Few things are more frustrating than knowing you need to finish a project and absolutely not being able to focus on it. In these moments, everything — email, Facebook, tying your shoe — seems more exciting than the task at hand.
Fortunately, there are dozens of ways to filter out distractions and improve your ability to concentrate for extended periods of time. To find out what some of these strategies are, we sifted through the Quora thread, “How do I improve my concentration and willpower?” and highlighted the most practical techniques.
Some of them involve small tweaks (think changing the way you write your to-do list), while others involve a bigger commitment (like a daily meditation practice). All of them will make you more productive in both your professional and personal lives.
1. Create a quick-hit agenda.
If you’ve got 30 items on your to-do list and half of those are things that need to happen sometime this week, it’s no wonder you feel stuck.
A better bet is to give yourself some super-short-term goals. Quora user Ravi Mandliya suggests creating a list of things you’d like to finish in the next 45 minutes.
That forces you to be realistic in thinking about how much you can actually accomplish in a limited time frame, so you don’t end up with something vague and intimidating like “write three project reports.”
2. Work on your most pressing projects first thing in the morning.
Each day is chock-full of experiences that can sap your willpower, from turning down a coworker’s freshly-baked brownies to ignoring the siren call of your overflowing inbox. By the time 3 p.m. hits, it may be hard to muster up the cognitive resources to focus on anything work-related.
That’s why Vince Favilla says, “You need to work on your most important tasks early in the day, while you still have the focus and willpower to complete them.”
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal offers another reason why willpower may be highest in the morning: The brain is refreshed by sleep. (That’s also why an afternoon nap may work to boost your willpower and productivity.)
3. Practice concentrating for long stretches.
Steve Denton recommends playing chess (or a similarly complex game) with challenging opponents to develop your ability to concentrate for extended periods of time.
In fact, educational organizations across the globe advocate adding chess instruction to school curricula. That’s because it helps increase concentration and memory — skills that can improve performance in other areas of life.
4. Start an exercise routine.
Physical activity has myriad benefits — but one of the less obvious is that it helps sharpen focus.
That’s because, according to one study mentioned by Mukul Shukla, regular aerobic exercise may spark development in parts of the brain related to attention and memory.
Other research suggests it might not take too long to reap the cognitive benefits of exercise. Kids who engaged in 10- to 40-minute bursts of exercise showed an immediate increase in concentration and mental focus, probably because of improved blood flow to the brain.
5. Figure out why you’re distracted.
It’s tempting to beat yourself up when you find yourself scrolling through your Facebook news feed instead of answering client emails. A better bet is simply to accept that you’re having trouble focusing and move on to figuring out why.
“I think the biggest thing is just acknowledging that you’re distracted and facing it head-on rather than trying to suppress it,” says Vinny Inverso.
Inverso says it’s important to understand whether it’s a physical or mental distraction that’s getting you sidetracked. If it’s mental, try putting away your phone or using a plug-in that blocks certain websites. If it’s physical, consider taking a walk or having a snack.
The point is not to waste time getting upset because you’re struggling, but to get to the root of the problem and eliminate it.
6. Take regular breaks.
A growing body of research highlights the importance of incorporating regular break times into your work schedule.
That’s possibly because prolonged attention to a single task hurts performance. One study found that people who took two breaks during a 50-minute cognitive task performed much better than those who worked straight through.
The question is: How long do you have to toil away before you can take a respite? Some research suggests the perfect formula involves working for 52 minutes and then taking a 17-minute break.
Eric Pepke recommends more frequent pauses: “Take a five-minute break at least every 20 minutes, get up, walk around, and reset your brain. It not only makes it possible to do [the task] for a longer time, but it makes every 20-minute chunk much more effective.”
7. Check emails in bulk.
Wait until you have ten messages to check your email.
Jan Kulisek says he only checks his email and Facebook when he’s got at least ten new messages. That way, he’s able to resist the urge to continually refresh his inboxes instead of buckling down on whatever project he’s supposed to be working on.
Of course, you should probably tell your coworkers that you’ve instituted this rule, so they know to instant-message you or stop by your desk if something’s urgent.
8. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the general term for cultivating greater awareness of your experiences in the present moment, and it can help you stay focused on the task at hand.
One simple mindfulness practice is to “do what you are doing with full focus,” says Paras Trehan. For example, Trehan says, pay attention to every bite of food you take, including the taste, the temperature, and the texture. Eventually, you’ll get accustomed to zeroing in on single tasks, while minimizing external distractions.
9. Learn to meditate.
As meditation gains a foothold in Western societies, more people are starting to appreciate its psychological benefits. One study found that people were better able to concentrate after they spent several months at a meditation retreat.
For those who aren’t interested in dedicating that much time to their meditation practice, an anonymous user outlines an exercise you can do for a few minutes every day.
Find a quiet space, sit in a comfortable position, and start breathing. Count to six as you breathe in and six again as you breathe out. Keep doing this for as long as you can. The key is to notice when your mind is wandering instead of focusing on the task at hand. (There are variations on this technique, but counting your breaths is a basic meditation practice.)
10. Take an interest in the task.
Deepak Dev has a clever strategy for getting better at focusing: Find out why the task is important.
“If it’s a ‘dry’ subject, get to know the applications of what you’re studying or the history of how the concepts of the subject [have] evolved,” he writes. “Think about what you could contribute/achieve in your field after you acquire deep knowledge in the subject.”
So if your current assignment involves inputting numbers in an Excel spreadsheet, remind yourself how this task fits into your company’s work as a whole. How is your work on this project helping to advance the organization’s mission?
11. Be patient.
Abhisek Rai Arrant says that when he started playing chess, he would lose some games simply because he couldn’t concentrate for hours at a time. Eventually, through meditation and simply more practice playing chess, he was able to increase his ability to focus.
From this experience he learned that developing any new cognitive skill takes time — and you can’t be too hard on yourself.
“While you’re busy increasing your concentration span, you shouldn’t give up on yourself,” he writes. “Be optimistic and enthusiastic about the progress.”
Author: Shana Lebowitz
Shana is a strategy reporter for Business Insider. Before joining Business Insider in April 2015, she covered mental health for Greatist and personal finance for LearnVest. Shana studied English and psychology at Brandeis University and received her master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University