4 science-backed hacks to use when you need to focus

Focus hacks concentration uni-tasking multi-tasking


You probably come up with your best ideas when you’re far from your usual work environment – research by the NeuroLeadership Institute shows that’s the case for at least 90% of people. So, when you really need to get some thinking done, head to the park, the coffee shop or the shower – wherever it is that ideas normally spring forth.

Your Brain At Work author, David Rock suggests taking some time to notice where you naturally focus best and utilising those locations when you’re most under pressure to deliver.


‘Multitasking’ is reputedly the skill of a highly productive worker but in fact, there is research that indicates seasoned jugglers are actually being less efficient than those who methodically stick to one job at a time.

“Suckers for irrelevancy,” is how a Stanford press release describes study participants who engaged in heavy-duty multitasking, concluding that those who bounce between items on their to-do lists pay a big mental price. 

People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time… When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.

We’ve trained our brains to be unfocused. The solution? Set a timer for five minutes and resolve to get one thing done, ignoring any calls, emails or visitors who intend to distract you.

NeuroLeadership Institute Founder, David Rock.

Over time, those five minutes will become easy and you can build up. “It’s just like getting fit,” says Rock. “You have to build the muscle to be focused.”



One of the reasons that multitasking is thought to diminish productivity is that having lots of things on your mind more quickly diminishes your ‘executive function’ – your brain’s limited capacity to focus on specific tasks and make good choices.

Executive function isn’t just depleted while juggling; it naturally decreases through use – the reason why you’re less likely to do your best work when tired or as you’re about to clock off.

This is at odds with the way most people build their to-do lists: they might prioritise tasks based on the easy stuff they can get done to clear the decks, according to the deadline, or what they can realistically fit into chunks of time.

A better approach might be to start with difficult tasks that require the most focus. As your working day progresses, your ability to concentrate will lessen, so save that ‘do it with your eyes closed’ admin for the last thing in the day;  your to-do list – and your boss - will thank you for it.



If you have one hour to complete a mind-bending task, the conventional wisdom might be to ring-fence yourself from the world and bury your head in it. But you might do better to throw a few distractions into the mix.

In doing so you’ll be employing something called the Zeigarnik Effect – a psychological state in which you’re more likely to remember incomplete tasks instead of completed ones, as explained by Psychologist World.

One way of employing the Zeigarnik effect when attempting to memorise a detailed piece of information, such as a long phone number, or whilst revising a subject, might be to avoid trying to remember it in its entirety in one sitting. Take a look at the information, familiarise yourself with it, then ‘interrupt yourself’ - look away from where it is written for a few moments and think of something else, before returning a few more times to remember chunks of the number. Finally, piece these chunks together and attempt to recall the number in its entirety.


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