4 Science-Backed Steps to Supercharge Your Ability to Focus at Work

By Katerina Baratta | Updated: 27 Dec, 2022

You are busy.

As a business leader, there are dozens of demands competing for your attention every day.

If you don’t have systems in place that help you focus, overwhelm and brain-fog will lead to productivity paralysis.

Next thing you know, it’s 4 p.m., you’re exhausted after hours of busywork and meetings, finally sitting down to do the focused work you’ve been looking forward to, and what happens?

Your mind bounces around faster than a ping-pong ball.

Either that, or your brain feels so heavy that it’s like you’re pushing each thought through mud.

"When your ability to focus and pay attention breaks down, your ability to achieve your goals breaks down. Your ability to solve your problems breaks down. You feel much worse about yourself because you become less competent," -Johann Hari 

By now we’re all aware that this problem isn’t just personal, it’s systemic.  

In his bestselling book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari argues that our ability to focus has been stolen by modern technology.

Our brains evolved to focus on one, maybe two thoughts at a time.

And we’re not actually capable of switching focus very quickly.

Just as a camera takes a moment to adjust when homing in on a new subject, we need time to adjust between subjects, too.

Meanwhile, text message interruptions, email alerts, and the sirens’ call of social media lead most of us to switch subjects before our minds have had the opportunity to settle.

And this leaves our attention in a constant state of blurriness.

Unfortunately, the never-ending menu of technological distraction comes with an addicting side of dopamine, making these habits very hard to break.

And tech companies are doing everything they can to reinforce these behaviors.

Those of us who want to swim against the current are confronting tidal waves that are stronger than our willpower.

But when focus is switched often, the time costs and resulting errors add up.

The American Psychological Association reports that, “even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.”

As a business leader, you know how essential it is to reclaim your focus. 

And while it may be difficult to do within the context of modern society, it’s not impossible.

Luckily, researchers have identified key factors that improve focus.

And you can use these science-backed insights to help you focus better.

There are 4 major science-backed strategies to supercharge your ability to focus at work.  

When used collectively, these steps can have a huge impact on your productivity.

The first step is to identify all the factors that are blurring your ability focus, and do what you can to reduce or eliminate them.

Next, make lifestyle adjustments to support your brain health.

Then, train your brain to focus better through practice.

And finally, structure your workflow to optimize focus.

Identify your focus blocks

A lack of focus can come from both internal and external factors.

We’ve already talked a bit about the negative impact that technology and multitasking have on focus.

Systems and expectations within your business can inadvertently exacerbate the temptation to multitask and lead to dramatic productivity losses.

Workplace chatrooms, open inboxes, and notification alerts are three of the main culprits that block the ability to focus deeply.

Clearly defined goals, schedules, and a shift in communication expectations can help to rectify these problems.

When you know what you have to do, and have an allotted time to do it, you automatically become more focused.

And when you make it a policy to turn off your work chat and only check your email a couple times a day, people stop expecting you to respond immediately.

Hiring an assistant to manage your inbox and schedule meetings can also be helpful.

If this is a big change for you, make an announcement or set up an autoresponder to let people know.

And if you’re worried about emergencies, make it clear that you can be reached by phone or in person (if you work in an office) when circumstances make immediate communication necessary.  

And if your mind feels foggier than San Francisco, it’s a sign that your self-care routines also need to be adjusted.

Chronic stress, exhaustion, alcohol, inadequate exercise, food sensitivities and poor gut health are all factors that directly impact brain health and your ability to focus.

Certain pharmaceuticals like benzodiazepines, sedatives, anticholinergics, and mood-stabilizers (just to name a few,) can also slow down your brain function.

If you’re worried that your medications might be contributing to your lack of focus, talk to your doctor about alternative options.   

Support brain health

Athletes aren’t the only ones who can use diet, exercise, and practice to improve performance.

Your brain is part of your body, and your ability to focus is largely dependent on how you treat both your mind and body, in and outside of work.

The following strategies will set you up for success by helping you to reduce brain-fog, increase your stress tolerance, and deepen your focus so your productivity is amplified tenfold.  

Improve your sleep

You know sleep is important, so why are you still tired?

This article can help you improve both the duration and quality of your sleep.

Check your diet 

Most high-level executives that we’ve surveyed report choosing healthy options when they eat, especially when it’s convenient.

But many people have food sensitivities that they’re not aware of, which can contribute to brain fog and cloud your ability to focus.

Some of the main culprits include dairy, gluten, soy, nuts, eggs, corn, and alcohol, but other sensitivities are possible too.

The best way to figure out if you have a hidden food sensitivity is to do a scientific experiment on yourself.

Completely remove all suspected foods from your diet for about 6 weeks and then systematically reintroduce each one individually to observe any changes.

It’s best to do this kind of experiment under the supervision of a trained health professional.

But if this sounds unappealing to you, there are also quite a few kits on the market that you can use to quickly and easily test yourself for food sensitivities.  

Poor gut health is another a major contributor to brain fog.

A 2020 review published in the journal Nutrients observed correlations between microbiota diversity and enhanced cognitive flexibility and executive function, including “attentional vigilance” (aka focus).

A more diverse gut microbiome is healthier and directly impacts brain health through the gut-brain axis.

You can improve your gut health by eating a well-balanced diet that includes prebiotic, fiber-rich vegetables, whole grains, fermented foods, and avoiding refined and processed foods.

Probiotic supplements are also helpful for many people.

Improve your stress tolerance

Stress is not inherently good or bad.

Research is showing that short bouts of moderate stress have powerful benefits in improving alertness, performance, and memory.

In moderation, stress can help you focus better.

Too much stress, on the other hand, can lead to an impaired ability to focus as well as a host of other issues.

One way to maximize the benefits of stress is to improve your stress tolerance.

While different people have different baseline levels of stress tolerance, stress tolerance can be improved.

And mindset can have a big impact.

In a 2020 study published in the Frontiers of Psychology, researchers looked at the impact of mindset on Navy SEALs in training.

They found that the mindset, “stress-is-enhancing,” predicted improved performance, while a “failure-is-enhancing,” mindset showed evidence of being detrimental.

Exercise also improves stress tolerance and attention.

In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Harvard associate clinical professor of psychiatry, Dr. John J. Ratey, provides compelling evidence that aerobic exercise physically remodels the brain to improve “alertness, attention, and motivation,” among other benefits.

Even a 2-minute break to get your heart rate up has been shown to boost brain power.

Train your focus

Over the last decade, you’ve probably noticed that it’s become harder to read a book.

And just the sight of your phone on your desk makes you pause as you decide whether to stop what you’re doing and pick it up.

This is because every time you choose to multitask, you’re strengthening the neural connections in your brain that make it harder to stay focused.

Ever scroll on your phone while watching Netflix?

Yeah, that’s not such a great idea.

Luckily, neurology is plastic, so you can train your brain in the opposite direction, too.

The more you practice focusing on one task at a time, the easier it becomes to stay focused for longer.

This is one of the big reasons meditation has become so popular among business leaders.

In addition to increasing stress tolerance, many meditation practices strengthen your ability to focus by guiding you to only concentrate on one thing, like the feeling of your breath moving through your nose, or the rise and fall of your belly.

As you sustain your focus, thoughts and distractions will come in.

But with practice, you have a much easier time letting them go and keeping your focus.

The more you practice focus through meditation, the easier focus becomes at work, too.

Plus, your brain is literally changed through meditation so you are better able to regulate your emotions and stay present with the task at hand, and this enhances your effectiveness as a leader.

And you’ll also start to notice that when you get the itch to pick up your phone, you have a much easier time keeping your attention on your task.

But meditation isn’t the only practice that can improve focus.

Video games can help, too.

In 2018, researchers at the University of Arkansas demonstrated that one hour of video gaming can increase the brain’s ability to focus.

You could also practice reading a book for an allotted period, without distraction.

The object of your focus really isn’t important.

What’s important is that you practice.

Because whatever it is you choose to focus on, the more you practice, the stronger your focus muscles will become.  

Take brain breaks

Focus has its limitations.

No matter how diligent you are, your brain isn’t designed to focus intensely all day, every day.

When you try to sustain focus for too long, eventually, your brain gets tired.

You know this.

A big part of the reason you’re reading this article is to figure out how to circumvent this truth.

But just because you want to be able to power through doesn’t mean you should.

In fact, you’ll do much better work if you don’t.

Unfocused time is just as important for productivity.

As you give yourself a moment to rest, your brain gets busy forming new neural connections that lead to increased self-awareness, creative problem solving, and empathy.

And when you take breaks, you’re able to focus more intensely once you turn your attention back to your work.

But use your unfocused time wisely.

Don’t just pick up your phone or browse the internet when you take a break.

That won’t give your brain the break it needs.

Instead, really let your mind go by taking a nap, going for a walk outside, or doodling for a bit.

You could also try positive constructive daydreaming, a term Jerome L. Singer coined in the 1950’s to describe daydreaming that’s characterized by playful, wishful, and constructive imagery.

Positive constructive daydreaming has been shown to help you make better plans for the future, and it can help you access creative solutions to problems that you’re grappling with. 

Now you know how to improve focus. 

The first step is to get to the root of the problem and eliminate environmental distractions when you can.

Then, take an honest look at your diet and lifestyle and see if there are any changes you can make to support your brain health.

Dedicating time to train your brain to focus better will also help you stay on task when you’re at work.

And finally, be realistic about your limitations.

Yes, you can improve your ability to focus.

But no matter how hard you try, you can’t turn yourself into a machine.

Take breaks when you need them and give your mind the opportunity to wander, too.

You might be worried about how much you can get done when you’re not staring at your computer, but unfocused time is just as important to overall productivity.

And the same is true for your employees.

Next up: Read this article on how (and why) to push your employees to take vacations, and learn more about the benefits of down-time on productivity.