It happens to everyone. You sit down to finish a project, but before long your mind wanders to something entirely new. Facebook starts calling. You begin browsing on Amazon. And somehow you end up watching cat videos on YouTube.
Don't worry; you aren't doomed to forever be a scatterbrain. There are factors that can boost or break your focus. But productive people know how to work around distractions. Begin by checking on yourself with these five questions.
1. How long has it been since you've taken a break?
Sometimes, you're just tired. Even if you don't feel physically tired, a mental break is beneficial. A study published in Cognition found that people function more effectively when they have brief mental breaks. When our external stimuli — for example, what we see and hear — remain the same, our brains gradually stop registering those stimuli. We pay more attention to things that are new. So don't stare at the same Word document for too long. Stand up, stretch, or spend some time on another task to stay focused.
2. Are you running on a good night's sleep or just caffeine?
We've heard it a million times. Adults need eight hours of sleep. In reality, each person's needs vary slightly. But if you can only get through the day with five cups of coffee, you might need to set an earlier bedtime.
Unfortunately, catching up on your sleep during the weekend doesn't work. A Harvard Medical School study found that even with 10 extra hours of sleep, participants' ability to focus was less than those who received consistent sleep throughout the week.
The solution: Take sleep seriously.
3. What have you been eating?
Whether it's surprising to you or not, the food you eat affects your focus. While there's nothing wrong with grabbing a hamburger for lunch, it could make you groggy in the afternoon. High-fat foods require your body to work harder, leaving you with less energy for difficult mental tasks.
Fruits and vegetables have the opposite effect. It's now scientifically proven that fruits and veggies keep you more engaged, more creative, and happier.
4. How often do you eat?
Most people go to work, power through any mid-morning hunger pangs, and eat a lot during lunch. But it's better to "graze" throughout the day. The traditional meal pattern puts your body through dramatic energy drops and spikes, which is bad for productivity and self-control. Snacking fuels your body by giving it a more consistent source of energy.
Keeping yourself from reaching a point where you're starving also helps you make better decisions. We often make unhealthy food choices because we don't decide what to eat until we're hungry. When you're mentally worn out and hungry, fast food is appealing.
5. Is there an issue that's stealing your focus?
Sometimes, taking better care of your health won't be enough to beat low productivity. If there's an issue that's bothering you (personal or professional), you may need to dedicate time to it. Try setting aside a specific time to address the issue. Dedicating time can mean anything from saving an hour slot in your workday for a task, meeting a friend after work to get something off your chest, or even seeing a professional counselor to work through a difficult event or transition.
If you never give your brain a chance to process challenging situations, that's where your mind will wander when your defenses are down.