With life stressors such as the pandemic and unique working situations, we find ourselves losing focus. Maybe you think of a worrisome bit of news when you’re trying to work, or maybe you start thinking about that show you watched last night that ended on a cliffhanger.
There are accounts of people zoning out for hours while working due to feelings of burnout and stress.
How do we focus? A vital starting point is habit. Once you establish a routine of setting aside time for focused work, this allows supplements to do their job. Let’s go over both supplemental and habitual ways to increase focus.
These methods are based on personal research while in “deep work” mode.
Schedule Time for Distraction-Free Work
This may sound obvious, but without consciously scheduling time for focused work, small chores and digital notifications eat away at our daily time.
Set aside at least three hours uninterrupted work daily. The more hours the better.
If you want the long version of this strategy, read Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
Knowing something may interrupt you at any moment saps your attention. Solving problems for your work or hobby requires you to hold information in short-term memory. When a co-worker taps you on the shoulder or your dog lets you know it needs to go outside, any mental models or abstractions you’ve held in your head are wiped away like sandcastles during high tide.
Game developer Jonathan Blow sometimes starts his days in a coffee shop free from possible interruptions. Although noisy, nothing at the coffee shop interrupts him and he’s able to compose himself for focused work.
Working from home poses a challenge if you have pets or children due to the expectation of interruptions. If there isn’t a room in your home for a separate office then you can still control your sound environment.
Control Your Sound Environment
The coffee shop served as white noise for Jonathan Blow. But not every coffee shop has same sound composition. You can generate white noise from several sources:
- Mynoise.net is free and has a variety of tweakable white noise sources (the waterfalls are a favorite)
- Noisli is nice, but it’s not free
- Low-tech mechanical fan white noise machines like Marpac Dohm are okay, but may not be loud enough for some environments. Plus the fans can make erratic sounds after a few years of use.
Shooting range ear muffs work well, but can be uncomfortable during extended periods if they are too tight.
Earplugs do not reduce as much noise as ear muffs, but can be paired with them for greater effect. I’ve had great results with normal foam earplugs with $15 pair of shooting range ear muffs on top.
The complete silence can either be unnerving or great for focus. Try it and see if it works for you.
Noise isolating earbuds do the trick if you can get a proper seal. Earbud options like the Etymotic ER2XR work well with triple flange earbuds. The earbuds must be pressed rather deep into the canal and can be uncomfortable for some, but if you get used to it, they block almost all noise.
You can check if you’ve achieved a correct seal by snapping your fingers next to your ear. If you can barely hear it, they’re in. For any remaining sounds, pipe some white noise into the earbuds and you won’t hear a thing.
Active noise cancelling headphones like the Mpow H21 are another option if you can’t tolerate invasive earbuds. Headphones do not block as much noise as triple-flange earbuds, but these are a decent option for under $100. The active noise cancellation works, but won’t block as much noise as sealed ear canals. Plus, the sound quality doesn’t hold a candle to wired Etymotic models.
Which is better: earbuds or headphones for noise cancellation? The noise-cancelling headphones work for an open office environment or a home office where you need to block most outside noises. The inner-ear Etymotic earbuds are needed if you want to block the noise from a coworker using a paper shredder right next to you or a lawn mower right outside.
Earbuds may be uncomfortable and can cause irritation. Wired earbuds seem to provide the best noise blocking and sound quality. Earbuds like the TOZO T6 are fine for sound, but they don’t block external noise like the Etymotic brand with triple flanged buds.
With wired earbuds or headphones, microphonics (those sounds when your wire touches your shirt or desk) must be minimized to maintain sanity. So this requires a shirt clip. It’s one additional task to perform as you don your earbuds and gets tiresome if you’re frequently leaving your desk. If you’re easily distracted, clipping the wire to your shirt is a small price to pay. The inner ear seals block sound like nothing else can.
Reduce Task Switching
Multi-tasking is mentally rewarding but it damages our productivity. Strive to work on each task for a minimum of thirty minutes–longer once you establish a habit of focused work. Dividing our attention between checking our email/LinkedIn/Facebook/reddit feeds fractures our attention and robs our focus from tasks that matter.
Cut off your stream of digital updates
Check email and social accounts only once or twice daily, ideally at the beginning and end of your working schedule.
Put your phone on silent and hide notifications. Unless your work demands constant contact, such as sales, treat your phone as just another social account to check outside of productive hours.
Install News Feed Eradicator (for chrome or chromium browsers) to replace social site feeds with inspiring quotes.
Focus Your Research and Reading
In the book, The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, the author talks about a study where participants were measured on reading comprehension. One group read content with html links and the other without. The html links reduced reading comprehension due to their distracting nature.
When you see a link, or other unrelated content on a page, your mind is pulled away from the topic, even if for a split second. You may not always notice it, but our focus suffers when our mind has to decide on whether to open a link, or when we must refocus after our eyes are distracted by brightly colored ad.
Use a reader mode plugin to strip away all non-content elements from the page. You can tweak the styling in these plugins to make the links the same color as the rest of the text. A browser like Vivaldi (compatible with Chrome plugins) has a built-in reader mode which is enabled by default. Chrome has a reader mode but it’s hidden by default.
Focus on the Reward
Focus on the reward of your current task, not the potential failure. Self-help books and blogs parrot the platitude of keeping your eye on the prize, but it’s true. The examples range from Mario Andretti (Don’t look at the wall) to Super Mario (Don’t look at the pits).
If you are working on a presentation for work, then thinking about how you might look stupid in front of your co-workers will hinder progress and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, focus on how working on the presentation will further your communication skills.
Notice how I’m not suggesting that you focus on how your presentation will lead to a raise. You can’t control whether or not your boss provides a raise. You can control the effort and time you invest in your work, which leads to an increased understanding of the business problem you are solving. Focus on the gained experience. That’s the prize you control.
Focusing on prizes which you cannot control leads to disappointment and entitlement. Earning a raise is good, but let it be a secondary benefit which eventually happens through persistence.
Examine.com has a great article on binaural beats. It’s difficult to find a pure binaural beats only audio file without background music for specific frequencies. Here’s a file we made for 40 Hz, a frequency which provides focus and learning benefits. Most beats for focus range between 20 Hz and 60 Hz.
Layering binaural beats with white noise works well if you’re already used to listening to natural white noise sources. Binaural beats seem to work best at a volume just above audible. When stacked with white noise, the beats should be in the background and not overpower the white noise.
This may sound strange, but try cycling binaural beats. If I listen to them for several days, the focus boost is no longer noticeable. It’s as though you habituate to the sound and it loses the effect.
Supplements for Focus
Rhodiola rosea with 3% salidrosides is my go-to supplement for focus, and it’s also great when you’re trying to reduce your caffeine intake due to its energy boosting effects.
Start with 500 mg and only take an additional capsule after at least one hour if you don’t feel the effects. Some days, one capsule works. Other days, you may need need a few capsules throughout the day. This variance in required dosage is due to meal timing, your sleep schedule, and tolerance. It’s difficult to gauge until after your first capsule.
If you feel overstimulated, remember to reduce the dosage next time. For now, take some L-theanine powder under the tongue for a faster calming effect than capsules.
The 3% rosavins rhodiola rosea is better suited as an adaptogen supplement but can still provide focus. Try this version if the 3% salidrosides version is too intense.
Ginkgo Biloba is sometimes combined with rhodiola for a boosted effect. But try rhodiola by itself first.
Bacopa monnieri extract stacks well with rhodiola and seems to smooth out the rough edges when the effects of rhodiola are strong. By itself, it’s not as strong as Rhodiola for focus, but does assist with memory formation. This is an ideal focus stack addition for knowledge work or learning.
Caffeine and L-Theanine
Caffeine and L-Theanine is a classic energy and focus combo. But too much caffeine can have the opposite effect. If you’ve listed to someone chatter away guzzling their morning coffee, they lack focus but have plenty of energy, and maybe the mindset that they will get a lot done. We won’t go further into coffee versus caffeine pills but here’s a great experiential comparison.
Finding the right ratio of caffeine to L-theanine is crucial. This varies by person and by day, depending on your amount of sleep. For some, a 1:2 ratio of caffeine to L-theanine is perfect. For me, a 2:3 ratio is best most days. But if you’re on little sleep, or taking caffeine before a workout, you can reduce or get rid of L-theanine altogether. Fatigue alone can be enough to take the edge off of caffeine. During a workout or sport, caffeine “jitters” aren’t as noticeable.
Huperzine A works well as a focus supplement, but it’s more subtle than rhodiola and doesn’t provide as much energy. Be mindful not to stack it with other supplements or medications without researching the combined effects. Huperzine should be cycled due to its long half-life. Take at least a week off it you dose for several days in a row.
Reduce Your Number of Ongoing Projects
If you have many ongoing projects, it can feel overwhelming if you try to focus on any one project for too long. The constant juggling leads to decision fatigue and shallow work. Shallow work is comprised of frequent interruptions, task switching, and tasks which do not require deep concentration. Some examples include checking emails, interviewing job candidates, and taking sales calls.
Shallow work is the norm for managerial or sales positions where you have frequent meetings or are tasked with delegating work. But this task juggling often leads to burnout for projects which require deep concentration, especially creative/knowledge work. Examples include writing, art, engineering, and research.
When you try to focus on a task related to your project, random thoughts invade about other projects. These distractive thoughts are sometimes disguised as being helpful. You may get an idea on how to improve another project or think of another way to approach a problem. The best counter to this distraction is to keep a pen and notepad handy. Write down the idea and come back to it after you finish working on your active project.
The notepad also comes in handy if you have the temptation to surf the web. Write down what you want to browse online. Then later, with an hour or so of life experience, you realize that you don’t need to look up which actor is in what movie or show on IMDb.com.
Reducing your number of projects might be easier said than done. Delegate or defer those which you don’t absolutely have to complete. Prioritize projects which are most congruent with your life’s mission and goals. For perspective, ask yourself if dropping a project will matter in five or ten years.
Be Patient When Trying to Achieve Flow
Flow is the term used for being “in the zone”. It’s a state of deep focus, which is rewarding, especially if the task is in line with your values and purpose.
If you get frustrated when trying to enter deep concentration for a task, be patient. It may take five to thirty minutes (sometimes more on hectic days) to enter a state of focus. Becoming frustrated only makes it more difficult to enter a flow state when working.
Some days, you may not achieve the coveted flow state, but you still have some bursts of focus. Take notes on what environmental, mental, and supplemental factors coincided with your periods of focus. Repeat habits and recreate the environments that work.
Flow is easier to achieve when you already have a basic to intermediate level in the skill required for a task. Deep focus is more difficult to achieve when learning a complex skill or when studying.
Meditation and Breathing
There are plenty of articles praising the benefits of meditation. The only aspect we’re concerned about is focus. I’ve found that meditation has an indirect benefit for achieving focus. Meditation hasn’t improved my concentration directly, but it makes me more aware of when my mind wanders. This improved awareness helps catch daydreaming early before it turns into a 5+ minute affair.
After your daily meditation, when you find your thoughts drifting, bring your mind back to your breath, and then refocus on the task at hand.
If you don’t already have a meditation app or a daily practice, then here’s how to meditate for focus.
- Set a timer for five or ten minutes.
- Sit in a comfortable upright position.
- Take several deep breaths for the first minute then return to normal breathing.
- For a third of the remaining time, hold your breath for 2-4 seconds on each inhale (take a few breathes in between if you feel breathless). During this inhaled pause, release any thoughts in your mind. I like to focus on the image of flame burning away any thoughts. Keep this “clear mind” image during your exhale and until your next pause.
- For the next third of the remaining time, return to normal breathing and focus only on your breath. If focusing on your breath becomes difficult, count to 10 for every breath (In…1…out…2…) and restart from 1 when you reach 10.
- For the last third of the remaining time, center on your mind and watch any thoughts that come up. Think of a cat patiently watching a mouse hole. Don’t judge the thoughts. This exercise only involves watching any thoughts that come up; not trying to stop them. You may be surprise how quiet your mind becomes when it knows you’re watching.
A Stoic Outlook
How can the Stoic philosophy help us focus? Meditations, the book by famous Stoic Marcus Aurelius, goes over several aspects in which we can improve our focus.
Focus on What You Were Made to Do
Our nature demands that we do what we were made for; that we perform a task because it is just, or because it’s what needs to be done, instead of doing it for some external reward. That we perform our tasks which add value to others (the company we work for, the market, friends, or family). We add the most value by focusing on skills in which we excel.
Figuring out “what we were made to do” involves finding our values and our personal mission. With a focus on adding value and furthering our skills to add yet more value in the future, we fixate less on external rewards we control directly such as receiving a raise or funding for a business. This allows us to practice the concept of the stoic fork, which is similar to the serenity prayer. We focus on what we can control and learn to not become upset about things outside of our control.
…by doing them a favor and expecting something in return, instead of looking to the action itself for your reward. What else did you expect from helping someone out? Isn’t it enough that you’ve done what your nature demands? You want a salary for it too? As if your eyes expected a reward for seeing, or your feet for walking. That’s what they were made for. By doing what they were designed to do, they’re performing their function. Whereas humans were made to help others. And when we do help others—or help them to do something—we’re doing what we were designed for. We perform our function.– Meditations 9.42
Cull Unnecessary Thoughts
Marcus warns us not to worry about what others say or do unless it affects the common good. We should also avoid random or irrelevant thought patterns and learn to “winnow” our thoughts and be present.
Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.– Meditations 3.4
Don’t Ruminate on Criticism or Past Conversations
This is a huge time sink for many people. Rumination or brooding on past conversations can take a significant chunk out of your day, especially if you thought a comment was hurtful.
If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it’s appropriate for you. Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say.
The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature—along the road they shareMeditations 5.3
An important piece of stoic wisdom is to remember that it’s not things that upset us, but our judgement of things which upsets us. A critical comment doesn’t harm us unless we let it. We can see it for what it is and release it. But if we spend the better part of our day ruminating on the comment then it has harmed us by taking our time and sanity.