When you watch TV, do you often find yourself staring at your phone? Do you get distracted by every little item on your desk, even though you sit there every day? Do you long for the days when you could focus more easily? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you’re not alone. 2020 has brought major changes to how most of us live and work, and even to our attention spans.
In short, you probably can’t focus as well as you used to.
It may comfort you to know that our shortened attention spans aren’t just the result of constant social media use, as many articles claim. In an article published by the NewStatesman, Dr Amy Arnsten, a Professor of Neuroscience at Yale, explained that lack of focus is a biological response to stress. Essentially, when the prefrontal cortex (responsible for critical thinking and the ability to focus) receives stress signals, its function weakens. Instead, these signals boost the primitive parts of the brain, which help protect you in dangerous situations.
So, while the brain is wired to respond to short periods of stress, it’s not really meant to handle it long-term. When your brain is constantly dedicating energy to handling your stress and anxiety, your concentration, cognition, and memory suffer for it.
Though it might bring you relief to understand why your brain is doing what it is, that doesn’t exactly help you focus any better even if you need to focus. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to help you stay on track.
Step 1: Give yourself a break.
The first and maybe most important step to take? Be kind to yourself. Losing focus at some point or another is basically inevitable. But when you start berating yourself for losing focus, you’re also placing unnecessary stress on yourself. In turn, this can make your prefrontal cortex functioning even weaker. By this point, the phrase “unprecedented times” is irritating and overused. At the same time, it’s important to remember 2020 has presented new stressors that are causing your brain to respond on a biological level.
Step 2: Get to know yourself.
Figure out how you work best. The problem with productivity strategies is that they aren’t one-size-fits-all. Maybe you’re most productive in the morning. Maybe you work better when you have clear tasks to focus on for an hour or two at a time. Once you understand your work style, you can adopt a productivity strategy to match your personality. Doist (the company behind Todoist and Twist) has a free quiz (no email required) that can help you figure out which productivity method is right for you.
Step 3: Schedule your day based on your work style.
Add structure to your day. If you read just about any article on remote working, it’ll probably recommend making a schedule for your day, which can help you build a new routine and stay motivated. But, schedules go beyond waking up at 6:30, exercising for an hour, making breakfast, and sitting down at your computer. Once you figure out what productivity method matches your personality and the challenges you face during the day, you can use that information to give your workday more structure.
For example, the Pomodoro method encourages working in bursts of 25 minutes, followed by a short break, which can help the easily distracted take control of their to-do list. Other productivity methods include Eat the Frog (start your day with your most difficult task), Time Blocking (focusing on tasks during specific “blocks” of time), and Systemist (prioritizing and breaking up tasks into small action items).
Not everyone works well in 25-minute periods — maybe you prefer working on one thing for an hour or two before moving on to your next task. Some methods simply work better for some than others. You can check out the full list of productivity types as well as the quiz on Todoist’s website.