Can't focus at work? 5 tips for a more engaged working life.

Prioritise performance over tasks.

Often when we're trying to focus on a task, we get caught up in the details of what we're doing. Now, attention to detail is a good thing, of course. But when we're not particularly interested in what we're doing, we can't force our brains to produce the chemicals that drive concentration. In fact, the more we try to force things, the more desperate for distraction we become!

However, if we shift our focus away from the task itself, and toward getting satisfaction out of doing things well — we can rewire our reward system, and find simple pleasures in the mundane. For example, if you have a stack of plates to clean, there's nothing about this task that sounds interesting. But if you think about just washing one plate, and washing it well. Getting into a flow with the sponge, gliding the plate under the steady stream of water, leaving it sparkling. You can turn the task into something less lifeless, and more playful.

So, if you have a series of tasks to complete in your work day, don't think about it as a series of functions you have to carry out to get the day done. Just think about one thing — the thing you have to do now. Then, make the goal to do this one thing well, not to get it done. It's a subtle shift, but can work wonders.

Know when to take your mind off the task.

According to the Flow Genome Project, there are 4 stages of deep focus: struggle, release, flow, and recovery. The key stage here is struggle. The first phase of any task is loading, and overloading, the brain with the information we need to complete it. It's like rolling a boulder up a hill, it's not easy, and it's rarely comfortable.

According to the FGP founder, Steven Kotler, to move out of struggle, we have to take our mind off the problem. Even if just for a few minutes. This gives our brain time to digest the information we downloaded in the struggle phase. When we come back to the task, we should find it much easier to apply this information and feel a sense of deep focus known as 'flow'.

Avoid high GI foods during your work day.

High GI foods, such as sugary snacks, white bread, and white rice, are rapidly digested and absorbed, causing a quick spike in blood sugar levels. This rapid increase provides a sudden surge of energy, which may initially make you feel more alert and focused.

While high GI foods provide a quick energy boost, the spike in blood sugar is often followed by a rapid drop, leading to a 'crash' in energy levels. This can result in feelings of fatigue, lethargy, and decreased concentration, making it difficult to stay focused and productive at work.

The energy crash associated with high GI foods can also impair concentration and cognitive function. When blood sugar levels plummet, the brain may not receive an adequate supply of glucose, its primary source of energy, leading to difficulties in maintaining focus, memory retention, and decision-making abilities.

Exercise in the morning before work.

Exercise stimulates the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which are involved in regulating mood, attention, and focus. These chemicals help reduce stress, elevate mood, and enhance mental clarity, making it easier to concentrate on tasks.

Regular exercise has also been shown to promote the growth of new neurons and strengthen connections between existing brain cells, particularly in regions associated with learning, memory, and executive function. These structural changes can enhance cognitive abilities, including attention and concentration.

You don't have to train like a professional athlete, 30–60 minutes of exercise in the morning before work will make a huge difference! Find something you like, whether it's cardio, weight training, swimming or squash, and make it part of your lifestyle.

Learn to be mindful.

Mindfulness, despite its name, is actually about cultivating a quiet state of mind. It's simply paying attention to what is going on now, without making judgements, abstractions, or comments about it. Consider the phrase 'mind the gap' often seen in train stations. The word 'mind' here means 'be aware', not think about the gap in verbal terms, or measure how far it is in centimetres.

Mindfulness is no different. Just 'mind' the contents of your awareness! Thoughts will inevitably spring into focus from time to time. Don't worry, they're not mistakes. Just 'mind' them as you would any other thing around you, and allow them to fade away.

Mindfulness can be particularly beneficial for improving concentration at work due to its ability to enhance awareness, focus, and cognitive control. By staying grounded in the present, we can minimise distractions and maintain focus on the task at hand, leading to improved concentration and productivity.

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