10 Things That Will Help You Focus and Work Smarter all Day Long

We all want to feel energetic all day long, allowing us to focus and be as productive as possible. But the best laid plans don’t always work out, and sometimes we find ourselves reaching for that candy bar from the vending machine at 2 p.m. – and then wondering why we can’t pay attention during the rest of the afternoon. It’s important to find ways to focus and perform at our best at work considering how stressful modern working life can be. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress at work is the number one reason that Americans are stressed out today, and those numbers have gone up in recent decades. Check out these ten tips for staying alert and ready for whatever the day brings.

See also: How to Stay Focused on a Job Despite Interruptions in the Workplace

1. A Cup of Joe is Okay

Chances are you’re already used to your morning cup of coffee, and research shows that caffeine is linked to improvements in memory. The good news: the memory in question is the kind that is most relevant to the office worker, such as remembering a list. Too much caffeine can cause anxiety or the dreaded afternoon slump, so keep it to no more than two cups in order to stay at your sharpest.

2. Take a Lunch Break

Scarfing down a turkey sandwich while sending yet another email or skipping lunch altogether and then inhaling a bag of chips later are not the ideal ways to fuel for your work day. But more of us are eating at our desks: only 1 in 5 people actually take a lunch break. This is bad news for productivity. You not only need the physical break away from your desk, but you also need to make sure you’re eating a proper meal. Running on empty or only eating junk food won’t do anything except make you tired, sluggish, and unable to concentrate. So eat in the break room if your office has one or go for a quick walk around the block for some Vitamin D and fresh air.

3. Don't Go It Alone

We want to appear confident and capable, but that doesn’t always mean being a one-man or one-woman show. Research on creativity and productivity in the workplace found that people are in more creative mindsets if they ask a co-worker for assistance. In fact, productivity is thought to go up when workers have in-office friendships. Not only will you work better and smarter, but you will be happier with your position and even your chances of being promoted increase. That’s a good reason to take that lunch break with the employee in the cubicle next to you.

4. All About Apps

Using a productivity app such as DeskTime can be a good way to learn exactly how you are spending your work day in order to improve your focus. The app is typically used company-wide, as it was originally conceived as a way for one company to learn about the productive nature of its employees. The idea is that HR can then give employees productivity advice. Another app, CloudMagic, allows you to search your emails more efficiently than ever before. Need to really focus and write a report or work on an upcoming presentation? Download Freedom, which restricts Internet access. No more mindlessly checking Facebook or Twitter when you need to get something done.

5. Fuel Up

You are what you eat. What you put into your body matters: our bodies convert food into glucose, which is what gives our brains the power they need to function (aka energy). When we feel like we’re struggling to stay alert and pay attention, that’s because the glucose in our bodies is running out. But it’s not just any food that can turn into the glucose that our bodies and brains need to focus, it’s the right food. Simple carbohydrates such as pasta and white bread convert into glucose too fast and end up giving us energy that doesn’t last, and then a crash.

Some smart meal and snack ideas that include the just-right combination of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates include:

  • A turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with avocado and lettuce
  • A salad with chicken or salmon
  • A handful of cashews or almonds
  • An apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter

6. Take Hourly Breaks

It turns out that we can’t actually remain focused and productive for the entire span of the traditional 8-hour work day. When the previously mentioned productivity app DeskTime surveyed workers, they discovered that the top 10 percent would work for 52 minutes and then take a break. The length of the breaks mattered: 17 minutes. So, to maximize your focus and ability to work at your optimal level, take breaks every 52 minutes. It’s most likely not realistic to think that you could take a 17-minute break every hour. Try taking a break even just looking away from your computer for a few minutes – the most common advice is to take your eyes away from your screen every 20 minutes or so. Don’t feel guilty – taking short breaks throughout the day will help you work smarter.

7. Make the Most of Your Meetings

No matter what your job title is or what your responsibilities are, and no matter what industry you are in, you most likely have to attend weekly or even daily meetings. Meetings can be a drain on your energy and can even get nothing done at all: 47 percent surveyed by said meetings are big time wasters. It’s a good idea to always leave a meeting knowing what you need to accomplish next and understanding what is expected of you. If you’re unsure, ask questions now – it’s better to use the time you have now rather than waste time later asking your manager what you’re supposed to do. It’s also a smart strategy to ensure a meeting is necessary – of course, some are required and unavoidable, but if a meeting where you suspect nothing will get done or decided upon is cutting into time you need to get something done, speak up.

8. Aim for Inbox Zero

Do you feel buried under a mountain of emails? Ever feel like no matter how quickly you think you’re answering them, more always come in? In our 24/7, 7 days a week work culture where we are attached to our iPhones even on evenings and weekends, the temptation to answer work emails at any time of day or night is always there. Staying on top of your email is an important strategy for staying productive. Aim to achieve "Inbox Zero" or to have answered every new email by the end of the work day. And prioritizing is key: answering certain work emails at night is unavoidable if they are urgent, but for non-urgent messages, sending a quick reply that you will get back to someone tomorrow is fine. Managing your inbox will make you a more confident employee.

9. Become an Early Bird

Do you rush to get to the office on time every day, juggling your family’s breakfast routine, and worrying about traffic on your morning commute? If possible, try arriving a few minutes (or even 10 minutes) early, at least a few days a week. This will give you a jumpstart on answering emails for the day and will keep you calm rather than stressed. Stress is the enemy of productivity, and feeling anxious will make you think you have more on your plate than you actually do.

10. Breathe

Yoga is not only good for stress relief and exercise: the popular practice’s emphasis on the breath is useful in chaotic, stressful situations, such as the office. Any time you feel your stress levels rising, take a few deep, long and slow breaths, focusing on the in and out. This automatically signals to your body that it’s time to calm down instead of panic, and you will be able to get back to what’s important: getting work done.

See also: 25 Easy Ways to Increase Your Productivity

Maintaining your focus during the hours of 9 to 5 and being a productive worker are not easy tasks, and you will have to work at them every day. But it is completely possible to feel confident that you can do what you need to do while staying calm instead of stressed. Follow the ten tips given here and you will be working smarter and more focused every day.

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