“I wish I could stay focused, but I can’t.”
“It doesn’t matter what I do, I can’t concentrate for more than X minutes at a time.”
“I’m so frustrated by my distractibility. Why can’t I focus throughout the workday like everyone else?”
These are some of the most common thoughts I hear from my clients when it comes to concentration.
They believe there’s something wrong with them.
They think they’re the only ones who struggle with focusing for long stretches of time.
And they compare themselves to the nebulous “everyone else” who can seemingly work for 8-10 hours straight with complete and total concentration.
Today we’re calling those beliefs into question.
We’re considering the truth behind the brain’s ability to focus for extended periods of time.
And I’m sharing a seemingly counterintuitive solution to maintaining focus and getting your best work done as efficiently as possible.
So if you’re ready to work with your brain and finally start checking those tasks off your list, be sure to check out episode 92 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast now.
You can listen to the episode below, or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:
Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.
Listen To The Podcast Here!
In This Episode, You Will Discover…
- Why we think we must maintain complete focus for 8 hours straight
- The reality behind the brain’s ability to concentrate
- How to work with your brain to stay focused and complete your work without burning out
Links From The Podcast
- Sign up for your free consultation with me here
- Get the top 10 tips to work with your ADHD brain (free ebook!)
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Episode #92: (Transcript)
Hey everybody. Welcome to episode 92 of the podcast. What’s happening?
Today I want to talk with you about staying focused. More specifically, I want to share a very powerful yet perhaps unexpected way of increasing your focus and your concentration throughout the week. And this comes in the form of taking breaks.
Now, I realized this may sound counter-intuitive, but stick with me. If you are a person who frequently finds themselves frustrated because you’re thinking things like, “I can’t stay focused. My mind is all over the place. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get enough done.” Then what we are talking about today may be just the thing for you to try.
Here is the truth. Our brains can not focus on thought-intensive tasks for 8 to 10 hours a day straight. Full stop. I know some of you may want to argue with me. I know some of you probably think everyone else can stay focused for that long of a time without a break. But I’m going to offer that that is a thought error. That’s not true.
Unrealistic Expectations for Focus
Just because your workday is scheduled from 9 to 5, I guarantee you that your colleagues with the same schedule are not solely focused on their screens for that entire eight to 10-hour stretch. Really. It’s true.
Nevertheless, I know that many of you hold some version of the belief that everyone else is glued to their screens with zero distractions and you are the only one who can’t seem to maintain that consistent focus. And I know that you’re probably thinking some version of that thought because I hear it from my clients all the time. And I used to think the same thing myself.
I can remember when I began my tenure track position as a professor. I worked really hard to establish a “normal” work schedule. And I wanted to work from 8-5 with complete focus work during that entire time.
So I would sit down in front of my computer, and I would attempt to research and write for my latest article or book or lecture prep. And I’d get frustrated with myself every time I got distracted.
Of course, when I look back now I can see that my brain was fried, and I had no juice left in the battery. But rather than considering the possibility that I may need a break to recharge, I compared myself to the fictional “everybody else” who I assumed was working 8 hours straight with complete and total focus.
Now, I’ve come to learn that this was a completely unreasonable demand on a brain. And I’m not talking about an ADHD specifically, I am talking about an unreasonable expectation for any human brain. After talking with colleagues, and reading more books on focus, productivity, time management than you can possibly imagine. And then digging further into ADHD and working with my clients and finding they had very similar beliefs. They also think “everyone else” is working so much harder than they are. This brought on my ah-hah moment. I finally realized this was one of those old perfectionist beliefs that had lodged itself in my brain. It simply wasn’t true.
Staying Focused Working From Home
Now interestingly, over the last year or year-and-a-half, I have noticed my clients and my friends sharing this similar perfectionist increasingly more often. And I think that this coincides with many people shifting to a work-from-home schedule with the start of COVID last year.
I think that this change in routine and lack of imposed work hours set by going into the office everyday has many people’s brains geared toward “work all the time” mode. When we had the structure of going into an office or workplace, there was at least a little more separation between work and home. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but there was a little more space between work hours and home hours. But given the huge shift that so many of us have experienced over the past 14 or 15 months, I think it has played with our thoughts and expectations on the amount of focused work we must get in each day.
Because here’s the deal. When we work from home, we don’t have to worry about commute time. We have zero separation between work and home. And for many of my clients, I hear that it is essentially living at work not working from home. And because we do not have that reinforced separation of work and home, our brain offers the thought, “we should be glued in front of our screens all day long in order to get all of our work done.”
What’s more, most people I’ve talked with seem to have tacked on their commute time to their work hours as well, since normally they’d be leaving the house at that time. But since they don’t have to commute, they instead tack on another hour + to their time in front of the screen.
And while there are certainly distractions when we work from home, and for many months, parents were simultaneously homeschooling at least part of the time, our perfectionist brains once again piped up and offered thoughts like, “then you better work even later. You need to make sure you get in those solid 8 hours of focused work.”
Staying Focused At the Office
Now some of you might even be questioning where I’m going with this. You’re thinking to yourself, “of course, Paula. I’m paid for 8 hours of work, I need to do a solid 8 hours of work.” But I invite you to take a jump back in time with me to the land of 2019. Remember that time when everybody went into work without a second thought? Crazy Town. But let’s walk through a day, shall we?
It’s just another day at your typical 9 to 5 office job. You get in the car or you hop on the subway, and you make your way to work. While you’re on your way to work, your mind has space to wander. Maybe you think about the day ahead. Maybe you listen to a podcast on the way in. Or maybe you think about weekend plans. It doesn’t really matter what you’re thinking about; the important thing is that your mind has space to wander.
Then you get into the office, and you say hi to the people you pass on the way to your desk. You open up your computer and perhaps you check the news headlines or scan your email. You get up and grab a cup of coffee from the break room and you ask one of your colleagues who is doing the same thing what their plans are for the weekend.
Then you head back into your office to work. Maybe you work for an hour or so, and then someone pops their head in your office to say hello and ask you a few questions about a project. So you stop and chat for 15 minutes or so before you return to work again. And then you remember you have an 11:00 meeting in the conference room, so you gather up your things. You walk to the break room to get another cup of coffee or fill your water bottle and then you head to the conference room for the meeting.
As you wait for the meeting to start, you chat with your colleagues. After the meeting finishes you head back to your office for another hour or so. But then it’s time for lunch, so you and your colleague grab something quick from the sandwich shop across the street. You two have a daily ritual of a quick lunch followed by a walk during your lunch hour.
After your lunch break, you come back feeling refreshed and you dig into that presentation you have next week for another hour or two. Maybe you realize you have a question for your boss so you pop over to her office to ask her a few questions. And then you head back to wrap up the last few details, fire off a few emails, and then get in the car or hop on the train and head back home. Your day is done.
Be honest. This doesn’t sound too far off, does it? Bursts of focus time followed by brief interruptions or breaks for conversation. Maybe you stretch your legs or have a meeting or collaborate with a co-worker. And then return for a few more hours of work.
In other words, there are so many natural built-in breaks throughout the workday when you’re in an environment with other people. And while unnecessary distractions and meetings that could be emails can certainly be problematic in themselves, I’d wager to bet that very few people go to the office and work completely uninterrupted with total focus for 8 hours. In fact, if you know somebody who does, let me know. I’d love to talk with them and see how they do it.
Nothing Has Gone Wrong
Now the point I really want to stress here is that nothing has gone wrong if you can’t focus in front of a screen for 8 hours straight. Your brain is not meant to do that. As I’ve mentioned before, you are not a robot. You are not a computer. You are a human. And as studies continue to show, the people who take short breaks throughout the day to let their brains recharge are those who are the most productive. Full stop.
I think I may have mentioned in a very early episode of this podcast a study that discussed the best ratio of working to break time was 52 minutes of focused work followed by 17 minutes of rest. 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest. And when this was practiced consistently, employees were not only more productive with what they got done during their work time, but they also didn’t find themselves shifting their attention to quickly check email or look at Facebook or scroll Tik Tok nearly as often.
Because the reality is this, when you attempt to do intensely focused work for hours on end, your brain needs a break. And whether you want to take it or not, it’s going to build it in. It’s going to happen eventually. Just as you can’t force your phone battery to last longer after it dies, you can’t push your brain to keep focusing without rest.
So you have the opportunity to either intentionally build in those breaks and work with your brain in a way that serves you. Or you can try to push through for as long as possible until your toddler brain takes control. You can keep pushing until you find your toddler brain in complete and total resistance to the work, you slip into shutdown mode, and no matter what you do, you can’t seem to take action. It is procrastination city. Believe me, I’ve been there. I know how frustrating it is. And I can also tell you this happens most often when I am not giving my brain the rest and the space it needs.
Now I mentioned that 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest is one powerful approach to focus work. Other people prefer the Pomodoro Technique, which is 25 minutes of work followed by 5-minute breaks. While still others like to work for 45 minutes followed by a 15-minute break. There really is no right or wrong way to incorporate breaks as long as you are doing them. That is the secret sauce.
Break Ideas for Productivity
So the next question is, what kind of brakes are we talking about here?
Well, there are tons of different options available to you. And it’s a matter of playing with them to see what you enjoy. I would say, however, to step away from your computer. Checking your email or messaging someone on Facebook or scrolling Instagram is not giving your brain space to recharge. We want to give your brain a chance to step away from the tech for a bit. But I promise you, there are plenty of options available.
If the weather is nice where you are, perhaps get outside and go for a quick walk. Take a lap around the block, head into the backyard, and play fetch with your dog for a few minutes. Ask a co-worker to head for a walk at lunch if you’re in the office or call a friend during your lunch and go for a walk and talk if you work from home.
If heading out for a stroll is not available to you, maybe do some stretching. Type in “office yoga” in Google, and you will have tons of different options to stretch your body for a few minutes. You could check out a meditation app like insight timer, headspace, or calm, all of which offer awesome guided meditations and breathing exercises as short as 1 to 2 minutes long.
I always have a puzzle going at my house, and when I need to step away and clear my mind, sometimes I’ll go work on a few pieces of the puzzle for 10 minutes. Maybe you like to crochet or cross-stitch. Pull that out and feed your creativity for 15 minutes.
When it’s time for lunch, challenge yourself not to eat your lunch directly in front of your screen while answering emails or checking slack. This is one of the hardest habits I had to break. Now I tend to read a book or I literally stare out my window and let my mind wander as I enjoy my lunch. Once the weather is nice enough, I’ll eat my lunch on the back deck so I can enjoy the weather and get some fresh air for a few minutes as well.
If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, perhaps take 10 minutes to do a thought download. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Literally write down all of the thoughts in your head onto a piece of paper. You can throw it away when you’re done. But I’m telling you, there’s something super powerful about emptying those thoughts out of your brain and getting some clarity.
Alternatively, maybe you make it a habit of writing one real actual letter to someone you love each week. How fun would that be? One letter a week in one of your 15-minute breaks and you’ll not only give your own brain a boost, but you’re probably brightening someone else’s day as well. Win-win.
As you can probably tell from this list, the options are endless. It’s really a matter of brainstorming what sounds fun and refreshing for you. What are you willing to try?
And that is my challenge for you this week. Rather than telling yourself, you need to be more productive and stay focused for 8 hours straight, only to beat yourself up when your brain inevitably gets distracted, I invite you to intentionally schedule your breaks ahead of time. Create a list of fun ideas but you might want to do. Mix them up a bit.
Maybe some of them are movement-based with going for a walk or doing some stretching. Maybe some of them are mindfulness meditation or breathwork-type breaks. Perhaps some involve connecting with others, whether you give them a call or you write them a letter. And maybe some are creativity-based where you work on your cross-stitch or add a few pieces to the puzzle or write in your journal for a bit. Maybe you play with your dog or you read one of the magazines stacked up on your coffee table as you relax on your back deck for 10 minutes.
Schedule Time For Breaks
Once you have your list of possibilities, then schedule 10-15 minute breaks every hour or so throughout the work week.
If you want to stick with the official 52 minutes working followed by 17 minute break time, go for it. I’m all in. If it’s easier for your brain to think in terms of hours with 45 minutes working 15-minute breaks, perfect. If you thrive more on shorter bursts of focused time, try the Pomodoro Technique with 25 minutes of focus work and a 5-minute break. Play around with it. There’s no right or wrong here. See what works best for you.
And then give this a try for a week. See how your productivity goes. Notice what you get done. Notice how your brain feels at the end of the day. Check in on your levels of focus and concentration. If you find you don’t like the brakes, no sweat. You can go back to staring at your screen for 8 hours straight. No harm done. But I’d wager to bet that by planning ahead and intentionally giving your brain that breathing room to recharge throughout the day, you’ll make it easier to focus when you’re working and also enjoy the experience a whole lot more overall.
What do you have to lose? Give it a try.