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There are those times — those days, those weeks — when it seems like you have so much to do that you can’t actually get any of it done. You start on one thing, but you’re thinking about three other things you also have to do. Pretty soon, you’ve made no progress on any of them because you can’t seem to quiet your mind and focus.
This problem is always present, but it’s worse now that so many of us are working from home, says Dr. Shannon O’Neill , a psychologist in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Working from home blurs the boundaries between work and personal life, and the mixup of the duties of each can lead to mental chaos — specifically, the inability to focus caused by a variety of external and physical factors including sedentary behavior, poor diet, lack of sleep, and stress.
So, how do you insulate yourself and give your brain the space it needs? It’s all about getting yourself back to basics. Here are a few recommendation.
This is the classic recommendation for helping kids do their homework, and the same goes for adults: Create a space away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of your house where you can sit down and get to work. Noise levels affect concentration, and that actually doesn’t just mean loud noise, because some people have a hard time focusing when it’s too quiet or when the noise level fluctuates, says Dr. Joe Bienvenu , Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. A space where you can control the noise and ideally close a door is what you’re looking for, and white noise makers that drown out noise from your environment can also help, he says.
A space where you can control the noise and ideally close a door is what you’re looking for, and white noise makers that drown out noise from your environment can also help, he says.
This can be a difficult ask, but it’s necessary. When it comes time to really focus, pick the one task you are going to work on. Having other tasks that demand our attention is a common cause of struggling to focus, Bienvenu says, so it’s important to select on keep the others you have crowding your headspace from pulling you in nine different directions.
There’s a famous quote attributed to Desmond Tutu that asks: How do you eat an elephant? The answer: One bite at a time. In other words, piecing out one enormous task into smaller pieces is one of the simplest ways to make it seem less daunting. “This can be helpful in tackling big tasks that feel as though need to be done all at once, but struggle to initiate starting,” says O’Neill.
“Pacing can also be helpful for those who struggle with procrastination, due to feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, or depressed,” O’Neill says. Decide how long you can devote to this task, and set an alarm for that amount of time. “Have the alarm signal you to stop rather than your body or lack of focus telling you to stop,” she says.
You know this already, but it’s worth repeating: It’s hard to be productive when you’re checking your email or leaving yourself open to other digital distractions. “Turning off notifications on electronic devices and keeping email checking to a minimum can make a huge difference, to the extent it is feasible,” Bienvenu says.
You can’t focus if you’re dog-tired, so make sure you’re getting enough sleep at night. O’Neill points out that not everybody needs a full 8 hours, but you should shoot for 7-9 , depending on what works for you.
One surefire way to make your brain struggle is to starve it of the good stuff. O’Neill recommends all the standard things here — eating a balanced diet , drinking plenty of water, not drinking too much alcohol, and avoiding caffeine late in the afternoon so it doesn’t sabotage your sleep.
Go to the gym, go for a run, do some bodyweight exercises for 15 minutes in the morning — make time for whatever you can in your schedule. Exercise goes hand-in-hand with good brain health. Even on the days you aren’t getting to the gym, try to get outside and walk around enough to raise your heart rate. The goal, O’Neill says, is to get your body enough exercise that it is tired enough to sleep deeply at night. Healthy habits create a healthy mind.
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