Ways to boost your concentration and mental focus while working from home

How to stay focussed when you're working from home. (Getty Images)
How to stay focussed when you're working from home. (Getty Images)

There’s a brilliant saying doing the social media rounds, which points out that we’re not working from home, but living through a global pandemic while trying to do work from our homes.

The distinction is subtle, but important, because even if you’ve done it before, working from home due to the coronavirus outbreak is actually pretty different.

Trying to work while simultaneously managing a household, looking after children and/or teaching them key stage 2 algebra, and coping with the bubbling anxiety caused by other impacts of the crisis is a world away from the odd WFH day you did pre-COVID-19 outbreak.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that we’re finding it difficult to stay focussed and concentrate.

“As we try to tackle the ‘new normal’ of WFH during this unprecedented time, there are many distractions that are preventing our minds from focussing,” explains Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy.

Read more: The WFH positions messing up your back and neck - and the stretches to ease pain

Many of us are struggling to concentrate when WFH. (Getty Images)
Many of us are struggling to concentrate when WFH. (Getty Images)

Dr Touroni says there are many factors leading to our lack of concentration.

“Many people have children at home, which is a massive distraction. The majority of people are consuming more news and media, which can make it very hard to focus on the present. By keeping up with the news cycle, our minds tend to wander off into unchartered territories.

“As everything is changing so rapidly, our minds are playing catch-up and trying to process everything that’s going on,” she adds.

Add to that worries about the health and wellbeing of our loved ones, and financial pressures, and it’s totally understandable that our concentration is slipping.

So how do we get past all the distractions and focus on the WFH tasks at hand?

Swap comfort for focus foods

It’s oh so tempting to reach for the sugary snacks while trying to concentrate, but while comfort food may feel like familiar friends in these troubled times, new research suggests that eating just one meal high in saturated fat can hinder our ability to concentrate.

“What we eat is vital for our cognitive functions such as memory and concentration,” explains Mike Wakeman, brain health nutrition scientist, pharmacist and advisor to Neubria.

“Foods such as fish, like krill, sardines, all rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, fresh fruit and vegetables and highly coloured berries such as blueberries provide nutrients that can benefit the brain.”

Wakeman says avoiding processed and unhealthy fatty foods can also help improve our focus.

Read more: 5 products to make working from home more comfortable

Try some colour therapy

Did you realise the colours you surround yourself with can have a knock on effect on your concentration? “People often think that stimulating colours, such as red, are going to keep us alert, but in actual fact this is more likely to simply make us more stressed, and less efficient as a result,” explains Dr Anne Whitehouse, Author and Empowerment Expert.

Instead, the colour we should be turning to is green. “Looking at the colour green has been shown in many studies to produce a calming effect on our brainwaves,” Dr Whitehouse explains. “It also increases the mental processes of concentration and focus.”

Simply taking a short break of 40 seconds to look at the colour green, is long enough to get this effect.

WFH while also looking after children is tricky. (Getty Images)
WFH while also looking after children is tricky. (Getty Images)

Surround yourself with stay-focussed smells

“Smells can have a huge impact on our mood and change the way you think,” explains Tania Adir, founder and interior designer for Uncommon. She suggests investing in a subtle diffuser or scented candle to provide some background focus.

“Lemon verbena in particular is known to aid concentration, while scents such as vanilla and cinnamon can help to boost creativity,” she adds.

Pick your playlist

While some tracks push themselves into the foreground, hijacking your brain and taking you away from the task in hand; others take a back seat, setting a mood and steering you towards a state of flow without demanding the attention of the conscious mind. “If you need to concentrate, go for a playlist that is slower and calmer, with less lyrics as they're often distracting,” suggests Adir.

Wakeman says turning on soft music, preferably without lyrics, while working or studying has been shown to benefit our brains. “Research data has shown that using white noise or nature sounds to mask unwanted background noise can help improve concentration,” he adds. “So even non-music fans can escape distractions.”

Read more: Quick and easy at-home lunch ideas

Productivity packing plants

While also improving the look of our WFH set-up, studies suggest having plants in the office or a view of a green space improves job satisfaction, productivity and our mental health, too.

A study conducted by scientists from the University of Hyogo in Japan found that having a plant on your desk could be the key to feeling less frazzled. And when we’re less frazzled, we’re more likely to be able to focus.

“House plants, such as Asparagus Ferns or Yuccas, help filter the air, reduce stress and blood pressure, and increase productivity,” explains Adir.

Light up your desk

According to Adir there is a basic human preference for natural lighting over artificial, and a link with improved productivity.

“Natural light is crucial to supporting our circadian rhythms,” she explains. “At home, try to position your workspace near a window to benefit from natural light and use softer table lamps, rather than harsh ceiling spotlights or strip lighting.”

Up your H2O

We know we should be drinking more water to help our health, but upping your intake can also help improve your focus. “Even very mild dehydration can cause tiredness, headaches and make it harder to concentrate, so keep a good supply of water in your work space and aim for 6-8 glasses a day,” suggests Dr Matthew Whalley, clinical psychologist and director of Psychology Tools.

Sort your sleep

The coronavirus and all the anxieties surrounding it has meant sleep schedules have taken a hit, but poor quality sleep can really impact on daytime concentration and cognitive functions around memory and work functions. “Most experts recommend a good 7-8 hours sleep each night, and practising a good sleep hygiene regime can often help if this is a problem,” says Wakeman. “Recommendations include, no electronic screens in the bedroom, keeping the bedroom at a comfortably cool temperature, going to bed at the same time every night, including weekends, and developing a relaxing routine around bedtime.”

Read more: How to help children sleep better during coronavirus lockdown

Carve out some child-free time

Many of us are having to WFH while also juggling childcare and home schooling efforts, so it is hardly surprising our focus can slip.

“If you share caring responsibility for looking after children, then negotiate with your partner (if you have one) for dedicated work time,” suggests Dr Whalley. “A shorter period of dedicated time is more useful than a longer period of interrupted time.”

House plants could help improve focus. (Getty Images)
House plants could help improve focus. (Getty Images)

Take a break

Busyness tends to be (wrongly) associated with achievement. “When you're keeping yourself busy all day long, you might feel like you’re getting a lot done but the reality is that you can't give your best when you're depleted and over-stretched,” explains Dr Touroni. “Real productivity requires focus. Taking breaks is important because it allows us to take a step back and recharge.”

Zen it

We know yoga and meditation help chill us out, but they’re also good for our brain health focus, stress levels and immune health. “There are now a number of research studies that have found that yoga enhances immune function and reduces psychological stress,” explains Wakeman. “Additionally, it has been shown that yoga decreases tension, and depression and it increases the calming alpha brain waves while decreasing the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.” So good news for our brain health and wellbeing.

“The practice of meditation has also been shown to lead to a variety of positive clinical outcomes. Hence, meditation is one of the effective techniques for the improvement of cognitive abilities,” he adds.

Read more: Parents need to be aware of 'separation anxiety' in children caused by coronavirus lockdown

Create clear boundaries between work and home life

As tempting as it might be, avoid answering emails from bed or taking zoom calls after working hours. “In our always-on culture, and particularly right now, it’s easy to blur the boundaries between work and home life,” explains Dr Touroni. “It becomes even easier to fall into this trap when we’re WFH. Commit to making the divide between home and work as clear as possible. Make sure you have a separate space for working hours - even if it’s just a particular corner of the room or a section of the table - so it’s clear when you’re ‘on’ and when you’re ‘off’.” This will help you focus when you’re meant to be focussing.

Fitness for focus

According to Wakeman exercise is an important factor in increasing concentration and attention. “This doesn’t necessarily involve going to a gym each day, something we cannot do at the moment anyway,” he explains. “Simply engaging in activities that increase the heart rate is good news or our body health, brains and focus.

“Ideally, exercising before engaging in a task that really needs focus is beneficial, or at a time when a mental break is needed,” he adds.