However, according to psychiatrist and ADHD expert Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., these suggestions only scratch the surface. What we really need to do to be more productive is to retrain our attention. We need to delve into the deeper reasons we get distracted at work.
In his newest book Driven to Distraction At Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive, Dr. Hallowell identifies the six most common distractions: electronic devices, multitasking, idea hopping, worry, trying to fix everyone’s problems and underachieving. He presents these distractions in the first half of the book and shares practical solutions for each type of distraction.
In the second half of Driven to Distraction At Work Hallowell features a five-step plan for harnessing focus and performing at our best. He developed this plan from his 30-year work with thousands of clients, and he uses it himself.
The plan consists of:
- Energy: Monitoring your brain’s energy supply and making sure your energy tank is full, because “low energy means low focus.” Most people expect to stay consistently focused throughout the day without taking any steps to replenish or maintain their energy, which is impossible. Hallowell suggests practicing the “sensational six” to support us in staying focused: getting enough sleep; eating nutrient-rich foods; exercising; meditating; stimulating your brain; and creating positive connections.
- Emotion: Understanding yourself and your emotional hot buttons, because negative emotions make focus impossible. This may include knowing in advance what triggers your negative emotions, so you can learn to manage them; and knowing what turns you on work-wise.
- Engagement: Being motivated and interested in the work you’re doing. We boost our chances of being engaged when we work in our sweet spot. This is the “overlap of what you love to do and are really good at doing, and what advances the mission or what someone will pay you to do.”
- Structure: Establishing a structure for your day, from the hours you keep to the boundaries you set. This might include thinking of a specific goal or problem and then considering the structures that can help. For instance, you get a different job (a macro solution) or reschedule meetings to a time of day when you focus better (micro solution). Hallowell suggests reviewing our lives, both the physical spaces and schedules, “wielding a scalpel ruthlessly, ready to cut all you can.”
- Control: Not giving away our time or attention needlessly. As Hallowell writes, “No one would dump $150 into the garbage every day, but most of us flush at least a hundred fifty minutes every day without even noticing we’re doing it.”
Below are additional details on practicing the sensational six and harnessing your focus. Fully.
According to Hallowell, a lack of sleep leads to everything from trouble concentrating to memory lapses. In fact, sleep deprivation can create ADHD-like symptoms. What equals enough sleep is different for everyone.
One way to figure this out is to see how long you sleep naturally without being awakened (by an alarm clock, for instance) — and without drinking alcohol, which disrupts sleep, or being overtired, when your body is trying to catch up on sleep.
To get enough sleep, it’s important to practice good sleep hygiene. This includes: setting a regular bedtime and wake time; reserving your bed for sleep and sex; not drinking alcohol for four hours before sleep; and instead of tossing and turning, going into another room to read. Hallowell likes using an app called Dreampad, which plays soothing music as you fall asleep.
Feeding our brains is vital for greater focus. For instance, this includes eating breakfast with protein and eating fresh fruits and vegetables so our brains have the nutrients they need.
It also includes watching your caffeine intake. As Hallowell writes, if you’re experiencing bothersome side effects, such as elevated blood pressure or heart rate, irritability and anxiety, dizziness, headaches or upset stomach, you’re drinking too much caffeine.
Physical exercise enhances brain function. According to Hallowell, in the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey, M.D., “demonstrates how the brain works exactly like the body’s muscles do; they grow stronger with use and atrophy with inactivity.”
The key is to participate in physical activities that are fun for you. Exercise isn’t just going to the gym — it’s walking outside, practicing gentle yoga, riding your bike, hula hooping and dancing.
Hallowell notes that meditation “can lower stress levels and blood pressure, increase energy and cognitive function, and make you calmer and happier.” He suggests readers start meditating for two to three times a day for several minutes. He describes meditation in this way:
The core of most meditative practices couldn’t be simpler. You sit in a comfortable chair in a room free from distraction. You put both feet on the floor and both hands on the arms of the chair or place them comfortably on your lap. You then close your eyes and focus on your breathing. In, out. You watch your thoughts float by like leaves on a river. You try not to evaluate your thoughts, but rather let them pass by indifferently, without a comment or a care. You detach as much as you can from conscious engagement with anything other than your focus on breathing and the disinterested watching of whatever passes through your mind.
Stretching your brain helps you maintain focus. We can stretch our brains by learning new things, or doing routine things differently. For instance, Hallowell’s friend, who’s in her 50s and didn’t know much about music, started taking piano lessons. “She told me that, in learning to read music, she felt as if her brain was ‘on fire’ from the stimulation.”
You can take free “massive open online courses” (MOOCs) taught by prominent professors and researchers at www.MOOCs.com. You can write with your non-dominant hand, work through crossword puzzles or try brain games.
Hallowell listens to music while writing, which he finds to be a powerful tool. He recommends checking out www.focusatwill.com, a site with classical music to help you concentrate.
Hallowell suggests creating connections of all kinds — to people and inanimate objects, such as poetry, goals, nature and traditions. This not only helps promote clarity and focus, he writes, but it also promotes health, happiness and productivity. He calls connection “the other vitamin C” or “vitamin connect.”
He stresses the importance of sharing a meal with someone every day, whether that’s breakfast, dinner or a midnight snack. If you live alone, he writes, eat lunch with someone. “Make a habit of having human moments, moments of in-person connection, rather than just electronic moments, throughout your day.”
Also, never worry alone, because “your worry quickly turns toxic,” Hallowell writes. Instead, talk to someone over the phone or at the office. Connecting with someone else helps you feel less vulnerable and more powerful, even without changing the situation at all, he writes.
At least once a day, in addition to your commute, connect with nature. For instance, marvel at the sky. Avoid getting caught up in office politics, and nurture your connections with loved ones.
Even when you practice the “sensational six,” it’s not realistic to expect your energy to be up throughout the whole day. It’ll wax and wane. That’s why it’s important to find our own rhythm.
For instance, when do you feel most energized and least energized? Does music help you work better? Does working with someone else in the room help? Do you focus better in the morning or at night? In cold or warm rooms? In short bursts or long stretches of time?
Hallowell also suggests monitoring your energy throughout the week, month and year. Then try to do what works best for you. Because that’s the ultimate key to productivity: learning good approaches, trying them out, and then keeping the ones that help you cultivate the life you want.