Want to Become More Focused and Productive?

Feeling stressed by multiple demands for your time and attention?  Daniel Levitin, director of McGill University’s Laboratory for Music, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, has some suggestions.  In a recent New York Times essay, he advises structuring our day to give space both for undistracted task-focused work and for relaxed mind-wandering:

If you want to be more productive and creative, and to have more energy, the science dictates that you should partition your day into project periods. Your social networking should be done during a designated time, not as constant interruptions to your day.

Email, too, should be done at designated times. An email that you know is sitting there, unread, may sap attentional resources as your brain keeps thinking about it, distracting you from what you’re doing. What might be in it? Who’s it from? Is it good news or bad news? It’s better to leave your email program off than to hear that constant ping and know that you’re ignoring messages.

Increasing creativity will happen naturally as we tame the multitasking and immerse ourselves in a single task for sustained periods of, say, 30 to 50 minutes. Several studies have shown that a walk in nature or listening to music can trigger the mind-wandering mode. This acts as a neural reset button, and provides much needed perspective on what you’re doing.

As one who is distracted by a constant stream of e-mails and the temptations of favorite web sites, this is advice I should take to heart.  But I have benefitted from an e-mail system that diverts e-mails that come to my public e-mail address (including political fund-raising appeals and list mail) from those that come to a private e-mail address known to family and colleagues.  The public e-mails are sent my mail only at the day’s end. 

I also find it helpful to take work out to coffee shops, including one that doesn’t have Internet access.  “They should charge your extra for that,” observed one friend.

In our upcoming Psychology, 11th Edition, Nathan DeWall and I offer some further advice:

In today’s world, each of us is challenged to maintain a healthy balance between our real-world and online time. Experts offer some practical suggestions for balancing online connecting and real-world responsibilities.

Monitor your time. Keep a log of how you use your time. Then ask yourself, “Does my time use reflect my priorities? Am I spending more or less time online than I in­tended? Is my time online interfering with school or work performance? Have family or friends commented on this?”

Monitor your feelings. Ask yourself, “Am I emotionally distracted by my online inter­ests? When I disconnect and move to another activity, how do I feel?”

“Hide” your more distracting online friends. And in your own postings, practice the golden rule. Before you post, ask yourself, “Is this something I’d care about reading if someone else posted it?”

Try turning off your mobile devices or leaving them elsewhere. Selective attention—the flashlight of your mind—can be in only one place at a time. When we try to do two things at once, we don’t do either one of them very well (Willingham, 2010). If you want to study or work productively, resist the temptation to check for updates. Disable sound alerts and pop-ups, which can hijack your attention just when you’ve managed to get focused. (I am proofing and editing this chapter in a coffee shop, where I es­cape the distractions of the office.)

Try a social networking fast (give it up for an hour, a day, or a week) or a time-con­trolled social media diet (check in only after homework is done, or only during a lunch break). Take notes on what you’re losing and gaining on your new “diet.”

Refocus by taking a nature walk. People learn better after a peaceful walk in the woods, which—unlike a walk on a busy street—refreshes our capacity for focused attention (Berman et al., 2008). Connecting with nature boosts our spirits and sharpens our minds (Zelenski & Nisbet, 2014).