We’ve all been there. There’s a task at work that needs to be done, but we just can’t seem to finish it. Instead, we’re checking our email, looking at Facebook or simply staring at our computers while our minds wander.
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The ability to maintain control of attention over time, known as sustained attention, is vital for many tasks performed every day. Sustained attention is critical to focusing on and finishing tasks.
You can take action when you realize you need to refocus. Here are three tips to staying on task from clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD.
1. Stop thinking about yourself.
Sometimes we get overly involved in our own thoughts, and lose sight of what’s happening right now. To regain concentration, focus on what’s happening around you instead of thinking about yourself, Dr. Bea says.
“Imagine a ballplayer. He’s had two fat ones go right past him. He starts to think about himself too much rather than just see the ball and hit it. And whenever we get overly involved with our thoughts, we lose sight of what’s happening in the here and now,” Dr. Bea says.
Even tuning in to the sounds or smells around you can help – anything that helps you take a break from your thoughts about yourself.
“There are a lot of psychological and productivity benefits to getting your brain off yourself,” Dr. Bea says.
2. Keep family photos or even pictures of your pets on your desk.
The faces of your loved ones can transport you to happy feelings, helping you to clear your thoughts and refocus, Dr. Bea says.
But switch up your desk distractions regularly so you don’t get used to them – their power to distract you can ebb with familiarity.
3. Take a walk.
You also can take a walk when you’re having trouble concentrating, or just look out the window at some trees.
One study found people who were able to look periodically at a grassy rooftop committed fewer mistakes and had better concentration compared to people who merely looked at a concrete rooftop. The researchers found that attention boosts can occur after viewing a green roof scene for as little as 40 seconds.
It may seem counterintuitive that the way to improve your concentration is to stop concentrating on the task. But research shows that sustaining attention control over long periods of time tires your underlying mental resources.
When you take a break from the task at hand, you also give a boost to your mental resources that control attention.
“All these efforts have the effect of refreshing your personal home page,” Dr. Bea says.
“If you’ve ever worked on a crossword, you know that when you get a little stumped, you step away from the puzzle for just a few moments and it frees up your thinking,” Dr. Bea says. “You can come back and all of a sudden the answer that was unavailable is now available to you.”