Top 5 This Week

Related Posts

How to use science to focus at work

Whether you love working from your bedroom or have desperately missed your co-workers over the last 18 months, it is hard to deny that the average workplace is home to a bunch of distractions that are difficult to control. From noisy colleagues to unpleasant smells, concentrating on the work you’re there to do can be tough.

But some people have no choice but to return to the office. As coronavirus restrictions ease, companies are increasingly asking their employees to stop working remotely. To make the transition a little easier, we spoke to experts about how to use the neuroscience of human attention to improve your focus – even when you can’t hear yourself think.

Recognise your brain’s limits

If you’re struggling to concentrate under the harsh fluorescent lighting, don’t beat yourself up. Our brains can only process so much information at a time, explains neuroscientist Nilli Lavie who came up with a concept called ‘load theory’ in 1995. The idea behind load theory is that there is a limit to how much your mind can deal with. There’s a constant competition between the task you’re trying to get on with and the distractions in the background.

A recent study of Lavie’s, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, showed that focusing on a challenging task changes how the brain allocates energy. Volunteers saw a stream of coloured crosses on their computer screen and were asked to respond when they saw a certain colour. Researchers used broadband near-infrared spectroscopy to measure cellular metabolism in the visual cortex of participants’ brains. As the task got more difficult, less energy was afforded to parts of the visual cortex not involved in processing the stimuli.

“We are at the mercy of how the brain operates,” says Lavie. If you want to focus, you have to prevent brain overload. Perhaps the most effective way of staying focused is to control as much as you can, she suggests. Turn off your Slack and email notifications. Don’t look at the news. And if possible, position your monitor so you can’t easily see your colleagues.

Quit kidding yourself that you can multitask

Considering the hard limit on brain capacity, don’t make your mind work harder than it needs to, such as answering an email while you’re on a Zoom call. “Hundreds of studies have shown that people just cannot do tasks simultaneously even if you give them months of training,” says psychologist Nicholas Gaspelin from Binghamton University, New York. Instead, he says, the brain rapidly switches between two cognitive tasks rather than dealing with them at the same time.

What intrigues Gaspelin is that people often mistakenly believe they’re not being distracted when, in reality, they are. In his laboratory, volunteers engaged in a simple task on a computer were asked to classify whether or not their eyes moved to a notification on their screen that popped up throughout the experiment. Eye-tracking technology showed participants were not always good judges of their distractibility. “You hear people say they’re great at multitasking, but sometimes I wonder if they’re just really bad at telling they’re distracted,” he says.

Write a to-do list

It’s not just external distractions that can affect your performance at work, the spectre of future tasks can disrupt your focus, says cognitive psychologist Stefan Van der Stigchel at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. When you’re trying to keep something in your mind, such as an email you need to send or a phone call you must make later, you will have difficulty concentrating on your work, according to Van der Stigchel.

The trick is simply to write down whatever you’re worrying about when you’re trying to get on with something else, he says. This is ‘cognitive offloading’: taking the thought out of your internal memory and freeing up your brain to focus. “At the beginning of the day, make a schedule where you make clear which parts of the day will be responsible for full focus,” Van der Stigchel suggests.

Identify what motivates you

Not everyone enjoys their job. And even if you do, there are always going to be days when you’d rather avoid the task you have to tackle. This lack of drive could be a roadblock in itself. Neuroscientist Michael J Frank at Brown University in the US says that ‘cognitive motivation’ is essential for getting work done. To engage with a task, you have to perceive the benefits of doing so to be greater than the costs. “You have to care about what you're doing,” says Frank. “If you're incentivised in some way, it could put you in a sort of focused state.”

This concept might be what makes ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall (which increase the amount of dopamine in the brain) so effective. Researchers asked 50 volunteers whether they would take part in increasingly cognitive-demanding tests in exchange for money. Brain scans revealed those with lower dopamine levels tended to opt-out of the more demanding tasks. But those with higher dopamine levels generally chose to compete. Frank’s findings, published in the journal Science, suggest that dopamine focuses the brain to fix its attention on the benefits, rather than the drawbacks, of completing difficult chores.

Make your commute more active

Even if there’s nothing that will get you excited about your job, there are ways of manipulating your cognitive motivation without taking medication, says Frank. Exercise is regularly touted as being beneficial for people with ADHD. And research suggests physical activity can increase levels of dopamine in the brain.

A study of Dutch schoolchildren found interspersing lessons with 20 minutes of aerobic activity improved attention span. So it could be worth walking or cycling part of your commute if you can. Even a lunchtime stroll could make a positive difference to your focus levels when you’re back at your desk, suggests van der Stigchel. But don’t stick a podcast on. Instead, let your mind wander so your concentration levels can recharge.

“The brain is very good at doing things automatically when it comes to motor actions. That means it doesn't tax your concentration,” he says. “We know that the best breaks are breaks in which you're moving, but doing something that doesn't engage your attention in any way.”

Consider your relationship to clutter

For neat freaks, the worst aspect of working in an office is the mess. Some people manage just fine with chaotic workplaces. Just look at the infamous 1955 photo of Albert Einstein’s old desk in Princeton, New Jersey, with papers spilling everywhere. But brain imaging work from neuroscientist Sabine Kastner, from Princeton University found that clutter commands the brain’s attention, making it more challenging to focus on a task. The more visual stimuli your brain is presented with, the harder it has to work. So it’s worth tidying your desk if you’re struggling to concentrate, she says.

That said, research from the University of Minnesota in 2013 found volunteers who worked in disorderly areas were more likely to come up with creative ideas than those who sat in tidy offices. “Attention, like any other cognitive function, is very individual,” sums up Kastner who admits she prefers working in an untidy laboratory to a sterile room. Some people are better at filtering out visual distractions than others.

Cancel out your colleagues’ voices

While Kastner’s research focuses mostly on the visual system, she believes auditory distractions can be just as disruptive for a brain that’s trying to focus. “If you're at a party and talking to somebody but there’s a lot of background noise and people talking around you, it’s really hard to not get distracted.” It’s the same principle in the workplace when there are usually multiple conversations happening at once.

Some people find noise-cancelling headphones or even creating a “wall of sound” around them protects them from auditory distractions, says van der Stigchel. White noise is a good shout – it might improve some aspects of cognitive performance in individuals with lower attention. But he also suggests choosing music without lyrics (or lyrics in a language you can’t understand) so your brain can’t home in on them. Van der Sitgchel even advises devising a dedicated concentration playlist to use in times of need. Your brain will start to associate the music with periods of focus whenever you play it, he says. However, a 2019 review on music in the workplace concluded there is limited evidence on whether tunes improve employee performance.

If all else fails, put the kettle on

Perhaps the easiest concentration hack is the most obvious one. Reap one of the few benefits of office life and fill your boots with free tea and coffee. It’s easy to forget that caffeine is a drug, but it is officially the most widely consumed psychotropic substance in the world. Numerous experiments show that caffeine promotes focus and concentration. A 2020 study from the University of Arkansas found that participants who consumed a 200 mg caffeine pill (roughly equivalent to a strong cup of coffee) were able to solve problems significantly faster than the volunteers given a placebo.

Caffeine gets you awake and alert by blocking adenosine: a neurotransmitter that builds up during the day and makes you sleepy. Of course, a major downside of mainlining coffee is the negative impact it can have on sleep. And you probably don’t need scientific research to tell you that poor slumber zaps your concentration. For this reason, it’s best to take your coffee early in the day, suggests Frank, so the adenosine-blocking action has worn off by the time you want to go to bed.

More great stories from WIRED💼  Sign-up to WIRED’s business briefing: Get Work SmarterThe draconian rise of internet shutdownsThey saw a YouTube video. Then they got Tourette’sSpeedy grocery delivery firms are racing to surviveSupercharge your chats with these WhatsApp tricksThe truth behind China’s online gaming crackdownA radical plan to treat Covid’s mental health falloutThe 100 hottest startups in Europe in 2021🔊 Subscribe to the WIRED Podcast. New episodes every Friday

This article was originally published by WIRED UK

Most PopularScienceWatch Neuralink’s First Human Subject Demonstrate His Brain-Computer Interface

Emily Mullin

Backchannel8 Google Employees Invented Modern AI. Here’s the Inside Story

Steven Levy

SecurityHackers Found a Way to Open Any of 3 Million Hotel Keycard Locks in Seconds

Andy Greenberg

GearThe Omega x Swatch Snoopy MoonSwatch Has Landed

Jeremy White

Popular Articles