Have you ever tried to focus on a particular task at hand but find yourself distracted with other stuff not relevant to the task at hand? Or even feel you have overworked yourself even when you have not been productive. As a student you may have a task of revising what was taught at lectures for the day or even have an assignment which will be submitted with a deadline and yet while doing these things you become distracted, loose focus and engage in other things that requires a lesser brain concentration like chatting, replying emails, watching online videos or a Netflix movie. If the answer is yes, you’re not alone.
Many of us find it difficult to focus on one thing at a time or complete tasks on our to-do list without getting distracted. But what if there was a way to ignore the urge to check our emails or watch a YouTube video while working, and cross off things on our to-do list without procrastinating?
Time management is an extremely important part of ‘doing more’: eliminating distractions, defeating procrastination, and completing tasks efficiently can lead to an incredibly productive and successful life (not to mention less stressful). Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Our brain often works against us when we’re trying to complete a big task that requires a lot of concentration and attention.
Our brain seeks rewards, which completing small, insignificant tasks like responding to an email or sending a text, can give it. This is also applicable to those in the labour market. You go to work on a Monday morning with the intention of maybe auditing the company’s accounts, attending board meetings, making and returning of calls to prospective and existing clients or it could be a business you are operating and you have a lot of work that requires brain power but instead of focusing on the task at hand you engage In irrelevant things like chatting, texting, gisting, and replying unimportant emails before you know it boom!
The day is over and you can’t boast of having completed one task on your to-do-list. Very depressing right! But what if I told you there are ways of tricking your brain into being more productive. You are thinking well finally here comes a solution. That’s right! You can trick your brain into being more productive.
You can trick your brain into getting more done by keeping smartphones out of sight, and focusing on one task at a time. Sahar Yousef a leading neuroscientist explained at Adobe’s 99U conference that despite the fact that workdays look drastically different than they did 50 years ago, our bodies have not adapted to advances in technology. What this means is that the paradox between the decline in productive work during the day and the feeling of being constantly overworked could boil down to your biology.
In the work scene, everything about the workday has changed, Yousef said: most communication no longer occur in person; technology allows workers to constantly be plugged into work regardless of a 9-to-5 schedule; you have coworkers around the world; and open offices have replaced cubicles. Our bodies are the only thing that haven’t changed, Yousef added. Many of us have not adapted our biology or rewired our brains to the tech that transformed our workplaces. So, our bodies have a hard time keeping up with the hustle and bustle which in turn makes your brain to seek unproductive tasks that requires little or no concentration.
So, whether you are a student or already in the workforce, below are ways to trick your brain into being more productive.
1. Make use of to-do lists to anchor your attention
Before performing a “focus sprint,” or whenever you want to set aside time to accomplish one task, writing it down on a sticky note and keeping it on your monitor will help anchor your attention. Every time you find yourself getting distracted, Yousef said, the sticky note will help bring you back to the task. Setting a timer can also help “light a fire under your butt” to do the task in front of you and minimize distractions. As a student, have one book/app that serves as your to-do list rather than a bunch of post-it notes that are easily lost/ignored. This list should be arranged according to the order of preference, then focus on carrying out the most important tasks first.
2. Keep away from smart phones when working on tasks
Distraction is the number one effectiveness killer, Yousef said. The main distraction culprit- Your smartphone. In fact, a study at the University of Texas-Austin found that the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand.
Smartphones distract humans because, psychologically, they are no longer just objects to place phone calls. People become emotionally attached to feelings of value or memories, whether through emotional phone calls you remember having with loved ones, pictures of friends and relatives, notifications from friends for parties, etc. “These phones are emotional, we care about them, and this is why they are the most distracting thing in human history at this point,” Yousef said. For most students keeping away from their smart phones for more than 5 minutes is a herculean task but if you want to achieve more, then you should practice self-control.
3. Time yourself
Keep track of how long it takes to complete a task. You can have an alarm or timer set to calculate how much time you are spending on a task like doing an assignment or making that research about a topic. You are less likely to spend 2 hours on Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram while working if the clock is ticking. This will also allow you to judge how efficiently you are using your time and get better at doing so.
4. Do not multitask
When people switch from one task to another, our brains must take time and energy to focus on the new task. The time wasted in switching between tasks is called a “switch cost. “Every single time we switch there is a cost,” Yousef said. “It’s draining. It’s taking longer to do the same thing. instead it is better to mono-task, or even schedule intentional time to do one thing, called a “focus sprint.” To do a focus sprint, you must set aside a block of time to intentionally get a single task done, set a timer, and turn off all other notifications.
5. Prevent procrastination by splitting up large tasks into smaller pieces:
The root cause of procrastination is fear, Yousef said. When you have a mountain of tasks in front of you, you think it’s never going to get done anyway and start procrastinating. “It’s when the task in front of us looks so big that we start to do silly things, saying I’m not enough for the task.” Split up larger tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces. This will help your brain see the whole task as less daunting, and will help you get started.
6. Find and work during your peak performance hours
The hours of the day are not equal, Yousef said. Some parts of the day lead to more creativity, while others keep you at a low energy level. Finding the hours of the day you reach your peak performance level and utilizing that time frame leads to more success and productivity. In fact, a country’s top executives report being five times more productive during their peak performance hours in the day yet only 5% of them report being in a state of deep engagement during this time, according to a McKinsey study.
Increasing the amount of time spent on deep engagement from 5% to even just 20% can double productivity, according to the study. You can find your peak performance hours by jotting down the hours of the day in which you were able to achieve more let’s say for a 1-week period, then use these hours for optimal performance.