3 Brain Hacks For When You Can’t Focus at Work

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Curt Steinhorst, author of Can I Have Your Attention?, wrote, “Distraction is actually just confusion about what matters.” So what does matter when we can’t focus at work? Is it productivity at any cost? For decades, the answer has been a collectively mandated yes.

We, as a society, know a lot more about the brain now than we did even 10 years ago. A lot of what we thought makes us more focused and productive, it turns out actually doesn’t.

The following brain hacks might feel counterintuitive. But rest assured, that’s exactly why they work.

Brain hack #1: Unfocus

I know it goes against all traditional thought. We’re taught that “idle time is wasted time.” But the worst thing we can do when struggling to focus at work is try harder. This only wastes precious mental energy. That brain drain triggers our stress response, and stress causes our logical brain to shut down.

No logic means no focus. It’s a vicious cycle.

Instead, take a short five-minute break from thinking. A recent study from the University of Sydney shows that’s all we need to get our concentration back. The study author, Associate Professor Paul Ginns, notes that “scrolling social media for five minutes doesn’t count.”

One study backs this up, noting the tendency for people to do “media multitasking.” An example is when you’re scrolling socials, click over to check email and then click back.

This divided attention further compromises our focus and attention. Research published in the 2021 Workgeist report, in collaboration with Cornell University, showed it takes 9.5 minutes to recover from switching between apps and return to the original focused task. So a “quick” social media break costs almost twice as much time out of our day.

Alternative actions to try: Step outside or next to a window. Look at the sky. Do some gentle stretches. Sit back and close your eyes. Make some tea. Clean the sink. Walk down the hallway. Any of these unplugged activities can reset your focus in five minutes.

Related: Why Multitasking is Blocking Your Path to Success

Brain hack #2: Go with the (neurochemical) flow

You know that groggy feeling you fight every day around 2-3 p.m. (a.k.a. the afternoon slump)? Turns out it isn’t just the result of staying up too late binge-watching Shark Tank.

My mind was blown during one of my NeuroHealth Coach Certification courses when I learned that this phenomenon is actually a normal function of our brains.

I bet you’ve heard of melatonin as the supplement that helps people sleep — but it’s also a hormone that’s produced naturally in the brain’s pineal gland. It’s pivotal in regulating our sleep-wake cycles (also called our circadian rhythm). If you struggle to focus at work, it’s critical to understand the circadian rhythm.

Melatonin levels spike two times during this cycle. One is at night when we start to feel sleepy for bedtime. The other is at midday, causing that sluggish feeling in the afternoon.

It’s common to push ourselves to overcome this natural low-energy period. Hustle culture and our inner critics demand it. We think needing breaks means we’re lazy or weak. We ignore what our bodies are telling us, for the sake of productivity. But this mindset has tricked us for too long. Our brains need rest to function at their best. In fact, science shows us that focus and productivity are actually increased after a brief period of rest (like closing our eyes without falling asleep).

Related: The 5-Minute Habit (Based on Neuroscience) That Will Change Your Life

Brain hack #3: Borrow my neurodivergent strategy

I’m not diagnosed with ADHD, but my brain doesn’t always function in a neurotypical way. I recently read a LinkedIn post from a mental health therapist. He’s diagnosed with ADHD and helps others with this condition. He shared things he wished he’d known earlier about ADHD.

One was “random energy,” described as volleying between intense energy and feeling like a sloth. Another was “zero motivation.” This is different because we can feel motivated to do things but still not have the energy to tackle them, or we have massive energy but no motivation to use it for anything constructive.

If you can relate, you know how hard it is to focus with our energy scattered like this. I’ve experienced these struggles throughout my life. It made the first several years of my entrepreneurial journey especially difficult. I tried following advice for high-performance habits. It only left me feeling frustrated and inadequate. I just couldn’t manage to stay consistent with a lot of them.

Then I discovered a simple strategy: Task buckets.

First, I brain-dumped all my tasks onto a sheet of paper. Then, I highlighted the tasks that felt easy to me. These are tasks that don’t require much planning, thought or energy. I put these into the “easy” bucket. Setting it up as a Trello board works great for this. You could also keep it listed on paper. Then the tasks that I knew needed more focused attention and mental/physical energy went into the “challenging” bucket.

On the days when I’m struggling to focus or muster any motivation, I pull one task at a time from the “easy bucket.” It allows me to feel accomplished despite my scattered energy. Getting things done helps me hack my tendency to feel I need to “earn” a self-care break (something we all desperately need for our mental health on days like these).

Usually, this is all it takes to shift my mind into a more focused, productive state. Then I’m able to switch over to complete some “challenging” tasks too.

Related: The 5 Superpowers People With ADHD Can Use to Be Better Entrepreneurs

Our brains are amazing machines

Our brains are amazing machines. Use these brain hacks to our advantage, we improve productivity without acting on beliefs that sacrifice our well-being. Remember, that’s what really matters if you want to overcome distraction and reclaim control of your focus.

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