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Improve Your Focus While Working with These Science-Backed Techniques

Learn how to make the most of your workday with four core principles that can be used independently or in tandem with one another to help improve your focus and increase your productivity.

With the litany of obligations and distractions we face everyday, it can be hard to make sure we’re using our time at work as efficiently and wisely as possible. From unexpected e-mails to interjecting colleagues, there are so many stimuli that seem completely out of our control and know exactly how to derail our progress. Thankfully, though, a number of science-backed techniques have been devised and implemented in workplaces across the country to give workers a greater sense of agency over their workday.
Each of the four techniques listed below serves to provide a sense of structure in its own way. Since they’re all built to fulfill distinct constraints, which technique(s) you employ to improve focus will have to be dictated by your unique set of circumstances. Use the techniques independently or in tandem with one another—either way, they’ll serve to demonstrate that the workday can, in fact, be within your control. The question is simply how well you wield your sense of agency and whether you choose to use the tools available.
Here are a few of the most successful science-backed workplace focus techniques:


Unsurprisingly, one of the most popular focus techniques is also one of the simplest. Timeboxing is based on a straightforward, albeit somewhat revolutionary thesis—rather than working on a task until it’s completely done, it’s better to allot a fixed window of time to that task in advance. Each window of time, or “timebox,” should come with the expectations that you might associate with an important team meeting on a busy workday: it cannot be rescheduled; it should demand your entire attention; and it should not take any longer than the time provided.
During that period of time, you are to focus on nothing other than the task at hand: e-mails, text messages, other assignments, and even coffee breaks can have their own timeboxes. This technique does a number of things to optimize your time at work: it imbues an otherwise amorphous workday with a clear sense of structure; it prevents distraction; and it forbids us from getting too caught up in any perfectionist tendencies we may have. If you reach the end of a timebox without having finished the task, you still have to move on to the next timebox—by sustaining this practice, you’ll push yourself to work more efficiently and learn how to set more realistic expectations. Here’s a great guide on how timeboxing works and how to get started.

The Pomodoro Technique

Developed by an Italian University student who had nothing but a tomato timer to break up his study sessions, this framework adheres to the same fundamental principle on which timeboxing is based— that time, not tasks, should be treated as the central component for a healthy, focused work schedule. But while timeboxing provides a visual template through which we can organize our day, the Pomodoro Technique gives very exact parameters: you are to work on a specific task for 25 minutes at a time, then break for 5 minutes, and then return to another 25-minute, uninterrupted work session before taking another 5-minute break. After repeating this cycle four times, you should then take an extended 20-minute break. (Here's a visual representation of the technique.)
Like timeboxing, the Pomodoro Technique demands that you treat your solitary tasks the same way you would a meeting—with absolute, uninterrupted focus. But once you enter into your 5- and 20-minute break periods, you are welcome to do whatever you so please, so long as you adhere to those very specific time constraints. By rigidly structuring your day and breaking it up into smaller intervals, the Pomodoro technique gives workers a sense that the tasks on their daily agenda are manageable, while also providing them with a system of accountability. If you’re trying to implement a focus technique into your work regimen for the first time, we recommend using The Pomodoro in conjunction with timeboxing—the Pomodoro will dictate exactly how much time to give to each task, while timeboxing will help you visualize and set longer-term expectations for each workday.

Go outside

One of the main reasons the Pomodoro Technique is so effective is that it allots time not only for work, but also for breaks. By giving us time to decompress and take a second to turn away from assignments, we’re able to re-set and remain fresh throughout the workday. How we use those breaks, though, is of utmost importance—turning on your phone to check social media is not going to do a whole lot to keep you centered and focused through the rest of the day.
What will help, though, is a few minutes spent outside—a lack of natural light and live greenery in the average American workplace takes a clear toll on workers’ productivity, which means that the outdoors can serve as an antidote for the stress of the day-to-day. Taking a 5- or 20-minute break outside has a number of psychological benefits, including improvements to short-term memory and improved concentration. For more guidance, you can check out our article on how time outside leads to greater productivity in the workplace.

Optimize your work environment

While going outside will do a lot of good for your spirit, it’s still vital to create an office environment that’s conducive to a healthier, productive work life. Fortunately, there’s a ton of research out there to show what does (and what doesn’t) work. Ergonomics, which translates quite simply to “the science of work,” has demonstrated how our physical positions throughout the day have major physical and psychological impacts on the everyday worker, and how these impacts can, in turn, take a toll on our happiness and productivity.
In order to ensure that we are taking care of our bodies and minds as we work, we have to make conscious decisions about how we quite literally position ourselves. Whether sitting in an ergonomic chair or perched in front of a standing desk, people can take care of themselves as they’re working by turning to one of the many office furniture solutions that are designed to help maintain focus in both the short- and long-term.
That said, there's plenty you can do right now even if you don't have the proper furniture yet to help support your body while working. For instance, you can start by learning about and abiding by the core principles of how to sit properly. You can start incorporating standing into your workday (we suggest about one hour of standing for every one to two hours of sitting); you can use a stack of books to make sure the top third of your screen is at your eye line; and, you can find a surface to work on in your home that facilitates your feet being planted solidly on the floor.

One step at a time

Putting all of these solutions into place would do a ton of good for your productivity at work, but the last thing you want is to feel overwhelmed. If this seems like a lot, try implementing one of these solutions at a time—maybe one a week, or one a month—so that you can ease into your newly structured work life. When all is said and done, you’ll be well on your way towards getting more done each day.

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