How to stay focused

By Carli Uys

Industrial Psychologist (PS 0151149) Head of Design, Research and Development (MCom Industrial Psychology and MCom Communication studies)

The 4th Industrial Revolution brought about a digital world that provides us with an overload of information. On a daily basis we need to deal with the increase of information and the multiple forms of information. We often find ourselves lost in this digital world and feel like we cannot focus on the task at hand.

To be able to function better in this information overloaded world, it will assist if we understand the difference between concentration, traction, distraction and focus.

Concentration is your ability to focus your mind on one subject, object, or thought, and at the same time be able to exclude other unrelated thoughts, ideas, feelings and sensations from the mind. Concentration is about how you filter different sets of information and choosing to focus only on one thing at a time. It is your ability to process a task deeply.

Traction is any action that has the ability to pull you towards what you say you are going to do, things that pull you towards your values, and help you become the kind of person you want to become.

Distraction is any action that has the ability to pull you away from what you are intended to do, away from your values, away from becoming the kind of person you want to become.

Focus is your ability to concentrate on a single point or task. Focus is about discipline and willpower. It is about your ability to choose a single point to put your attention on rather than to succumb to the whims of exterior forces. When you understand how to focus well at work, you can channel your attention and energy into completing the work.

There are various factors that can inhibit a person to focus at work. Internal factors can be emotional (fear of failure, anxiety, depression), mental (overload of exposure to technology) and physical (inability to concentrate because of a lack of sleep, hygiene, good nutrition). External factors can be meeting overload, lack of commute time, and multitasking.

Any of these various factors can prohibit you from achieving your full potential. Maintaining your focus, you need to take care of your emotional, physical and mental well-being. When you eliminate distractions and invest your time and energy into maintaining your emotional, physical and mental well-being, you improve your productivity.

Throughout the day your brain is always on and busy trying to gather all the information you are exposed to and then to take in only the information that is important to you. This means that your brain is constantly sorting through the noise of the world and decides what is important that you need to focus on. This is defined as selective attention and consists of 2 types of selective attention:

  1. Bottom-up: It refers to you paying attention to distractions such as a notification on your phone, or a thought that is coming to mind. This means that you rather pay attention to what is going on around you, than to the things that deserve your attention.
  2. Top-down: It refers to your ability to be aware of things that distract you, and then decide to put them aside and focus on what needs your attention. You prioritise your goals over what is going on around you. You focus on the bigger picture and create a plan and process to achieve it. This is also known as voluntary focus.

The top-down approach allows you to focus on what is important and avoid all the rest. But unfortunately, it is not always possible. The more you get distracted, the harder it is to focus on what is important. Every time you get distracted, it takes you up to 15 minutes to refocus your brain. This means that you lose about 40% efficiency during the day. 

To be able to master where your attention is at, you need to balance your focus and concentration. In life you can focus on multiple areas but not have enough energy to concentrate on all of them. For example, you want to focus on your career, your health and your family, but to be able to do this, you will have to drop other priorities, like indulging in hobbies, having alone time to read a book, or on improving your personal growth. Focusing on one aspect does not eliminate fun from your life, but it does require time and energy.

Every day we face challenges as there are so many things that draws our attention away from what is important. Every notification, email, meeting, and quick discussion with someone draws our attention away from what is important. You might think that you only give them a few minutes of your time, but soon those few minutes fill up your day and you got nothing done that you wanted to focus on.

You need to create a focus haven for yourself where you plan to focus on what is important. Cut out noise and distractions that often get in the way. An area that is free from distractions can make a big difference in how much work you get done. Here are a few ways that you can create a focus haven:

  1. Turn off social media and emails: Social media is one of the biggest time wasters and it will not help you get anything done that you want to get done. Set a reminder for yourself to check your emails every hour or so, so that when you respond to an email you are focused on the email and not on the work you were doing, and vice versa.
  2. Turn off your phone: It is not always possible to turn off your phone as most of your work communication happens via your phone, but you can consciously decide to put your phone on silent so that you can remove constant distractions and focus on the work you are busy with. After you have completed your work, you can respond to missed calls or messages.
  3. Close the door: If you are not in an open office plan, or if you can go and sit in a meeting room, close the door so you can remove the noise and other commotion that goes on in the office. This will help you to concentrate on the work you are doing and will make people more reluctant to bother you while you are working. An open door is seen as an invite to come and ask a quick question or have a quick chat which will only set you back and cause more stress as your work is not getting done.
  4. Organise: Organise your office or workspace in such a way that it is easy to get to the documents or things you need to get your work done. It reduces a lot of wasted time when you know where to find the things you need to complete your work.  

Learning how to concentrate at work is vital for your career success. When you improve your concentration, you can accomplish more at work and have more time to focus on what is important. It is not just about accomplishing work tasks; it is about making time for fun and happiness so you can achieve a meaningful and satisfying life.