In the age of social media scrolling and non-stop WhatsApp notifications, taking control of our time can feel like a never-ending battle.
According to recent research by King’s College London, UK adults check their phones up to 80 times a day, with 50% of people admitting that despite their best efforts, they sometimes can’t stop checking their smartphones when they should be focusing on other things.
Our growing struggle to concentrate doesn’t just spell bad news for our mounting to-do lists – left unchecked, it can also contribute to workplace mental health issues like anxiety and burnout, and experts warn of the importance of setting personal boundaries with our digital habits.
So how can we stop scrolling and harness our ability to double down on tricky work tasks? We asked a productivity coach to give us their golden rules for getting things done.
Why do so many of us struggle to focus?
The King’s College research further revealed that half of all people believe their attention span is shorter than it used to be. According to Emma Jeffreys, a life coach and NLP practitioner, focus issues are caused by a variety of factors. “Our environment, stress, activity levels and the amount of good quality sleep we get can all contribute to the problem,” she notes.
Our brains often struggle to perform at their peak when our basic needs aren’t met. “If we’re hungry, thirsty or haven’t slept well, it can be challenging for our brains to stay on task,” she explains. At a fundamental level, we may simply need to hydrate, eat a nutrient-dense snack or even take a short nap to claw back our concentration.
Equally, distractions can play a large role. The fast-paced nature of modern life, with apps that stimulate our attention for short periods of time, can leave our brains feeling overwhelmed and unfocused. Studies have found that our brains are wired to seek novelty – a survival trait that helped our ancestors stay alert to potential dangers in their environment. This evolutionary characteristic was useful for ancient man, but it’s not so helpful when we need to block out external stimulation and concentrate on critical tasks.
In the era of texting, talking and emailing all at once, multitasking has also become the norm. Yet, this constant juggling can have detrimental effects on our focus. Research has found that our brains are not naturally equipped to handle too many tasks simultaneously, leading to a ‘focus meltdown’. When we attempt to multitask, our brains rapidly switch attention from one task to the other. This constant task-switching comes at a cost to our mental effort and efficiency. The more we try to do at once, the less effective we become in each individual endeavour.
How can we re-find our focus?
Here, we asked Jeffreys to share her four golden rules for crushing your to-do list and conquering the day.
1. Train your brain with music
“One of the fastest ways to get into a state of deep focus and concentration is to use binaural beats,” says Jeffreys. Binaural beats are a form of auditory illusion that involves playing two slightly different frequencies in each ear simultaneously. When listening to these sounds, the brain perceives a third tone that results from the difference between the two frequencies.
These soundscapes are believed to have various effects on the brain, including promoting relaxation, focus and even altering states of consciousness. “You can find loads of free playlists on YouTube; all you need to get started is a good pair of headphones,” advises Jeffreys.
2. Distract the distractions
When it comes to focus, your smartphone is your worst enemy. “Set it to ‘do not disturb’, or even leave it in another room,” advises Jeffreys.
For those of us who subconsciously pick up our phone every five minutes, a simple elastic band or hair tie wrapped around the handset can work wonders. “You have to move the band to get into your phone, which interrupts the brain in autopilot and reminds you to put it down and crack on,” she adds.
3. Chunk it down
Overwhelmed by mammoth tasks? Chunk them down into bite-sized portions to kickstart your motivation, says Jeffreys. Try embracing the five-minute rule – commit to spending just five minutes on the task at hand, whether it’s reading over a brief or responding to two emails.
“Once we actually get started on a task, we often find we’re in the zone and feel motivated to carry on,” says Jeffreys.
4. Embrace the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It works on the principle of breaking work into 25-minute intervals called ‘Pomodoros’.
During each Pomodoro, you focus solely on a single task without any interruptions or distractions. Once the timer goes off, you take a short five-minute break. After completing four Pomodoros, you take a longer break, typically around 15-30 minutes. “This type of workflow keeps cognitive boredom at bay and rewards us in manageable periods of time, which increases motivation and helps us focus,” says Jeffreys.
A word of advice though – ditch the phone timer. Instead, opt for a physical kitchen timer or use online alternatives to avoid unnecessary distractions.
5. Try a nootropic
Nootropics are supplements that are thought to enhance cognitive function. Think of them like a multivitamin for the brain. The exact mechanisms of how nootropics work in the brain can vary (depending on the specific ingredients), but they often aim to enhance neurotransmitter activity, increase blood flow to the brain, or protect brain cells from damage.
Taken as a daily supplement, Form’s Edge (£19 for 60 capsules) combines high-strength herbal extracts with potent nootropics and B Vitamins to help improve focus. It also packs a punch of Bacopa Monnieri – a herb that’s traditionally used in Ayurveda and has demonstrated memory improvement and anxiety reduction properties in peer-reviewed studies.
If you’re making changes to your supplements or you’re struggling with long-term difficulties in maintaining focus, it’s always a good idea to speak with your doctor. Our mental and physical wellbeing is intricately intertwined, and certain health issues can manifest as challenges with focus and concentration. Consulting with your GP can help rule out any potential health concerns, and ensure that you receive the appropriate treatment and support.