10 Focus Boosts When Your Brain Won’t Cooperate

It’s usually during my third cup of coffee, mindlessly sipping while scrolling through Instagram, that I sit back and realize, “This isn’t working.”
“This” being, well, focusing on the work I’m actually supposed to be doing. Which is a daily struggle when you live with ADHD, sure, but a struggle for anyone trying to work from home during a global freakin’ pandemic.
If you’re wondering what you can do to boost your focus — without having to download a complicated email app or rearrange your furniture — these quick tips might just be the lift you need to get back on track.
And since you’re probably procrastinating already, you may as well learn something while you’re at it.

  1. Close the door

This is not a metaphor. I mean this literally.
As much as I love working in my living room — it’s spacious! It’s bright! It’s airy! — part of sharpening your focus means minimizing distractions. A closed door certainly helps with that, and it also signals to our brains that we mean business.

  1. Find your frog and take one tiny bite

This one I do not mean literally.
Your “frog” is another name for your most-dreaded task. Usually that’s the task that’s fueling procrastination, because we’re anxiously avoiding that task — either because we’re overwhelmed, bored of it, or we don’t know what to do next.
Taking a bite means looking for the easiest, smallest next step that you can take. Usually motivation kicks in after we’ve started a task, not before, so this can help get us back on track.
So rather than tacking “finish business presentation” onto our to-do list, which feels enormous and unmanageable, try “finish intro slide” instead. Then throw on some upbeat lo-fi jams, put on some noise-canceling headphones, and get to work!

  1. Use a fun pomodoro timer

The Pomodoro method is an important concentration hack that involves small work blocks and breaks in-between.
It’s a great tool to have in your toolbox, but you know what makes it even better? Apps. More specifically, apps that give you a reward whenever you successfully focus for a period of time.
Search “focus timer” or “pomodoro” in any app store and see what’s out there! I’m currently using an app that allows me to be a ramen chef, with every completed focus block resulting in a bowl of ramen.
It’s weirdly motivating to be pursuing a digital ramen chef career just to do my real-life job, but whatever works… right?

  1. Mix up your tasks

I’ve heard this strategy described as having “two pots on the stove.” When you get bored of one task, “productively procrastinate” by switching to another.
You may find that a ping-pong game between two or three tasks works better than trying to force yourself through one.

  1. Anticipate future obstacles

If you’re already procrastinating, you might as well do something helpful for Future You.
Try writing down every possible obstacle you’ll encounter when trying to get a task done, and then brainstorm what you’ll do to avoid falling into that trap.
For example, if a social media notification is sure to derail me, I might put my phone in airplane mode. If I’m going to need a snack in a little while, I might go grab it and keep it on the desk before I get started.

  1. Schedule some 10-minute movement sessions

Breaking up tasks with dancing, jumping, or just walking from one end of your apartment to the other can all be helpful aids for boosting focus and energy.
Not that you were wondering, but “I Love Me” by Demi Lovato has been my midday mood lift this week — I’d highly recommend it, especially if you’re beating yourself up for reading this article instead of working.

  1. Look for the jet stream

Sometimes what we need most is momentum, which lets us build up our confidence and assures us that we’re capable of getting sh!t done.
So look for the flow: Is there a task that you already know how to start, are excited to tackle, or utilizes a skill that’s in your wheelhouse?
It doesn’t have to be the most urgent or important task, either. Just getting something off the back burner and getting into the flow of things can help when it’s time to shift your attention to the more pressing stuff.

  1. Write down why this task is meaningful to you

We’re not going to list out why a task is important, that’s potentially upsetting. It’s obviously important if it’s stressing you out.
I’m talking about examining why a task is meaningful to you.
Some questions worth asking:
• What does the completion of this task give to me? This could be as simple as a sense of relief or accomplishment, or as significant as advancing you in your career or developing a new skill.
• What does the completion of this task give to others? Maybe it’s a project that makes the world a better place. Maybe it just makes things a little easier on your teammates. Or maybe it’s a reason for your boss to give you praise at the next meeting.
It’s true that sometimes a task is just lousy and we can’t find much of a reason for it. That’s okay! But if we can, it’s always good to keep our “why” at the front of our minds.

  1. Try to beat the clock

“How fast can I complete this task” is way more fun to me than the usual “get this done you incompetent knucklehead” strong arming I try to do with myself.
Bonus points if I have a countdown timer and I’m playing “Eye of the Tiger” to amuse myself. It’s okay if it’s silly — the point is to complete the task by any means necessary.

  1. Be kind to yourself

People tend to hate this advice when I give it. And that’s fine, I get it. It’s annoying to be told that being nice to yourself is magically going to fix a problem.
But you know what’s definitely not going to help you? Being a jerk to yourself.
You’re probably familiar with the whole “what’s wrong with me!?” inner monologue, followed by variations on “why can’t I just start” and “why do I keep doing this to myself,” all of which put the blame squarely on you.
Here’s the truth, though: Focusing on a task is hard. Working until completion is hard.
If you have ADHD, you definitely already know this. But even if you don’t, it’s still true. Our brains are funny little meat machines that don’t always work optimally.
Self-blame is not going to help, I promise. Concentration is like the weather — sometimes things line up and it’s clear blue skies. Other times? Not so much.
Instead of yelling at the sky, try radically accepting where you are. In this case, a little kindness can go a long way in making sure you don’t give up too soon.
Remember: If you’re struggling to concentrate, it’s not because you’re lazy or incompetent or hopeless.
More than likely, you’re stressed out, overwhelmed, or frustrated (or all of the above!). All very human experiences that can interfere with our ability to finish what needs to get done.
So give yourself a break, okay?
Maybe even literally. Go lay down for a little bit. Have a snack. (Being hungry or tired doesn’t help in the concentration department, either!)
Most of all, be patient with yourself. You’re doing the best you can! Which isn’t always going to look like your personal best from last month, last week, or even yesterday.
What’s important is that regardless of how productive you are or aren’t, you don’t allow that to become a measure of your worth. You have inherent value whether you get 15 things done today or nothing at all.

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