I Dream of Focus

I Dream of Focus

Like many, I have meetings to attend AND myriad project priorities that require research, thinking, and completion. With the advent of a culture hell-bent on information overload, the constant interruption of email, the de-volved brain’s propensity for seeking reward in the Facebook feed, and a seemingly teen-like need to connect via chat or text every minute, my expectations for productivity when I set aside large blocks of time aren’t always met.

Loads of my productivity practices work, but inevitably there is a moment in that block of time when I feel I’ve just hit a wall. I’ve been trying to push through. Usually without the results I want. So I started doing some research, and have been reminded of something we’ve all heard. Maybe you didn’t listen any better than I did, so here it is again: WE NEED REST. We need rest to be productive, to be creative, to get better at what we do. Our brains need variety of activity and scenery, in addition to actual, full-on rest.




Four kinds of rest you need for focus, creativity, and productivity:


  1. Conservation
    This is not exactly rest, but related. Save your mental energy—most of us today can benefit from conserving in these two ways:

    1. Stop multi-tasking.  Cognitively, we don’t multi-task, we just switch between tasks really fast. This is a huge waste of energy. It’s not productive. Do the best you can to focus on one thing at a time.
    2. Save decision-making for when you can actually do it. Don’t watch your emails stream in – wait til you can sit and respond properly. Don’t start your day with emails, either. They’re just likely to send you off your priority path.
  2. Breaks
    After a certain period of focus, you need to step away from what you’re doing. One method I recently discovered suggest a 25-minute sprint of activity, followed by a 5-minute break. Some research suggests that our bodies operate in 90minute to 2-hour rhythms, and that 90 minutes is a good block of time to focus before a 20-30 minute break. Either way, the bottom line is that you are not built to focus hard and work effectively on any one thing for much longer, and you need to break away. Key is a deliberate break, with a specific secondary task that you won’t allow to lead to total distraction. Get a cup of tea, get or look outside, walk around the office, make a quick phone call, or handle a few email responses. Then get back to the primary task at hand.
  3. “Naps”
    I say “Naps” in quotes because there’s conflicting reporting about productivity after napping, or how long you should nap, and — let’s be honest — I’m not sure my boss is going to spring for nap mats and sleep masks. The bottom line is that at some point in the day you need to really get away. You need to get into a state of real relaxation for maybe half an hour. If you do this at the same time each day, your ability to relax and benefit from that mental re-charge will increase.  Sleep in your car, listen to a meditation tape, or switch gears into a play activity that gets your juices flowing.
  4. Proper Sleep
    Research shows that none of us is getting the amount we really need for our brains to do the work they need to while we’re asleep. Experts recommend sticking to a regular sleep schedule, and totally unplugging in the evening before bed, giving yourself genuine down time before hitting the sack.


I started with #4. As the mom of a toddler, bedtime for me is like the holy grail. I am in bed—and usually asleep—by 10pm each night.  This helps a lot. I can get up and feel ready for the day. Next up was #1. This was also a fairly natural and easy move for me. 2 and 3 are harder for myriad reasons. I’m sure you are saying, “I don’t have time for breaks” It’s going to require some discipline and boundary-building. But I’m going to give it a try with a timer and report back.

What can you do to take a break today?

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2 Responses to “I Dream of Focus”

  1. Karol Czyrka →
    June 18, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    I am a big fan of literally taking a walk around the block. It really helps clear my mind and re-energizes me.

    • Tracy Hayes
      June 18, 2014 at 9:29 am #

      The benefits of being outside to your motivation and productivity is another great topic!