Focus, People! Focus!

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Learning to strengthen your attention span will keep you productive and engaged in the task at hand, no matter what you’re doing

BY JULIE A. PALM

guy in blue suit trying to focusA construction crew banging away next door. A talk radio program. Thirst. A long to-do list. Email alerts popping up on my computer. Social media alerts pinging on my smartphone.

Those are just some of the distractions pulling my attention away from writing this article. Chances are you’re distracted while reading it.

These days, it seems harder than ever to focus, and everything suffers — from our work (me writing this article; you writing
up an order) to our interactions with others (me annoying an editor with typos; you potentially alienating a shopper who doesn’t feel you’re engaged in conversation with
her).

How can we improve our concentration? I’m going to start by turning off the radio, and then I’ll give you some tips. And to keep your attention, I promise the list won’t be tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”).

In conversation

  • Practice paraphrasing. This is a tried-and-true active listening skill because it forces you to really hear what another person is saying. If a shopper tells you, “I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my back and wake up sore,” you can respond with something like, “So, you’re experiencing back pain and it’s worse in the morning?”
  • Look while you listen. Without staring, keep your focus on the other person’s face, recommends an article from Boston-based Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing website.

While doing other tasks

  • Reduce distractions. Shut off email and social media notifications. Try white nose or soothing, instrumental music instead of chatty radio or the TV. Dr. Amit Sood, writing for the Minneapolis-based Mayo Clinic’s website, suggests eliminating “noncritical screen time for two days and see how much more you get done.”
  • Tackle one task at a time. Taking a few minutes to make a phone call or check email pulls focus away from analyzing monthly sales figures or scheduling deliveries. And it can take 15 minutes before you refocus on the original task, says Mind Tools, a skills-building firm based in London. Force yourself to commit to one task for at least 20 to 30 minutes before taking a short break to do something else.
  • Make time to worry. “If you find yourself distracted by worries, then note these down so that you don’t need to hold them in your mind,” Mind Tools suggests. “Then schedule time to deal with these issues.”

Anytime practices

  • Flex your focus muscle. “Invest time in mastering attention training, mindfulness or other types of meditation,” Sood says. “These are great ways to practice taming distractions and improving focus.”
  • And, finally, drink water. “Many of us don’t think about drinking water while we’re at work, yet dehydration can make us feel tired, irritable, slow or even sick,” Mind Tools says. “When our brains don’t have enough fluid, they can’t operate at peak performance.”

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