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How to Quit Procrastinating and Improve Your Concentration at Work

For starters, don't fall for the multitasking myth.

Art Credit: Emma Block

I’m going to be honest with you. When I sat down at my computer to research and write this article, I envisioned typing out my findings and thoughts. I’d edit it a little bit and then move on to other projects.

What happened is a whole other story.

First, I opened my computer and logged into my email. I intended to open the email that contained some research links I sent myself. Instead, I saw a LinkedIn connection request. So I logged into LinkedIn, accepted the request, and updated my profile. This led to reading a few articles online. I somehow ended up checking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Before I knew it, close to an hour had passed. And my article on improving concentration was in the same shape it was an hour before. Oh, the irony!

I’m guessing this scenario might sound familiar to you. In a world that values multitasking and near-constant availability, concentrating on just one project can feel downright impossible. When distractions are lurking everywhere, here are seven ways to boost your concentration.

01. Don't fall for the  multitasking myth.

Multitasking can make you feel as if you are getting several things done at the same time. The reality is likely that you are not. Researchers found that people are far less effective when multitasking as opposed to “single tasking.” Instead of paying attention to several things at once, we are shifting our attention from one thing to another without devoting quality attention to any of them. Researcher Gloria Mark found that office workers areinterrupted only 11 minutes after beginning a task. It took the average worker 25 minutes to resume the same project. Instead of juggling a few tasks at once, turn off your email alerts for an hour or ask your coworker to come back when you've finished what you're working on (more on this below). Focus on one task or project before moving on to the next.

02. Have a plan.

Instead of saying, “I need to write this report by tomorrow morning,” break down your project into smaller actionable objectives. Your first goal might be to gather the research you’ll need, followed by drafting an outline. These objectives give you something concrete to work on and increase your sense of making progress, which will help you to better maintain your focus as you work.

03. Limit distractions.

Take some time to think about the distractions you’re likely to encounter when working. Then develop a plan to prevent those distractions from interrupting your quality work. Let your coworkers know in advance that you have a deadline to meet. Inform them of some times when you’ll be available for meetings or chats. Use the “Do Not Disturb” option on your phone. It will prevent interruptions from incoming messages or notifications. Resist the urge to check your email, social media, and favorite blogs. Set strict time limits such as during your lunch hour or an hour before bed. If you really want to cut those as distractions, there are several options for “blacklisting” sites like SelfControl (for Mac) and StayFocused (for Chrome). These apps allow you to select the sites you want to block (Facebook, Twitter, Blogger) and set a time limit so that you can’t even access those sites in a moment of weakness.

04. Adjust your environment.

Make sure your work environment promotes concentration and focus. Work in a comfortable chair and in a clutter-free space. Ringing phones and office chatter can negatively impact your ability to concentrate. You can remedy this by listening to music through your headphones; it will cut noise-related distractions and increase your ability to concentrate. Chewing gum also has cognitive benefits that include boosting your concentration while you work. And bonus points for chewing peppermint gum! A study showed peppermint does improve concentration and enhances memory.

05. Take charge of the clock.

Since our brains are unable to concentrate for indefinite periods of time, it’s important to take breaks. Many people swear by the Pomodoro Technique. You work on one task for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break, then return for another focused 25 minutes of work. After about four cycles, reward yourself with a longer break and an activity you enjoy. This could be taking a short walk, chatting with a friend, or savoring a cup ofcoffee or a piece of chocolate.

06. Drink green tea.

The right foods can also help you focus. Green tea is one of the best foods to fuel your body when you have a deadline to meet. A British study found that drinking tea, which contains the magical combination of caffeine and L-theanine, increases levels of alertness and reaction times without the headache and crash that caffeine alone usually brings. The NYU Lagone Medical Center links L-theanine to increased alertness, focus, and memory. One of the few places it's found is in green tea. So the next time you sit down to begin a project, brew a cup and sip while you work.

07. Get enough sleep.

Quality sleep also has an impact on your ability to concentrate and focus. Researchers found that lack of quality sleep can contribute to difficulty focusing, impaired memory, and decreased levels of creativity. So if you're running low on sleep, your quality of work is likely to suffer making that upcoming deadline even more difficult to meet. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, seven to nine hours a night. (Here are our expert tips to catching up on sleep debt.) It will be easier to concentrate once you no longer have to fight the mid-afternoon slump.

These tips are a great place to start, but they’re just a few of the suggestions out there. Find out what strategies work for you. Use them. Then impress yourself with your new and improved concentration skills.