How to Better Focus (and Unfocus) During the Workday

We all have our ways to stay on track - whether it’s a to-do list, multiple calendars or a plethora of sticky notes waving across our desks. Others may practice mindfulness by concentrating on being present for a few minutes every day before really focusing on the tasks at hand.

But there could be such a thing as focusing too much, lowering productivity and causing burnout. Drained energy may even make us more impulsive, or less helpful - according to author and Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, Srini Pillay


In fact, Pillay's recent research suggests that the brain functions better when you balance between being focused and unfocused.


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According to Pillay's Harvard Business Review article, unfocused brains engage in a circuit that  is called the “default mode network”. When you stop putting effort into focusing, this circuit uses 20% of the body’s energy, compared to the 5% your brain uses when actively focusing.


The article continues to explain that your brain's default mode network actually needs this increased energy because of how active it is during this time. You may experience old memories, thoughts going back and forth between the past, present and future, and a deeper sense of self-awareness. All of this can contribute to more creative ideas and potentially lead to better decision-making.


Fancy research aside, Pillay believes that the key to having a productive day isn’t being completely focused or completely unfocused, but having a mix of both. Give some of these tips a try the next time you’re overwhelmed at your desk:


  1. Try a simple activity, like taking a walk or doodling. These low-key activities can help you gently ease into your thoughts while giving you a break from more daunting work.

  2. Allow yourself to daydream. Daydreams can boost creativity, so don’t fight your mind wandering! Imagine a relaxing and calming activity that you enjoy. Relive a happy memory. These thoughts can help re-energize your brain.

  3. Be someone else. Okay, not literally - but we can play pretend. Look at your current project and ask what kind of profession and personality would absolutely excel at it, and take on the personality of that person. It may sound strange, but this strategy might help you think of an idea that would not have crossed your mind before. Pillay refers to this as psychological halloweenism.

  4. Sneak a snooze. If you are able to, get in a quick nap to help re-set your focus. Depending on how fried your brain may feel, a longer nap could be in order.

  5. Practice meditation. Mindful meditation might sound intimidating, but it’s actually easier than you’d think! All you have to do is sit comfortably, close your eyes, try to relax your mind and concentrate on your breathing. Notice the movement of your body with each breath, and how every part feels. And repeat.

  6. Grab some grub. After focusing for a long period of time and feeling stuck, allow yourself to have a mental escape by getting some lunch with a coworker or friend to talk about things other than work. Even a quick coffee-run can help you feel refreshed.

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Harvard Business Review