Do you desperately want to learn how to improve focus – yet feel like a family of squirrels is running amok in your head?
If you want to accomplish more with your life than hoarding acorns, you’ll have to learn how to focus your mind.
The tactics I’m about to share will address the core issues causing you to get sidetracked, zone out, and feel scattered.
It doesn’t matter if you are trying to reinvent yourself for a career change at 40 or if you simply need to get more done in less time — these tips will help you.
Read on to learn how to improve concentration and focus, every time you sit down to work, study, or create.
What is mental focus?
Focus is the ability to place your attention on only one thing.
Placing your attention on only one thing also means ignoring everything else, like your phone, social media, and adorable pets. The list of potential distractions is endless.
Mental focus is being able to tune out distractions, in your head and outside of it, so you can put your brain on the one thing in front of you.
Poor focus, the inability to concentrate on a single task, is often — incorrectly — blamed for lack of progress.
Think about times when you struggle to find focus:
- During tasks that feel like work.
- Projects that are not particularly urgent.
For example, planning a work project, studying for a course, or organizing a closet.
Why is it easy to focus on a good book or a fun video game? Focus isn’t really a problem when the task is enjoyable.
How are you able to spend hours writing a report the night before it’s due, but couldn’t focus on it for weeks when you had time? Focus naturally appears when you have an urgent problem.
Lack of focus is a symptom and not a cause.
When you tackle the root causes, it’s much easier to concentrate:
- Overwhelm: When it seems like you have too many things to do, or the project is too massive.
- Procrastination: You always intend to do it — later. You do anything else to avoid working on a project, including other work.
- Failure to control your time: Allowing other people, poor planning, or unimportant tasks derail your day.
- Failure to control your environment: Your physical and mental space are crowded with distractions.
Learning how to increase the focus of the mind is a process of setting up the right conditions. This is good news — you don’t have to rewire your brain.
Reading through the focus techniques below, pay attention to which ones make you uncomfortable. That’s a sign that you recognize the problem in yourself. Trying those tactics first will give you the most dramatic results, and fast.
All of these techniques work, but reading about them isn’t enough. You can choose to start with only one of these tactics, but you’ll get the best results by combining a few.
Ready or not, let’s dive in and learn how to improve focus.
1. Brain dump
A brain dump is a way to control your mental environment. It creates space for the task at hand by getting all the spinning thoughts out of your head, and down on paper.
Your brain dump can be anything. Just write down whatever is on your mind. For example:
- A list of errands to run this weekend
- A rant about your coworker
- Your grocery list
- Vacation spots to research
Creativity expert Julie Cameron advises writing three full pages every morning — and unblocked artists swear by it. Focus (and creativity) skyrocket when you regularly clear mental clutter.
You can always sort through your notes later, and deal with anything truly important.
2. Choose your priorities
This technique has two levels. First, you have to choose one project or goal to focus on.
You can learn how to be a badass in all areas of life — absolutely. But only if you focus on one or two areas at a time.
The next level is defining and prioritizing the daily tasks that lead to achieving your goal.
You might already be making lists of the things you have to do. That’s a good start. The problem is that lists get out of hand quickly. And overwhelm is the enemy of focus.
Keeping this list small will let you focus only on what’s important. You’ll be able to stay on target and avoid distractions more easily.
3. Say no
How often do you say yes, or maybe, when you mean no?
Every time you say yes to something, there is a cost, in time and attention. You are spending your most limited resources on other people’s requests.
When you say no, you maintain your personal boundaries. It shows that you value your time and that your goals are important – which they are!
Being able to say no is the only way to control your time, which is essential to your focus.
4. Learn to manage projects
The ability to manage projects is not just an important leadership characteristic. When you look at major life goals, it can be daunting even to start. The end seems so far away. Some days, the mountain of work feels impossible.
When you’re looking at these big goals, break them down into smaller projects. For example, if you’re creating a business from scratch, there are a lot of elements that can be turned into projects:
- Building a website
- Sourcing products to sell
- Planning content
A project has a measurable outcome, set deadline, defined cost, and most importantly, a plan.
Instead of looking at a giant goal, you see a series of manageable, short-term projects. This technique helps break through procrastination, one project at a time.
5. Break projects into tiny steps
Breaking down huge goals into manageable projects is a great start. Take it further by breaking a project into tiny steps.
You don’t need to make massive progress every day. Instead, you’ll find success when you move forward consistently in small, incremental steps.
Focussing for hours on a demanding task is hard. Shorter periods, and smaller pieces of work, add up to massive results over time.
Break each project down into tiny actions that you can put on your calendar. Every day, do one small task. Decide what small parts you need to do – and when – to complete your projects.
6. Avoid multitasking
Multitasking is a myth, and a big mistake. To do something well, focus on just one thing.
Research has proven that it’s not possible to pay attention to multiple tasks at the same time. In fact, multitasking is a costly process of shifting attention between various tasks.
The result is continually broken concentration — the opposite of focus.
Despite this fact, people still try to work, check messages, read emails, and answer phone calls at the same time. Working this way, you create stress and frustration, get less done in more time, and wind up having to re-do your work.
Here’s another word for multitasking: multi-distractions. This is one of the simplest focus techniques you can try — do one thing at a time.
7. Plan your week
The only way to ensure you have time for focused work is to schedule it.
Have a planning session before the week starts. Put any meetings or essential items in your calendar first. Then which days you will have time for work that demands full concentration.
Remember to be realistic and avoid multitasking. On days where you have a lot of other responsibilities, don’t plan for work that requires intense concentration.
8. Plan your day
Spend a few minutes each night planning your schedule for the next day. It’s essential to know when during the day you’ll be working on certain tasks.
It’s a good idea to schedule priority tasks early in the day — before anyone else’s agenda can derail your plans.
And here’s the key:
Block out this time and mute any possible interruptions.
Failing to plan your day leaves you wide open to distractions and other people’s priorities.
9. Control your time
Once you’ve blocked out time in your schedule for focussed work, treat it as a non-negotiable meeting – it’s essential if you want to improve your focus.
These blocks of time are when the real work happens.
Close all other tabs, put your phone on Do Not Disturb. If other thoughts intrude, put them in a note to deal with later.
When you’re working, emergencies aside, there is nothing more important. Not a whiny cat, not picking out new sheets, not planning dinner. Work time is for work, and you are unavailable.
This also means that non-work time is NOT for work.
When you’re with your family or friends, be present with them. Plan this time too, so that you’re not always in work mode.
10. Use a timer
People are not wired to focus on a single task indefinitely. Deep focus is mentally taxing.
Instead of trying to slog through for hours (and failing), use a timer to sprint through bursts of intense work. Knowing you have a break coming up makes it easier to keep going.
The Pomodoro Technique advises blocks of 25 minutes for work. Frequent breaks give you time to refresh.
During breaks, clear the deck so you’re ready for another burst of work:
- Move your body.
- Write down any distracting thoughts.
- Check in with your email or voicemail.
11. Block distractions with an app
Most of us are working on machines that are built for distraction. It’s no wonder we have a hard time staying on task.
Take will-power out of the equation by installing distraction-blocking apps on your computer, browser, and phone. Block yourself from accessing the sites and functions that are sucking your time and attention.
Some of these apps will block social media for a set amount of time. Some have a time limit they will let you spend on individual sites. Others block out everything on your screen except for your active task.
Pick one or several that have the functions you need to keep your head where you want it.
12. Take exercise breaks
Focussed work usually demands sitting at a desk for many hours at a time. Yes, it gets tasks done, but you’re not just a brain. Your brain works better when your body gets to move! And your body is essential if you want to learn how to improve focus.
If you use a timer, get up during your breaks and get the blood flowing. You won’t always have time (or inclination) for a full-blown workout. Any movement counts, and helps your ability to concentrate:
- A few jumping jacks
- Stretch for five minutes
- Take a brisk walk
- Play with your dog
Many people find that they get their best ideas during exercise, so take advantage of the link between your brain and your body.
13. Get enough sleep
Unfortunately, going without sleep to work more is somehow admirable in many workplace cultures. The problem is that when you get less sleep:
- The quality of your work suffers.
- It’s harder to stay on task.
- You’re more likely to get lost in distractions.
If you’ve had plenty of sleep, you’ll have more willpower and concentration. You’ll be more productive in the time you set aside for work, and you’ll be more effective at your tasks.
Sleep is right behind food when it comes to things your brain needs. Move past the mistaken belief that skipping sleep will help you get ahead.
Rest up, and you’ll be better at everything you do.
What, you don’t already meditate? There’s an old saying that if you don’t have time to meditate 20 minutes each day, meditate for an hour instead.
That’s because meditation creates more time than it uses in your day.
With mindfulness meditation, you’ll learn to allow thoughts float past. You will start to recognize and discard mental chatter and distracting thoughts.
Over time, a meditation practice strengthens your ability to pay attention — exactly what you need to improve focus.
15. Use visual tools to track progress
Tracking progress helps with motivation — and focus. Seeing your progress provides a hit of instant gratification every day, so you don’t have to seek it elsewhere by giving in to distraction.
There are a lot of ways to implement a visual tracking system:
- Checking things off of a to-do list.
- Writing tasks on post-it notes and moving to a “done” pile.
- Use a whiteboard.
- Habit tracking or checklist apps.
You may have to try several before you land on a system you enjoy using. Once you find it, stick to it and use it every day. Don’t worry, this is all part of the journey to learning how to improve focus.
Keep your tracking system where you have to look at it often. Keep it updated with the most critical tasks and project elements.
16. Find or create an organization system
With a system to organize your life, you create the best possible environment — physical and mental — for how to improve focus.
Being disorganized wastes time and drains your mental energy. Instead of dedicating your attention to the goal you want to accomplish, you are:
- Looking for important papers or tools.
- Missing appointments and scrambling to reschedule.
- Becoming stressed, trying to remember everything.
An organization system is like an external brain. It’s a tool to keep your ideas in order and your notes all in one place. It also works as a planner to keep your life on track.
If you prefer a digital system, try project management software like Asana and Trello. These tools are unbeatable for keeping track of all your projects, notes, and calendars.
Whether you use a single tool or a combination, find a system that works for you. Make sure to use it religiously.
17. Create space
Avoid clutter and mess in your work area at all costs.
Your physical environment has a direct impact on your mental state. A cluttered desk leads to cluttered thoughts. The mess you leave in your workspace is a constant distraction.
Spend a few minutes at the end of each day putting things back where they belong. Get rid of anything you don’t need. Once every week or two, do a deeper cleaning.
When you start each day with a clean and tidy workspace, you will think clearly and stay productive. It’s your space, so make sure you feel comfortable while you work.
How to improve focus: Take charge
If you’ve been looking for ways to focus your mind, try some of these techniques. They tie in well together so you can use any combination.
It’s absolutely possible to learn how to improve focus, starting today.