Your ability to focus may be limited to 4 or 5 hours a day. Here's how to work around that
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By Keri Wiginton
My mind gets a little fuzzy when I concentrate for too long. So, to protect my focused time, I rearranged my life, trading a steady salary as a multimedia journalist covering the tech world for flexibility as a freelance writer focusing on health and wellness. Working less, not more, holds the key to my productivity.
I do the bulk of my work in four or five 55-minute chunks throughout the day, taking half-hour breaks when my mind starts to wander.
This schedule puts me in good company. Although there's not much hard science behind it, a lot of productivity gurus push the idea that we get our best work done with about four or five hours of focus a day.
Such a schedule is not uncommon among the accomplished, according to Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley writer and consultant who specializes in productivity. Alice Munro, Charles Darwin and Gabriel García Márquez are among the creative people with similar habits, a topic Pang dedicated a chapter to in his 2016 book, "Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less."
"Rather than working super long hours, they maximized the amount of depth of focus time they had per day," he said, "and really protected that and organized their day so they could put in about 4 or 41/2 hours of really intensive deep work."
While there isn't extensive research into working and focus, the four-to-five-hour sweet spot sounds about right to Kalina Michalska, a developmental neuroscientist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Riverside. She stops short of applying this number to everyone, however. Humans have individual differences "in attentional networks and circadian rhythms," she said.
There are also differences in how we manage our emotions, something most workers have had to deal with during the coronavirus pandemic. "We've all been under a lot of stress and anxiety for the past year," said Borna Bonakdarpour, a behavioral neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. "That, by itself, affects our focus."
Pandemic aside, Bonakdarpour said the main culprits behind our limited ability to focus are cognitive overload and energy use. "When you increase the metabolism of the brain, it comes with byproducts that need to be cleared out and cleaned," he said. "The brain needs to rest." According to Bonakdarpour, research shows that for every two hours of focused work, "you need about 20 to 30 minutes to break."
Of course, some of the work we do doesn't require 100 percent of our attention, Bonakdarpour added. "That's why you can kind of get through even when you're tired," he said. "But as a general principle, your brain is functioning at a lower level." Studies show that as our focus slides, we're less motivated, we make more mistakes and we get distracted more easily.
If we only have four or five hours of peak attention within a normal workday, how can we optimize them? Here are some tips from our experts.
Work in chunks to give your brain a rest
Michalska first tried the Pomodoro method: You work for 25 minutes, then rest for three to five minutes. After four of those blocks, you take a half-hour break. But she found herself more focused on the timer than her work. She eventually settled into a longer period. "I try to do 45 minutes, and then I take a break."
Schedule your breaks
Michalska takes five-minute rests after her working blocks, making sure she leaves extra time for lunch. She recommends planning your week with your downtime as a priority. "I would put in the breaks first," she said. "Put in the run, the lunch, the break. Otherwise, you're never going to do it."
Avoid work during your downtime
Bonakdarpour goes for a walk during his breaks, because physical activity boosts blood flow and brain function. But a conversation with a colleague can also help, he said. Just make sure you "talk about things that don't have anything to do with work."
Add more rest when you overwork
We all have days or weeks when deadlines pile up. But your concentration doesn't have to suffer if you occasionally overwork. In fact, deadline crunches can sharpen your focus and help you work faster.
Figure out your most creative time and protect it
You probably have a certain time of day when you're most productive. If possible, tell your boss and colleagues you're going to set aside those hours for focused work, and you'll get to your other work outside that time. "I'm not particularly effective from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.," Michalska said. "So, I just schedule all my emails at that time, when I don't have to think that much."
Keep tabs on your productivity
You can think about your focused time kind of like your finances, meaning you should create a detailed list of how you spend it. "Every 15 minutes, jot down what you're actually doing," Michalska said. This can be tedious at first, she said, but it'll show you how often you make a snack or check social media when you think you're working.
Guard against interruptions
To cultivate an environment to make flow more likely, limit your distractions; research has found that it can take from 30 seconds to 60 seconds to refocus on a task when your attention is diverted to a second one. I set "do not disturb" time on my devices. I don't get alerts for emails, text messages or news headlines.