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Tools and Strategies for Effortlessly Improving Your Focus

Ever hear of Brain.fm, which uses algorithm-generated music to set a deeply focused mood? We hadn’t, either.

We all want to be productive, right? But productivity is difficult to maintain without focus. Any day of the week, there is no shortage of distractions. They come in the form of texts, Facebook notifications and emails. Even meetings — though they may aim to keep us productive — often take us out of “the zone” and off-task.

You may have found that the times that you get the most accomplished are when you don’t even notice time passing. This is the optimal state of focus, known as “flow,” a term coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s like being on autopilot. In this state, we find ourselves so engrossed in a task that all outside distractions disappear. We are aware only of the task at hand.

To reach these levels, we need to keep our mental energy up. Mental energy is the fuel for our focus, and we have a finite amount of it. We need to avoid things that deplete that energy, like constant decision-making, changing tasks and yes, Facebook clickbait.

Here are some of the tools/strategies I use to keep myself on autopilot:

1. Apps, to stay organized

Planning your day reduces the number of decisions you have to make throughout the day. This is handy, since all those micro-decisions have been shown to wear down your mental energy, leading to worse decisions. That’s why CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs wear the same thing every day — just one less decision to make!

Apps can make planning easier. There are a lot of tools out there, but here are some that really help me:

Asana (for teamwork). As the manager of a team, I am often jumping back and forth among my team’s tasks. Asana’s interface divides these views wonderfully. You can easily focus on your tasks, and switch over to see what your team is working on.

Pro Tip: Have a weekly meeting with your team (I like to call them my “weekly whip”), where each member walks everyone through his or her Asana list/calendar. This shows what everybody’s working on, allowing you to spot any missing tasks and strengthen the habit of using this tool.

Trello (for personal). I like Trello for personal tasks; the interface is incredibly simple. It’s like having a bunch of point-form “to-do” lists that you can easily rearrange as needed. My personal tasks don’t usually require much more than a simple one-liner (e.g., “Buy dog food”). And the interface doesn’t change much from desktop to mobile, so it’s great for when you’re on the go.

Pro Tip: I like to have three cards set up and move items between them as necessary:

  • “Upcoming” — Where I throw everything I can think of that needs to be done eventually
  • “Today” — Where I put tasks that I gotta do today
  • “Done” — Where I put items I’ve completed

These apps will help keep you organized and remove decision fatigue, since you’ll know exactly what you need to do without having to think about it. Once you write it down, you can free up your mental energy to focus on work.

2. The Pomodora Technique, to minimize task-switching

Switching back and forth among different tasks is another mental energy suck. Checking Facebook is task-switching, checking your phone is task-switching; and, yes, checking your email is task-switching, too.

Every time you change gears, it takes a while for your brain to get into the productive “flow” state. Interrupting flow can be bad for productivity.

The Pomodoro technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. I’m a fan. It was named after the tomato-shaped timer he used while in college. The idea is, choose a task. Then:

  1. Set a timer (usually 25 minutes)
  2. Work on the task until the timer rings. (If you get distracted by something, make a note and come back to it later.)
  3. Take a short break (3 to 5 minutes)
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3. After 4, “Pomodoros” take a longer break (15 to 30 minutes)

You can adjust this to suit your needs, but the important thing is that you pick a task and stay on it for whatever the time interval may be. While you are working, block out all unnecessary distractions. Avoid meetings, and don’t check your phone until the timer rings.

I try to answer emails between Pomodoros. Some emails are more demanding; you can tackle these in their own Pomodoro. If you’re looking for technical help, try the Strick Workflow extension for Chrome: it blocks certain sites during your Pomodoro, to keep you from cheating.

Pro Tip: If you’re managing a team, have everyone start the Pomodoro at the same time, and do breaks at the same time. Do this for a few weeks until the habit is formed. I did this with my team, and productivity jumped!

3. Music, to get into the right state of mind

Music is a great way to get in the zone. Noises and conversations around the office can be distracting, so plug in some headphones and turn up your productivity!

Research shows that listening to music you enjoy actually helps improve your connection to an area of the brain called the default mode network, which is tied to our ability to switch between self-related thoughts and our awareness of what’s going on around us.

I personally like my music to be a sort of soundtrack to my life. When I need a jolt of energizing music I like to search YouTube for “epic soundtracks.” Instrumental movie or video game soundtracks really keep me stimulated. But you can also find good results from “study music.”

There are also some services that provide great music for focus sessions, like Brain.fm, which uses algorithm-generated music that sets a deeply focused mood with no distractions. Or FocusAtWill, which has some great classical music, and they say classical makes you smarter.

Pro Tip: On YouTube, look for results with long durations, and no ads, since those can be jarring. You can go for playlists of shorter videos, but there you’ll have a greater chance of ads interrupting your flow. And beware YouTube clickbait and endless cat videos! Save those for your break.

4. Leaving it until “the last minute”

Now, here’s a controversial one. While I’m not advocating procrastination, this too can have some benefits for the right kind of person. I identify as an active procrastinator, which is to say that the rush of doing something last minute gets my adrenaline pumping and can really keep me focused.

When there are consequences for not completing a task, like preparing a deck the day before the big presentation, it’s sink or swim; so there’s no room for distractions. While doing things last minute can definitely take its toll on your mental energy, you can also get large tasks done in less time, since your time is limited.

5. Priming the mind

There are a number of things you can do to keep your mental energy up on a daily basis. One of the most important is sleep. Don’t underestimate its importance! Sleeping helps us absorb new information, and otherwise keeps our brains functioning efficiently. Think of it like defragging your harddrive; data is reorganized so it’s easily accessible. Plus, exhaustion makes us more susceptible to our emotions, which can be very distracting.

Another helpful practice is meditation. There are a lot of ways to do this, but most involve being mindful of your breath and calming your thoughts. Learning to do this is a great way to train yourself to tune out distractions and focus. Think of focus as a muscle that grows stronger the more you flex it.

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