How to focus

Trouble focusing can be a long-term or short-term challenge. Either way, it makes learning hard. It also impacts everyday life.

You can’t always change the circumstances that make it hard to focus. But there are ways to help your child cut through distractions and get things done.

If staying focused is hard for your child, try these six strategies.

1. Jump right into projects.

The longer you put off starting a task, the harder it can be to focus on it. That goes for projects for school and around the house.

That doesn’t mean your child has to do everything at once, though. To make it easier to get started, try breaking tasks into chunks. The important thing is to not delay getting started.

2. Limit directions to one or two at a time.

When kids struggle with focus, it can be hard for them to listen to, remember, and follow through on directions. So try not to overload your child with too many directions at once.

Let’s say it’s time for homework. You might tell your child to check the assignment book, get out the right materials, and start working. If that’s too much for your child to focus on and keep in mind, break it down into single steps.

3. Set a timer.

Knowing there’s a limit to how long they have to stay focused can make it easier for kids to hang in there. Set a timer for how long your child needs to work before having a quick snack or taking a play break. You can increase the amount of time little by little as your child gets better at focusing.

4. Try mindfulness.

Mindfulness exercises are all about paying attention and focusing. Studies have shown that mindfulness can help kids improve their behavior and their ability to focus on lessons and on schoolwork.

One way to practice is to sit quietly and focus on breathing in and out. Taking even a few deep breaths before class or a test could make a difference.

5. Be open to what works.

Some people need total quiet to focus. Others do better with noise. That’s why it’s important to ask kids what works best for them.

Maybe your child wants to listen to music while doing homework. Give it a try and see how it goes.

6. Direct focus back to the task.

Even when using these focus techniques, kids might still get distracted. That’s why they also need strategies to get back on task once they’ve drifted.

Come up with a signal for when your child’s mind starts to wander. It might be putting a hand on your child’s shoulder or saying a specific word. Tell your child’s teacher you’re trying these strategies at home.

Other ways to help your child focus

There are lots of other strategies, techniques, and low-cost tools you can use to help your child with focus at home.

  • Discover different types of fidgets, including ones you can make.
  • Try free graphic organizers to help your child get through reading, writing, and math assignments.
  • Learn ways to break down writing assignments so they’re easier to focus on.

Struggling with focus or any other skill can take a toll on a child’s self-esteem. Praise your child’s hard work to improve focus. Point out even small improvements. And let your child know that focus skills can get better.

And remember to talk about your child’s strengths, not just challenges. Celebrate focus wins, big and small. When kids understand what they’re good at, it builds confidence and helps them stay motivated when things get tough.

Unsure what a focus "win" looks like when your child is learning at home? Here are some examples.

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About the author

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The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

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How to focus

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How to focus

Do you find your mind easily wandering? Is it hard to stay focused on your tasks? The more able you are to stay focused at work, or at school, and on your goals, the more productive and able to get things done you will be. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If you are distracted and multitasking all the time, you will find accomplishing even the smallest task nearly impossible.

In today’s world there are so many distractions literally in the palm of our hands. We all experience constant demands pulling us in several different directions. But there are ways to overcome this. Follow these simple steps to boost your concentration, stay on task, and enhance your focus today.

1. Eliminate distractions.

Turn off the tv, silence your phone and focus on what you need to get done. Depending on what your needs are, you may need to shut your door and tell people you can’t be disturbed. When you’re trying to get some work done and the phone rings, that distraction can interrupt your thoughts and productivity making you miss deadlines or other important items.

2. Get a good night’s sleep.

The more tired you are, the harder it is to keep your brain on task. Getting good sleep or taking a quick nap when you’re exhausted can help you stay focused and increase productivity. For tips on improving sleep read “Create a sleep sanctuary and make your daily ZZZs count.”

3. Train your focus muscle.

Like the way we exercise to train and grow our physical muscles, your ability to focus is something you can train as well. Start small like 5 or 10 ten minutes and work your way to being able to legitimately focus for 60 minutes. Each time you create space for intentional focus, you will be able to focus better.

4. Find the right time of day for you.

Some people focus best early in the morning, others late at night. So, figure out what works best for you and stick to it. If you know you’re not a late-night person, don’t wait until the kids are in bed and the house is cleaned up to get work done – do it first thing in the morning. Same goes for night owls. Everyone’s body is different, so be sure to understand yours and work when it’s best for you.

5. Allow yourself to take breaks.

If you need to grab something to eat – do that. If you need to use the bathroom – go ahead. When you find yourself distracted, quench that need and then get back to the task at hand. If you find yourself getting sleepy, stand up and walk around the building or do some quick squats. For more quick break ideas click here.

When you spend your days focusing on what’s important to you, it becomes easier to stay on task and get things accomplished. The more focused you are, the more successful, energetic and content you will be. Training yourself to be more focused isn’t hard, it just takes being deliberate and having a plan.

P icture your day before you started to read this article. What did you do? In every single moment – getting out of bed, turning on a tap, flicking the kettle switch – your brain was blasted with information. Each second, the eyes will give the brain the equivalent of 10m bits (binary digits) of data. The ears will take in an orchestra of sound waves. Then there’s our thoughts: the average person, researchers estimate, will have more than 6,000 a day. To get anything done, we have to filter out most of this data. We have to focus.

Focusing has felt particularly tough during the pandemic. Books are left half-read; eyes wander away from Zoom calls; conversations stall. My inability to concentrate on anything – work, reading, cleaning, cooking – without being distracted over the past 18 months has felt, at times, farcical.

The good news? We can learn to focus better, but we need to think about attention differently. It is not something we can just choose to do. We have to train the brain like a muscle. Specifically, with short bursts of daily exercises.

Dr Amishi Jha is a professor of cognitive and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Miami and an expert in the science of attention. She has written a book called Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day, a four-week training programme based on her research showing how simple mindfulness exercises carried out by people with high-demand jobs, such as soldiers, elite athletes and emergency medics, improve many aspects of cognitive and emotional health, including strengthening our attention.

‘Working memory is like a mental whiteboard with disappearing ink,’ says Dr Amishi Jha. Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

When I first opened Peak Mind, I set a timer to see how long it would take me to feel the pull of social media. Three minutes in, I check Twitter. I tell Jha this and she erupts with laughter. “Oh, that’s fantastic,” she says.

I tell her this distractibility has made me anxious. She nods patiently. “There is nothing wrong with your attention, even if you feel more distracted right now. That is a healthy response to your current situation. To think otherwise is just false,” she says. “We’re in a crisis because our attention works so well. It’s doing exactly what it was designed to do: respond powerfully to certain stimuli.”

Stress is one of the biggest obstacles to focusing, says Jha. In a high-alert state, we often start ruminating and catastrophising. We get stuck in “loops of doom” or imagined scenarios. This mode impacts our “working memory”: the amount of information that can be held in our minds and used for a task. For example, choosing the words to put together in an email, or reading a page in a book.

“Working memory is like a mental whiteboard with disappearing ink,” says Jha. When that whiteboard is full of thoughts, feelings and images relating to what’s making us stressed, there is no room for new information. We might start blanking, zoning out or snapping at our partners, then feel guilty, which makes focusing even harder.

Jha began thinking differently about mindfulness when she experienced her own “crisis of attention” (“a blaring, unrelenting onslaught of mental chatter,” she writes) that reduced her ability to feel present with her small children.

So she came up with some simple practices “that exercise the brain in ways that it is prone to being weakened”. These short bursts of mindfulness training each day can help us notice the traffic of our thoughts and urges, and develop what Jha calls the “mental muscle” to observe, rather than act.

I admit that I am sceptical. Even as a trainee psychotherapist (with a vested interest in learning to be present) I find it hard to believe that something so stark, that we can do by ourselves, can help focus a mind that feels scrambled by multiple lockdowns, political divisiveness or economic uncertainty.

I start by setting a timer for three minutes each day, instead of the recommended 12 – a smaller “dose”, encouraged by Jha, to get used to it. The first exercise involves sitting upright, closing your eyes and focusing on where your breathing feels most prominent, usually in the chest or diaphragm. Direct your focus here like a beam and notice when thoughts or sensations pull it away: a memory bubbling up; a reminder that you need to reply to a text; an itch. The point is noticing when the “flashlight” moves, then moving it back. That’s it.

‘We need our phones to rescue us from our phones.’ Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

From the beginning, this flashlight image is one of the most useful mindfulness tools I’ve used. After three days, I start to notice when I am being pulled away from trying to focus on something (reading is trickiest for me). I am noticing when my focus is ruptured, which feels new.

The first step to better focus is accepting a key truth, says Jha: you cannot just decide to have unfettered attention. You have to practise. “The notion of an unwavering mind is a fantasy,” she says. The problem is that we now have far more sources of distraction. We are not just recipients of content, but willing participants. Despite how often we are encouraged to “unplug” from our devices, we cannot outwit the algorithms designed by armies of software engineers, statisticians and psychologists.

More unsettling is how we need our phones to rescue us from our phones. The global mindfulness meditation apps market size is expected to reach over $4.2bn by 2027. But in stepping back and learning why our attention can feel so slippery – rather than reaching for another attention-sucking app – perhaps we can assuage some of the difficult emotions associated with being distracted.

In week two, Jha introduces the “body scan”. Using the flashlight to move through the body, from toes to scalp, you are encouraged to notice what physical sensations are there. Whenever the mind wanders, return it to the area of the body where the attention was before the wandering.

Even in three-minute bursts, my mind fizzes with words, people, places and feelings. I tell Jha that I have to move my flashlight back so many times, I wonder if it will ever feel easier. “You’re doing great!” she says. “You have introduced something new and it can take time to get used to it. But know that it will get better.”

After a fortnight of doing the exercises, I notice that being able to carve a little sliver of space between myself and the contents of my mind means I am able to divert my attention back to what I need to do more easily. The body scan exercise has given me a new awareness of how distracted I am by physical sensations (a cramp; a gurgle; an itch). It is hard to explain how significant this layer of awareness is unless you’ve tried it.

I am going to carry on with the exercises, with a view to building up to the 12-minute daily dose, because something is shifting in my relationship with my thoughts. I begin another book after I finish Jha’s and reset my timer. It takes me 23 minutes to open Twitter. That’s progress.

Focus refers to the ability to concentrate on a specific task or subject. Being able to focus for extended periods of time can allow you to complete more work in an efficient and accurate manner.

In this article, we will explore the importance of mental focus and offer strategies and tips to improve your focus at work.

Why is it important to improve your focus?

Being able to focus on one task or subject for an extended period of time can boost your overall productivity and efficiency in the workplace. Learning how to direct and maintain your focus and concentration can also prove to be beneficial in nearly every aspect of your life. From learning new things to accomplishing goals, your focus is key in being successful in a number of situations.

The ability to concentrate can be strengthened by practicing common strategies that help you focus and tune out distractions, such as non-urgent emails, texts and calls.

7 strategies to improve focus and concentration at work

Improving your focus and concentration may seem challenging at first, but with regular practice, it can become easier. The following are strategies you can use at work to boost your focus and increase your productivity.

1. Identify the current state of your focus

Before you work on improving your ability to focus, take some time to identify your current work habits. If you regularly allow distractions to take you away from work or if you often find yourself losing track of your progress, your capacity to focus is probably low. You can also set a timer as you work on a certain task. As soon as you find yourself distracted from the task, check the timer to see how much time has passed. That will give you a baseline of how long you usually concentrate on a task before losing focus.

2. Limit or remove distractions

Limiting or removing distractions can help improve your ability to focus. Turn off the television and don’t check social media notifications. If you don’t need to be available for any urgent personal or work-related emails or calls, it’s best if you can put your phone away for a designated period of time, or only check on emails and calls marked urgent. Also, set clear times for when coworkers can approach you with questions or conversations. This can help prevent you from becoming distracted by a casual chat while you are in the middle of a task.

3. Create a comfortable and clean environment

If you regularly find yourself distracted by the clutter in your office or on your desk, set aside five minutes each morning to tidy up your workspace. File away papers, throw away any trash and make your work area as clean and comfortable as possible. The less clutter there is, the less likely you will find yourself cleaning your desk when you should be focusing on work.

4. Increase your focus slowly

Set realistic goals for improving your focus and start small, if necessary. For example, if you currently only concentrate for five minutes before being distracted, aim to work for seven minutes. Set a timer and don't stop working until it goes off. When you have mastered seven minutes, slowly increase it to 10 minutes. Gradually improving your focus can help prevent feelings of frustration if you lose some of your progress.

5. Concentrate on one task at a time

Multitasking is often a primary contributor to a lack of focus and concentration in the workplace. While it may seem as if you can get more done if you do multiple things at once, this is rarely the case. Concentrating on one task at a time is often more productive and can enable you to complete each task with a higher level of accuracy and efficiency.

6. Take scheduled breaks

Focusing on work without taking breaks throughout the day is unrealistic and can be taxing on the mind and body. Schedule small breaks each day to give your mind a chance to rest and reset. For example, every hour you could take a five-minute break to stretch your legs and get a drink of water. Set your timer and don't allow yourself to take longer than five minutes at a time. This will both give you the much-needed break you deserve but also ensure that you don't become distracted and end up taking too long of a break.

7. Assess and adjust your stimulation level

If you find yourself with a list of tasks that seem boring, you are less likely to exert the concentration needed to complete them. For more mundane tasks, look for ways to make your to-do list more interesting. For example, you could set a timer and see how quickly you can complete your tasks, turning them into a game. Or, you could play soothing music that promotes calm and relaxation and eases your resistance to the task. The more excited you can get about a task, the more likely you'll be to focus on it.

5 tips to increase focus in the workplace

Additionally, here are five tips to help improve your ability to maintain focus:

1. Start a meditation practice

Research has shown that meditation can boost your overall ability to focus throughout the day. There are several apps and programs you can use to start a meditation practice. A regular meditation practice can help you see improvements in your levels of concentration.

2. Get plenty of exercise

Exercising can provide a short boost in your ability to focus and concentrate. It can also help you feel more [motivated]( and accomplished as well as increase your energy throughout the day. Getting regular exercise can help you increase your attention span.

3. Create a distraction to-do list

Many people find themselves distracted by unimportant things, such as checking the weather or social media posts. While these tasks may seem simple, they can draw you away from your work and negatively impact your focus. Keep a piece of paper nearby and every time you feel the urge to participate in an unimportant task, write it down. Then, when you are done with your task, you can decide if the items on the list are important enough to complete.

4. Read a book

Spending time reading a book can help improve your ability to concentrate. By sitting down and concentrating on one book for a period of time, you can teach your brain how to focus on a single task.

5. Get enough sleep

Getting an adequate number of hours of sleep each night can help you to focus on tasks during the day. Sleep not only restores us physically but also helps recharge our ability to concentrate. Try to establish a habit of logging in enough hours of sleep each night so that you can feel energized during the day.

How to focus

The world’s most popular psychoactive substance is caffeine, and it is popular with good reason: it helps with concentration, elevates your mood and gets your body going. Yet, caffeine consumption can also lead to anxiety and sleep deprivation.

So how can you reap the benefits of caffeine consumption without being a jittery mess?

To approach this question it is best to turn to our preferred source of caffeine, which is coffee. Recent statistics have shown that Europe has the highest coffee consumption per capita in the world amounting to an estimate of 5 kg of coffee per inhabitant yearly [1]. Countries such as Norway and Luxembourg are one of the world’s top 10 coffee consumers and also have the highest productivity per capita levels [2].

Could coffee consumption be the driving force behind productivity?

We can’t say for certain. However, we can turn to science, to gain some insights about the observed effects that caffeine has on humans.

A recent study that was conducted at John Hopkins University studied [3] the effect of caffeine on memory retention (which plays a crucial role in productivity) using a double-blind trial. Non-regular coffee consuming participants where shown a series of images and five minutes later received a placebo or a 200mg caffeine tablet. The following day, the participants were shown a set of images, some of the images were the same as those from the previous day, while others were new and some were similar looking images to those observed on the previous day. The researchers observed that a significant amount of participants in the caffeine group were able to correctly identify and separate the similar looking images from the actual images that they had viewed the day before. “The brain’s ability to recognize the difference between two similar but not identical items, called pattern separation, reflects a deeper level of memory retention,” the researchers said [3].

How Does Caffeine Work In Your Brain?

When you consume a cup of coffee -caffeine latches on to a neurotransmitter called adenosine in the brain. Adenosine regulates attention, sleep, and alertness [4]. Think of adenosine as a sandglass that gives you a fixed time frame, once the final grain of sand has fallen, andesine decides that it is bedtime, therefore, affecting your ability to focus and stay awake. This is where caffeine comes in: caffeine latches on to adenosine receptors, therefore, blocking adenosine and thus keeping the cell running and giving you the desired cognitive boost.

Yet, what goes up must come down.

After you have drunk a cup of coffee your body’s excretion mechanism slowly starts to flush out the caffeine [5]. In regular coffee drinkers, this excretion mechanism leads to feelings of lethargy and concentration loss which can be felt after a couple of hours or a day after your last intake of caffeine. Luckily, there is a way to stop these dreaded withdrawal symptoms in their tracks.

The Coffee Drinking Hack

The way to avoid these withdrawal symptoms all has something to do with the rate at which your body flushes the caffeine out of your system. Which depends on factors such as your height, weight, and habits ( for example -caffeine acts differently when nicotine is also present in the body). The key to making coffee work for you is to make use of something known as the caffeine half-life law – which is defined as the amount of time that the body needs to excrete half the amount of caffeine in your system. [5]

How to focus

As one can see from the diagram above, it takes the average adult about 6 hours to eliminate half the amount of caffeine. So the trick is to refill on a minimum of 80 mg of caffeine which is equivalent to a cup of coffee after around 48 hours -if you want to avoid anxiety and the negative effects of coffee. However, you can even have a double espresso or a Syphon filter if you prefer what matters is the half-life time frame.

The quality of the coffee beans used, brewing method and caffeine dosage all play a significant role to make this hack work effectively for you.

On a final note

To make it easier for you we have compiled a checklist of things to take note of if you want to achieve maximum concentration using caffeine (aka liquified concentration):

  • Always opt for single-origin coffee beans, as this will ensure that you know where your coffee comes from. At Colombia Coffee Roastery, all of our speciality single-origin coffee beans have the country of origin clearly printed on the packaging (also see the labels in our shop. Yet, if you are unsure ask us- we are always happy to inform you about the farm that the coffee beans originate from). Additionally, all of our coffee beans are roasted in our local roastery in Oxford. [4]
  • Ask your local barista about different brewing methods and their caffeine output. If you are uncertain about where to start, our baristas are always happy to unleash their inner speciality coffee nerd on you and will let you know which brewing method is best for your caffeine needs. If you wish to learn even more you can book one of our filter brewing classes and learn all about different brewing methods.
  • If you are seeking to use coffee as a concentration tool without compromising your sleep, then follow the caffeine half-life rule which depends on factors such as weight and height (for average adults the caffeine half-life is at 6 hrs after the last consumption of caffeine)
  • Find the best roasters in your local area that work with quality beans (Colombia coffee roasters is opening a second shop in Summertown! )

We would love to hear from you! please let us know in the comment section below how you use coffee to help with concentration and what your preferred brewing methods are

As an entrepreneur, you have a lot on your plate. Staying focused can be tough with a constant stream of employees, clients, emails, and phone calls demanding your attention. Amid the noise, understanding your brain’s limitations and working around them can improve your focus and increase your productivity.

Our brains are finely attuned to distraction, so today’s digital environment makes it especially hard to focus. “Distractions signal that something has changed,” says David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work (HarperCollins, 2009). “A distraction is an alert says, ‘Orient your attention here now; this could be dangerous.'” The brain’s reaction is automatic and virtually unstoppable.

While multitasking is an important skill, it also has a downside. “It reduces our intelligence, literally dropping our IQ,” Rock says. “We make mistakes, miss subtle cues, fly off the handle when we shouldn’t, or spell things wrong.”

To make matters worse, distraction feels great. “Your brain’s reward circuit lights up when you multitask,” Rock says, meaning that you get an emotional high when you’re doing a lot at once.

Ultimately, the goal is not constant focus, but a short period of distraction-free time every day. “Twenty minutes a day of deep focus could be transformative,” Rock says.

Try these three tips to help you become more focused and productive:

1. Do creative work first.

Typically, we do mindless work first and build up to the toughest tasks. That drains your energy and lowers your focus. “An hour into doing your work, you’ve got a lot less capacity than (at the beginning),” Rock says. “Every decision we make tires the brain.”

In order to focus effectively, reverse the order. Check off the tasks that require creativity or concentration first thing in the morning, and then move on to easier work, like deleting emails or scheduling meetings, later in the day.

2. Allocate your time deliberately.

By studying thousands of people, Rock found that we are truly focused for an average of only six hours per week. “You want to be really diligent with what you put into those hours,” he says.

Most people focus best in the morning or late at night, and Rock’s studies show that 90 percent of people do their best thinking outside the office. Notice where and when you focus best, then allocate your toughest tasks for those moments.

3. Train your mind like a muscle.

When multitasking is the norm, your brain quickly adapts. You lose the ability to focus as distraction becomes a habit. “We’ve trained our brains to be unfocused,” Rock says.

Practice concentration by turning off all distractions and committing your attention to a single task. Start small, maybe five minutes per day, and work up to larger chunks of time. If you find your mind wandering, just return to the task at hand. “It’s just like getting fit,” Rock says. “You have to build the muscle to be focused.”

How to focus

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When you run your own business, your work is your responsibility alone—how it gets done, where it gets done, and when it gets done is completely up to you. That reality can be both liberating and intimidating.

Knowing how to maintain focus and concentration throughout the day are essential skills when you run your own business. Follow these eight tips to minimize distractions and stay on task.

1. Complete High-Value Tasks First

Whether you organize your tasks in a to-do list, app, or online calendar, writing down what you need to get done is a helpful way to organize your day. Once you’ve listed out all your tasks, rank them in order of priority and tackle the most important to-dos first. It’s likely that these are bigger tasks or ones you’re not looking forward to completing, but if you get them out of the way early on, you’re less likely to procrastinate and push them to the next day.

2. Set Aside Time to Refocus

Sometimes, stepping away from your work is just what you need to refocus your attention. Take a walk, make yourself lunch, or get coffee with a friend. Even if the thought of stepping away from your work seems impossible, doing so can actually help boost brain function and improve concentration.

Try out the Pomodoro Technique to work in breaks throughout your day. With this method, you work in 25-minute increments followed by short, 5-minute breaks. Repeat until you’ve completed four cycles. Then, take a longer 20- to 30-minute break.

3. Keep Your Workspace Clean and Organized

Limiting distractions while you work is often easier said than done, especially if you work from a home office. To help minimize distractions, make sure your workspace is clean and organized so you can quickly find what you’re looking for—digital or non-digital. Your work environment should also be welcoming and comfortable. Create a space that will inspire you to get to work and make doing so easy.

4. Seek Out Peace and Quiet

While you may no longer have to deal with that loud coworker who sat next to you, hallway meetings outside your office, or pop-in conversations with your boss, noise can still be a distraction when you work for yourself. If neighborhood, household, or co-working space noises are an issue, try listening to instrumental music or use a white noise app to filter out distracting sounds.

5. Find a Routine That Works for You

Everyone accomplishes their best work at different hours of the day and in different ways. Maybe waking up early and completing your first task before breakfast is helpful, or perhaps a trip to a coffee shop to break up your work environment is just what you need to finish that final deliverable. Create a routine centered on how you work best. Repeating that routine each day can help you get into the habit of focusing on work when you need to most.

6. Minimize Online Distractions

Disruptions come in many forms, but the main culprits are often email, phone calls, and checking social media. To minimize these tempting diversions, take your work offline when you start an important task. Set your phone to airplane mode, turn off email notifications, and simply refrain from going online for a few hours. Scheduling a specific time to check email, return calls, and check social media can help you stay on track and avoid wasting time online.

7. Indulge in Small Rewards

A little incentive can make even the most boring tasks worthwhile. It’s easy to overlook feeling appreciated when you run your own business, so don’t hesitate to give yourself a reward for a job well done. As you complete little tasks throughout the day, indulge in small “rewards” such as a walk around the block, reading the chapter of a book, or calling a friend to chat. Larger tasks such as landing a new client you’ve been pursuing or completing a big project you’ve been working on may warrant a bigger reward such as dinner out or a weekend getaway.

8. Communicate Your Work Policies

Once you’ve done the work to create a routine that works for you, make sure your friends, family, and clients are in the loop. Just because you work for yourself doesn’t mean you’re free to take calls, be social, or run errands at all hours of the day. Set office hours, let people know what they are, and stick to them. Setting boundaries will help you maintain your schedule and your sanity.

Learn how to increase your focus and without getting distracted. These 10 tips can help.

We live in an interruption-based culture that can be damaging to productivity. Most of the time, notifications from electronic devices only add to the distraction. In fact, many people are so used to getting interrupted at work that when they don't, they actually go looking for one. Distraction and constant multitasking can actually hurt small-business owners' performance.

10 Tips to Help Reduce Distractions and Increase Your Focus

These tips may help you increase your focus and complete the things that count:

1. Have a Plan the Night Before

Consider writing down two things that must get completed in order for that day to be productive. The reason there are two things is that perhaps the first task takes a shorter time than expected or it has a prerequisite, so it can't be completed. The second task is there as a backup. Do these items first before checking emails, returning phone calls or reading social media feeds since those can easily hijack the start of any day.

2. Turn Off the Distractions

Proactively checking for information may keep you from having it interrupt a concentrated work flow. You may want to turn off all notifications from smartphones and desktops applications. Consider checking email only four times per day and handling each inquiry only once. Controlling your devices, and not having that technology control you, may help reduce distractions and increase your focus.

3. Get Comfortable

This means something different for every small-business owner. Comfort could be determined by the clothes, the chair, the music, the temperature of the room or the work location. Knowing what environment makes you comfortable yet focused at the same time can help you maintain focus through the work day.

4. Practice Meditation

This may allow your mind to let go of interrupting thoughts and get centered on one thing. To start, consider sitting quietly in a place for three to five minutes a day. Close your eyes and count to 34.

This may be difficult at the beginning since the mind tends to wander to other thoughts that could prevent you from getting to 34. Simply letting go of that thought without self-judgement and counting again can help get you back on track. Notice any feelings or sensations while doing this exercise. This is a harder task than it may seem, so take your time.

5. Set Smaller Goals

Big goals may be great for motivational speeches, but they don't help anyone focus on getting important things done. Consider breaking down all goals to smaller pieces that can be accomplished more easily. As a result, this may only require focus for a shorter period of time, which may mean increased odds on completing the task.

6. Sleep

Healthy adults need seven to nine hours each night. Many small-business owners cheat sleep to work longer hours in an effort to get more things done. What is worse, this "sleep debt" can build up over a long period of time. Sleep deprivation can actually be counterproductive to staying focused and completing tasks with the highest level of skill. Getting some rest may help you increase your focus and improve your overall health.

7. Use Visual Reminders

Stuck on the top of my office computer monitor are three words: "Focus, Focus, Focus." When I have difficulty sticking to a task or want to escape doing it to check email or social media, I look at this reminder and repeat those three words out loud. This cue really does help me!

8. Reward Yourself

Delaying gratification can actually help people focus on getting something done. To give it a try, choose the task and the customized reward (getting food, checking social media, calling a friend, etc.) before starting as a direct motivator.

9. Take a Walk

Standing up—or better yet, getting away from the office—can help increase your focus. Taking even a short walk away from work can help refresh the body and mind. Taking a break can help you refocus on the next task upon return.

10. Unplug and Play

Non-work and screen activities can help free your brain up to focus later on a new task. For at least 30 minutes a day, consider working out, going for a run or bike ride, playing sports, doing puzzles or playing chess. Remember that a healthy body means a healthy mind. It can be difficult to focus when the body is sick or the mind is depressed.

A version of this article was originally published on July 13, 2016.

My mind gets a little fuzzy when I concentrate for too long. So, to protect my focused time, I rearranged my life, trading a steady salary as a multimedia journalist covering the tech world for flexibility as a freelance writer focusing on health and wellness. Working less, not more, holds the key to my productivity.

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I do the bulk of my work in four or five 55-minute chunks throughout the day, taking half-hour breaks when my mind starts to wander. This schedule puts me in good company. Although there’s not much hard science behind it, a lot of productivity gurus push the idea that we get our best work done with about four or five hours of focus a day.

They came up with this range partly because of a well-known study of music training, led by psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, that inspired the “10,000-hour rule.” (The concept, popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell, is that it takes at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an expert at something, although Ericsson has said this is an oversimplification.) What’s the connection to four or five hours of focus? That’s how long the “best” students in Ericsson’s research tended to practice.

Such a schedule is not uncommon among the accomplished, according to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley writer and consultant who specializes in productivity. Alice Munro, Charles Darwin and Gabriel García Márquez are among the creative people with similar habits, a topic Pang dedicated a chapter to in his 2016 book, “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.”

“Rather than working super long hours, they maximized the amount of depth of focus time they had per day,” he said, “and really protected that and organized their day so they could put in about 4 or 4½ hours of really intensive deep work.”

While there isn’t extensive research into working and focus, the four-to-five-hour sweet spot sounds about right to Kalina Michalska, a developmental neuroscientist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Riverside. She stops short of applying this number to everyone, however. Humans have individual differences “in attentional networks and circadian rhythms,” she said.

There are also differences in how we manage our emotions, something most workers have had to deal with during the coronavirus pandemic. “We’ve all been under a lot of stress and anxiety for the past year,” said Borna Bonakdarpour, a behavioral neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “That, by itself, affects our focus.”

Pandemic aside, Bonakdarpour said the main culprits behind our limited ability to focus are cognitive overload and energy use. “When you increase the metabolism of the brain, it comes with byproducts that need to be cleared out and cleaned,” he said. “The brain needs to rest.” According to Bonakdarpour, research shows that for every two hours of focused work, “you need about 20 to 30 minutes to break.”

Of course, some of the work we do doesn’t require 100 percent of our attention, Bonakdarpour added. “That’s why you can kind of get through even when you’re tired,” he said. “But as a general principle, your brain is functioning at a lower level.” Studies show that as our focus slides, we’re less motivated, we make more mistakes and we get distracted more easily.

This truth is recognized in some professions where attention failure can be life-threatening. Air traffic controllers, for example, only manage live traffic for an average of about four hours out of their eight-hour shifts, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

But most of us are not air traffic controllers with bosses who understand the limits of focus. If we only have four or five hours of peak attention within a normal workday, how can we optimize them? Here are some tips from our experts.

Work in chunks to give your brain a rest. Michalska first tried the Pomodoro method: You work for 25 minutes, then rest for three to five minutes. After four of those blocks, you take a half-hour break. But she found herself more focused on the timer than her work. She eventually settled into a longer period. “I try to do 45 minutes, and then I take a break.”

Schedule your breaks. Michalska takes five-minute rests after her working blocks, making sure she leaves extra time for lunch. She recommends planning your week with your downtime as a priority. “I would put in the breaks first,” she said. “Put in the run, the lunch, the break. Otherwise, you’re never going to do it.”

In her schedule, she also leaves a little room for transitions between tasks, which include writing, researching, teaching, and meeting with students. She said these buffers felt counterintuitive at first, but they help keep her on schedule. “You need a little time to shift the task, to get water, to take a walk, the mail comes, somebody calls,” she said. “I would fall behind, because something unexpected would happen when I didn’t put a little downtime in between.”

While work breaks can feel like roadblocks, you might be surprised at what happens when you give your thoughts a little room. “Your creative or subconscious mind doesn’t stop working while you’re waiting in line for coffee or you’re taking a walk around the block,” Pang said. This can lead to “those moments of insight that we’ve all had.”