We could all benefit from a little more focus at work and to stay focused at work, as the increasing stress of daily life has taken its toll on our sleep habits, our health, and even our ability to concentrate. You may notice that when your mind wanders during a meeting, you might miss valuable information, or you may find yourself scrolling social media for twenty minutes when you should probably be drafting a report.
Many of us reach for an extra cup of coffee or an energy drink to try to power through a tough afternoon at work, but we may end up feeling jittery, and we may crash a couple of hours later. Even worse, we may struggle to relax at night, setting us up for a vicious cycle of energy spikes and fatigue throughout the week. So how can we maintain high levels of focus at work without self-sabotaging with the usual quick fixes? [This article, “7 Great Ways To Stay Focused at Work” was originally published in NewsHealthWatch]
First, it’s important to understand the difference between alertness and focus. Alertness is your ability to scan all incoming stimuli, while focus is your ability to narrow this attention to only one specific item. When you listen to a lecture or read a book, you are most likely experiencing focused attention, while selective attention helps you block out distractions from your environment. When you focus, you are actively immersing yourself in a task for a period of time without distraction. College athletes tested for focus performed better at sports the following semester if they scored well on these tests. Focus or lack thereof can make or break you in any given endeavor, whether it’s school, work, or a game of basketball.
How technology impedes focus and lowers IQ
Our brains are not yet evolved to cope with the sheer volume of distractions caused by technologies such as smart phones and computers. Each time you focus your attention, you are expending a certain amount of glucose and other metabolic products, so working with a high level of distraction will drain your ability to focus very quickly. This is how expending an unnecessary amount of energy tending to emails or social media notifications will quickly leave you drained. Furthermore, the distractions of technology can occupy the hours that you could be spending on valuable work tasks. A 2005 study showed that workers who spent 11 minutes on a task before being distracted delayed an average of 25 minutes before returning to this task.
Most startling is the effect of technology on intelligence. A study from The University of London reported that constantly connected adults lost IQ points to an extent similar to that of losing a full night’s rest or smoking marijuana. A recent poll revealed that some millennials show worse memory capacity than seniors, which is partly attributable to this generation’s heavy use of technology.
Routine dependence on technology has also been associated with higher stress, poor sleep, reduced focus, lethargy, and even lowered creativity. When your focus is compromised by distracting technology, you may lose some of your capacity to learn, recall, and understand. You may even forget valuable insights before you have a chance to record them. Try turning phone notifications off during important tasks, and delay checking email for blocks of time when you are focused on a project.
Understand the value of sleep – like Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos, former CEO of Amazon, famously claims that he always makes sure to sleep eight hours per night, no matter how demanding his schedule may be. The reasoning is that any time gained from skimping on sleep may lead to a few more hours of productivity, but the decisions made during this time would be low quality. This may be because insufficient sleep over time can reduce short- and long-term memory, as well as the ability to focus.
Sleep deprivation can also cause irritability and difficulty controlling emotions, which may compromise your ability to focus and make sound decisions. While just over 35% of Americans report getting less than seven hours of sleep per night, adults aged 18-64 generally require 7-9 hours. For better sleep, avoid screens at least an hour before bedtime, keep the bedroom cool at night, and invest in a comfortable mattress.
Choose your tasks wisely (more Jeff Bezos)
Although many workers feel pressure to multitask, the effectiveness of this tactic is a myth. The human brain is not designed to handle more than one task at a time, so when you are multitasking, you are rapidly switching between tasks without being able to dedicate your full attention to any particular one.
According to the American Psychological Association, multitasking can reduce productivity by up to 40%, and the loss of performance you may experience when switching tasks is referred to as ‘switching cost.’ When you switch tasks, your brain requires time and energy to reorient to the new task, draining mental energy and focus. Research on multitasking has associated this work habit with increased errors, shallower thinking, and overall decreased cognitive performance.
Another factor that Jeff Bezos identifies as a contributor to his success is his preference for making only a few key decisions each day, prioritizing quality over quantity. It may be true that, when it comes to productivity, less is more. When you are properly focused, you can make the best progress by completing a few tasks at the highest level of quality rather than struggling to juggle multiple projects without dedicating your full attention to any one of them. Furthermore, each time you complete a task, you will trigger your reward system with the release of dopamine, boosting your focus and training your brain to continue this healthy pattern.
If you are looking for a natural way to improve your focus, you might consider a basic meditation practice. An exercise as simple as placing your attention on your breath, then redirecting your thoughts back to the breath each time your mind wanders, can help train your brain to focus better. This type of mindfulness training that emphasizes attention focus can improve your abilities over time, and may even lead to permanent changes in the structure of your brain.
MRI studies of meditators showed higher stability in the ventral posteromedial cortex, the brain region associated with wandering thoughts. Meditation has been shown to have a wide range of benefits for the mind and body, including addiction recovery, reduced anxiety, reduced depression, and enhanced cognitive function. Meditation can even boost creativity and neuroplasticity, helping you think of your next great idea or rewiring your brain to support a healthy habit.
Vitamin C for the body and brain
We often pop vitamin C during cold season, using it for its positive effects on immunity, but this helpful nutrient also supports brain health. One study found that adults with healthy levels of vitamin C performed better on tests of attention, memory, reaction time, and focus. In fact, vitamin C deficiency is associated with cognitive impairment and depression.
This helpful nutrient plays a role in neuron differentiation and maturation, while it supports the formation of the myelin sheath, which speeds impulse transmission. Vitamin C also aids in the synthesis of many neurotransmitters and contributes to blood vessel integrity, both of which are essential for cognitive function. Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries, and potatoes.
Caffeine’s great but you don’t want too much
If you are looking to sharpen your focus early in the day and help to stay focused at work, you might enjoy a caffeinated beverage like coffee or tea. Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors in the brain, reducing drowsiness. It also raises adrenaline levels, increasing heart rate, blood flow to muscles, and energy. As a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant, caffeine boosts dopamine production in the brain, improving focus.
Studies have shown that caffeine can improve mood, reaction time, alertness, and visual attention while combating mental fatigue, so moderate consumption of this stimulant can help you to be more productive and stay focused at work. Some long-term benefits of moderate caffeine use include increased protection against Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, strokes and certain cancers.
When your energy begins to flag at midafternoon, you may be tempted to reach for another cup of coffee, but you should be aware that too much caffeine can sabotage your focus. Experts estimate a safe level of caffeine consumption to be about 300 mg per day, and the average cup of coffee contains about 95 mg.
High doses of caffeine may lead to nervousness, making it difficult to focus your attention on work. Furthermore, using caffeine to try to maintain your focus after a night of poor sleep will only cut your productivity, as the negative cognitive effects of sleep deprivation will only compound with the restlessness caused by excessive caffeine intake. Sensitivity to caffeine varies based on factors such as body weight, how often coffee is consumed, and anxiety level. The average person requires only about 75 mg of caffeine to boost feelings of alertness.
Guarana to stay focused at work
Guarana, also known as Paullinia cupana, is a plant native to the Amazon with fruit that resembles the human eye in appearance. It contains stimulants such as caffeine, theophylline and theobromine, and 70% of the guarana produced for today’s market is consumed in soft and energy drinks. The fruit of this plant also contains helpful antioxidants, which are known to combat free radicals in the body. Free radicals cause cell damage, leading to aging and chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Research on guarana has shown it to positively affect learning and memory, and study participants have also demonstrated less mental fatigue during tests after taking low doses. It is believed that compounds in the plant besides caffeine are responsible for these effects, as low doses contain little caffeine. Used by Amazonian tribes to relieve pain, guarana has had its roots in native medicine for hundreds of years.
Natives also noted the ability of this plant to provide energy for long hunts, to reduce fevers, and even to act as an aphrodisiac. Guarana may also help people to lose weight, boosting metabolism by as much as 3 – 11% over 12 hours while suppressing genes that promote fat cell production. However, high doses of guarana may cause side effects such as insomnia, anxiety, upset stomach, and shakiness.
Smart supplementation can also help you stay focused at work
If you find that your focus is deteriorating in the middle of the afternoon, you may benefit from a natural supplement containing ingredients such as caffeine and guarana. While many popular energy drinks contain these ingredients, such products are often sweetened with high fructose corn syrup or equally harmful artificial sweeteners such as sucralose. Furthermore, energy drinks often contain high doses of caffeine that may lead to insomnia or nervousness. Voke, a United States company founded in 2014, produces a chewable superfood tablet designed to be taken late in the day to boost alertness, focus and productivity.
This is a Nutritionally clean option to stay focused at work. With only about 75 mg of clean caffeine derived from green tea leaf, this flavored supplement also delivers the benefits of whole seed guarana, vitamin C-rich organic acerola cherry, and red beetroot. In addition, the nitrates in beetroot have been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, possibly improving cognitive function. Free of artificial flavors and sweeteners, Voke superfood tablets may be a more sensible choice when facing an afternoon energy dip and attempting to stay focused at work.
What is flow?
Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first coined the term ‘flow’ in 1975. It describes the state of being fully immersed in an activity with complete focus to the point of losing awareness of the self and time. This state has existed in human societies for millennia under different names, and the sense of effortlessness achieved during flow is similar to the state achieved during meditation practice.
Artists, surgeons, and athletes have all experienced this state of optimal focus, but it is achievable in any other profession. You are more likely to experience flow during a task if you have clear goals at each step, you can immediately see the results of your actions, and your task is balanced with the right amount of challenge. Flow is achieved through a focus on the process rather than results. It is also sparked by the intrinsic motivation that guides us to complete a task simply because it is satisfying rather than for any external reward. Also described as being ‘in the zone,’ the flow state is an important key to optimal performance in any arena specifically to help stay focused at work.
Stay focused at work ‘in the zone’
Perhaps the most essential ingredient contributing to a state of flow is the feeling that you can succeed at your task. You may also derive greater enjoyment from your work as you discover the intrinsic rewards of certain tasks and participate in the process with improved focus. Certain tactics such as getting adequate rest, focusing on only one task at a time, turning off phone and email notifications, and consuming moderate amounts of caffeine can help you get into the zone and stay there. Natural energy supplements such as Voke with clean caffeine and guarana can also keep you alert and stay focused at work when you need it most.
Good health is critical to the maintenance of energy levels and cognitive function, so these products work best when you are also taking care of the basics like nutrition, exercise, and rest. When you can meet challenges on the way to your ultimate goals, you will not only enjoy your work more, but you will feel a greater sense of life satisfaction.
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Important Note: The information contained in this article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or medical advice, nor is it intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease or health condition. Before embarking on any diet or program of nutritional supplementation, it is advisable to consult your healthcare professional in order to determine its safety and probable efficacy in terms of your individual state of health.