of our brain functioning than other parts of our brain. It takes effort.
Studies vary a bit – some suggest we lose focus after 90 minutes, some after 45 minutes, some after 10 minutes – in fact, our concentration spans depends a bit on what we’re doing (and how engaging the task is) and who we are . For me, I think I focus well for about 50 minutes.
Because our capacity to concentrate deeply is finite, one strategy can be to work in chunks. For example, work for 50 minutes, have a 5-10 minute break, then get back to work.
The Pomodoro technique is based on this reasoning. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, and now embedded into hundreds of time management apps, this approach uses a timer to break down work into 25 minute intervals, each separated by short breaks. Because Cirillo used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to time his breaks, he used the Italian word for tomato (pomodoro) to name the technique. You don’t have to be as rigid as this technique (although some might find the rigidity helpful), but when you are writing your daily plan, plan for discrete chunks of activity with breaks in between.
4. Reward your success with micro breaks
After your period of concentration, evidence shows the importance of having a break . It can be what is referred to as a micro break – a short activity that is not related to work that boosts your energy [5, 6]; see Box 1 below). Having micro breaks or short rests:
Increases productivity 
Reduces the risk of on-the-job mistakes and accidents 
Reduces boredom and fatigue 
Your micro break might be a coffee, a stretch, a quick nag of the teenagers who are meant to home schooling, and hanging up the washing. It might even be a five-minute day dream – research shows that a little bit of “deliberate mind wandering” (in which you allow your mind to meander freely) – is good for you and doesn’t impair your productivity [10, 11].
Or, your break might be a dip into nature. Attention restoration theory  argues that nature captures your attention involuntarily, in an automatic manner, which is restorative because there is no need to consciously direct your attention. One study showed that a 40 second micro-break spent viewing a city scene with a flowering meadow green roof boosted attention more than looking at a bare concrete roof.
You will know a break is needed when you are not making progress on the task, when you’re slowing down or making errors, when non-task related thoughts keep coming into your mind, when you feel cross or some other sort of negative affect, you keep yawning, and when your gaze keeps shifting. These and other indicators of cognitive depletion mean that it is time to rest your brain .
5. Avoid distractions
Last but not least, avoid distractions. Although it’s not always the case, some evidence shows distractions can require around 23 minutes to get back to your original task, and they can mean you then have to put yourself under greater pressure to get the work done .
Some of the worst distractions in contemporary times come from our mobile phones and automated apps on the computer. Professor Gillian Yeo, myself, and Nicole Gillespie are working on a paper  in which we talk about “attention hijackers”, or those things that sabotage your attention, and stop you from either concentration or just letting your mind wander freely. An example of an attention hijacker is an email notification (or the notifications from a Teams online discussion channel or Whatsapp or Facebook or a million other apps!).
We recommend you turn off your email, Teams, Whatsapp, or any other notifications during your focused chunks of activity, so you can control when you respond. It is more productive to do your emails as a chunk of concentrated activity at a time chosen by you rather than by notifications .
Box 1: Micro-breaks [5, 18] 1. Drink water 2. Have a snack 3. Go to the bathroom 4. Drink a caffeinated beverage 5. Do some form of physical activity, including walks or stretching 6. Talk to someone about common interests (like sports or hobbies) 7. Check in with a friend or family member 8. Listen to music 9. Surf the web 10. Go outside for some fresh air 11. Check and send personal e-mails and text messages 12. Make plans for the evening or weekend 13. Look out the window 14. Do an errand 15. Read something for fun 16. Daydream 17. Shop 18. Meditate 19. Nap 20. Write in a journal
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