How to Stay Focused and Be More Productive: 7 Tips Backed by Science
Ever since the coronavirus outbreak started, it’s become readily apparent that the world relies on technology and social media now more than ever. While there are indeed many positives to this paradigm shift, there is also an unfortunate consequence: more distractions that make it hard to stay focused.
For example, there’s a good chance the first thing you do when you wake up is roll over and check your phone. You might even spend an hour lying in bed looking at your phone before actually getting up in the morning.
This is pertinent because being on social media for hours at a time is a great example of modern distractions that make it hard to focus on work, studying, and other more productive matters.
In fact, a recent observational study of roughly 1,200 participants found that the average time spent on social media per day was one hour and 45 minutes. Assuming you sleep 8 hours per night, that’s 12.5% of your waking time spent scrolling through social media. This doesn't even include time spent on the phone doing other things, like texting or playing games.
Interestingly, the people who spent more time on social media also had significantly lower self-esteem and less satisfaction with their life.
So, what can be done? How do you stay focused and avoid bad habits that distract you, especially when stuck at home?
Avoiding Distractions: How to Focus on Work/Studies
Do you ever catch yourself wasting time doing something like reading about the latest scandalous celebrity gossip or mindlessly browsing the Internet for funny memes? It’s okay if you do; frankly, we all do.
However, this type of behavior becomes problematic when it’s habitual and distracting you from focusing on more productive matters, whether it be reading, studying, working, or taking care of your health and wellbeing.
Intuitively, eliminating intrusive distractions is a cornerstone of staying focused.
Next time you find yourself distracted from being productive, ask yourself what the distraction contributes to your ambitions?
Let’s hypothetically say you spend one hour per day on the phone checking social media (which is a conservative estimate for most people). That’s 365 hours per year that are more or less wasted. If you keep that up for the next five years, that’s 76 days worth of time that you could have been focusing on something worthwhile.
Don’t get me wrong, perusing social media occasionally leads to informative and educational resources, but more often than not it’s only going to make it harder to stay focused on work, studying, or anything related to your productivity.
If you’re ready to put an end to bad habits that distract you from “getting sh*t done,” you’re in the right spot. Now, focus (pun) and read on!
How to Stay Focused: 7 “Hacks” Backed by Science
The hacks below are practical and simple strategies that promote mental performance, allowing you to better focus on work, homework, studying, reading or anything else that demands your full cognitive potential.
1. Create a Daily Schedule/Routine to Improve Your Time Management
Research has shown that college students who create daily schedules generally have greater GPAs than their peers who don’t actively follow a daily schedule. Neuroscientists suggest that setting a daily schedule can improve time management by entraining the brain over time, so much so that it becomes like an autonomic process.
The external stimulus (i.e. having a daily schedule to look at) quite literally changes your intrinsic neurophysiology. In other words, it hacks your brain so you can stay focused!
When making a daily schedule for yourself, keep it simple; it doesn’t have to be too complex. The main thing is to give yourself time constraints where you focus on work/studying/reading.
Also be sure to set aside blocks of time for important everyday things like eating food, exercise, sleep, and a small amount of leisure activity. (Hint: use “leisure time” to check your phone.)
This will give you an objective breakdown of how much time you have each day to be productive and how much time you have to unwind. Since it’s the 21st century, there are many apps available that make creating a daily schedule a breeze.
Once you have a set schedule, follow it to the T! Don’t make excuses or procrastinate when it’s time to focus on studies or work.
2. Digital Avoidance
As iterated earlier, smartphones are major enablers of time-wasting habits. The best workaround for being on your phone all the time is to simply either leave it somewhere where you aren’t in contact with it or silence it so you don’t feel the need to pull it out and check every notification that comes through.
This is known as “digital avoidance” in research and appears to work in a similar fashion as the classic “swear jar” tactic that parents often use to teach their children not to use foul language.
As one researcher notes, “People can read a book, talk to a friend, watch a movie, compose a letter, and play a game all at once — but they can’t do it very well.”
In an ideal world, you will have the self-control to simply focus on studying, working, etc. rather than checking your phone or watching YouTube videos, but that takes a lot of willpower that many people don’t have.
The pragmatic solution is to liberate yourself from your cell phone and other distracting technologies when you’re trying to be more productive. Don’t worry, there will always be time later for you to check your phone and text your friends.
If you’re a student, leave your phone in your locker before you go to the library to study. If you’re a business professional, put your phone somewhere that you can’t see it while you’re working, maybe in a desk drawer.
If you work on a computer and use the Internet regularly, you can set limitations on which websites you are allowed to visit and which are blocked. This is one way to avoid distracting content and teach yourself how to stay focused at work.
As you acclimate to not carrying your phone around all day and avoiding digital temptations, you’ll be able to focus on work, studying, and more productive matters for hours on end.
And guess what? The Earth will still be spinning even if you don’t check your text messages for a couple of hours. Amazing, isn’t it?
3. Do Not Check Social Media (Delete/Deactivate Your Account if Necessary)
While social media is a practical way to stay in touch with friends and family from around the globe, it is also a great way to waste precious time that could be going towards more productive matters in your life. The best way to reduce the amount of time you spend scrolling through social media is to simply not check it when you’re trying to stay focused on work, school, etc.
If you find yourself struggling to stay off social media throughout the day, then deactivate/delete your account(s) for the time being. This will force you to focus on your actual life and goals, rather than just posting about all the things that are going on in your life.
As the adage goes, “Don’t talk about it, be about it.”
All you can do on social media is “talk about it.” If you want to be successful in life and stay focused on things that are worthwhile, you’re going to have to “be about it.”
4. Keep Your Workspace Clean and Well-Organized
Never overlook the importance of your study area/workspace when it comes to being productive at home. We all know how hard it can be to focus when you’re surrounded by obnoxious noises and your work area is unkempt.
In fact, a recent meta-analysis concluded that the atmosphere in which people study and work has a major influence on their success, particularly when doing something cognitively demanding like reading, writing, coding, analyzing data, etc. 
The solution: Create a workspace in your house that emulates that of a library - quiet and free from distractions. Be sure to maintain organization and cleanliness so you avoid clutter piling up on your desk.
If you work on a computer, investing in large monitors and a high-quality desk chair will keep your posture and eyes healthy in the long run. It may also be prudent to buy noise-canceling headphones and put on some music/ambient background sounds that help you concentrate (especially if you live in a noisy urban area).
On that note...
5. Listen to Music while Studying and Working
Many people prefer to work and study while listening to music, but it might not always be the best thing for staying focused. Several studies have shown that background noise (whether it’s music or environmental ambiance) tends to worsen performance on cognitive tasks when compared to silence. [6, 7]
Nevertheless, some people find that soft, instrumental music or background ambiances like a fan or space heater actually helps them focus better. You’ll need to implement trial-and-error to see if you are more productive while listening to music or without it; some people prefer to study or work in silence, others prefer soft music/noise in the background.
Heck, maybe you're able to focus best with Metallica riffing away on loudspeakers. Try using different types of music/noises to determine what improves your concentration and keeps you on-task.
6. Schedule Breaks to Enhance Cognitive Performance
As mentioned in the first tip about setting a daily schedule, implementing periodic breaks can help replenish and rejuvenate your mind. In the workplace, the general standard is to give a break every two hours, but research suggests there are benefits from using “micro-breaks” throughout the day -- about every 45 minutes.
These breaks may be used as a time for checking your phone, accessing social media, watching TV, listening to music, chatting with your peers/friends, etc.
Be careful not to let these breaks turn into large gaps of time though. Micro-breaks should only be 10 minutes or so since they serve as a brief respite from cognitively or physically taxing tasks; just enough time to give your mind and body some rest so you can return to productive matters and stay focused.
Another good option is to use breaks as a time for short “power naps.” Just be sure to not nap for too long (> 20 minutes) as this can make it hard to refocus once you’re awake.
7. Use a Clock/Timer to Stay On-Task
Using a clock/timer to pace yourself is a great way to keep productive for set periods of time. In fact, one of the best ways to hack your mind with this strategy is to reward yourself every time you complete a 45-to-60-minute time interval of consistent productivity.
Simply use an app or stopwatch and set the timer to sound in 45-60 minutes. To tie into the previous strategy, you may count the ensuing micro-break as a “reward” of sorts.
Over time, this brain hack works by training your dopamine response to productivity, thereby motivating you to accomplish your goals and stay focused.
Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter responsible for regulating reward-driven behaviors and the pleasuring feelings associated with such endpoints, like those we experience after eating a delicious meal or having sex.
Research also suggests that using nootropics that act on dopamine, like L-DOPA and N-acetyl-L-tyrosine, may increase motivation and cognitive function throughout the day.
Start Using These Hacks to Stay Focused!
Hopefully, the hacks mentioned above will help you cast off the shackles of distraction and teach you how to stay focused at work, home, school, or wherever life takes you.
Remember, these are suggestions, not rules; some of them will require a bit of personalization and fine-tuning, so be sure to adjust as you learn more about what helps you focus (and what doesn’t). What’s optimal for others may or may not be optimal for you.
That being said, the strategies in this article will benefit many people in some capacity.
Learning how to stay focused will pay dividends towards your productivity and success in life, no matter what your ambitions may be. If you let distractions hold you back, there’s a good chance many of your aspirations will not come to fruition.
Make your mind work for you, not against you.