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How to train your brain to get more done at work, according to a productivity expert

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Office distractions, especially in open work spaces, can lower your productivity — and pretty much everyone suffers from them. In fact, 99% of people said they get distracted while working at their desk, according to a 2019 survey from communications company Poly of 5,150 workers. And once distracted, the average person takes 23 minutes to get back on task, according to a 2008 study by University of California, Irvine.

Part of why we're so susceptible to breaks in our attention is that our brain rewards us for finding distraction, says Chris Bailey, author of "Hyperfocus: How to Manage Attention in a World of Distraction."

It's called the novelty bias, he says, and it refers to the phenomenon that every time we refocus on something new or novel, our brain releases dopamine into our prefrontal cortex. That's the part of the brain that controls decision-making, among other things.

"Dopamine is this wonderful chemical we get every time we make love or we eat a delicious meal or do other things that stimulate the mind," Bailey says. "But it turns out we get that same hit when we check Instagram and when we open up Facebook."

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With some effort, you can wean yourself off distractions even though you're chemically wired to crave them. Here's how.

Improve your ability to focus

Hyperfocus usually refers to a state of deep concentration in people with ADHD, but Bailey uses the term to describe deep concentration among all people.

"We all have those days when we accomplish in one or two hours of hyperfocus attention what sometimes takes us a full day or two," he says. "So the question becomes: How do we get into that elusive mode more often?"

He suggests these two strategies to help you enter a state of intense focus:

  • Set an intention for right now. It sounds simple, but Bailey says that not enough people make a plan for themselves in the moment. "Take 15 to 20 seconds and think, 'What is the most important thing I could be working on in this moment?'" he says. Oftentimes, we'll get distracted by a passing coworker or Twitter discourse about a popular article, and don't ask ourselves if our focus is in the right place.
  • Visualize your goals. At the start of your day, imagine what you want the end of your day to feel like and what three things you would like to have accomplished. Write those goals down and then prioritize them against other tasks that surface as the workday progresses. "This helps you carve out what's important," he says. You can decide what needs to get done instead of "responding to what's urgent."
Take 15 to 20 seconds and think, 'What is the most important thing I could be working on in this moment?'
Chris Bailey
Author of 'Hyperfocus: How to Manage Attention in a World of Distraction'

Train your brain to stop seeking distractions

You can also learn to maintain focus by decreasing your stimulation threshold. This means that you train your brain to desire fewer distractions, Bailey explains.

Here are two ways to do this:

  • Unplug at night. Bailey suggests that from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., you totally disconnect from the internet. He says that the experience will feel uncomfortable for the first few days — but eventually your mind will "settle down into a new, lower level of stimulation, and you'll crave distraction a lot less." Eliminating phones, tablets, and laptops from your nighttime routine can also help you sleep better, and therefore increase your productivity during the day. Exposure to "junk light" triggers your brain into being awake the same way daylight can, according to a 2013 study, by inhibiting your body's ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates your sleep.
  • Take advantage of distraction-blocking apps. Technology is the source of many distractions, but it can also save you from them, Bailey points out. Apps like Cold Turkey and Freedom let you to program your computer to block certain apps and websites for a set amount of time, thereby eliminating potential distractions. This will allow you to hyperfocus and not switch tabs every 15 seconds, therefore reducing the amount of stimuli your brain expects.

So often, we're not consciously deciding what we want to be doing, Bailey says. But if you set intentions often and reduce brain stimulation, then you have a chance at accomplishing more. "If you don't decide what's important, the world decides for you — and then you're screwed."

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