“You can do anything, but not everything.” – David Allen

8 seconds. That’s how long a Microsoft Study found that the average person can stay focused before their mind starts to wander. That’s one second less than a goldfish. Yep, that helpless, much-maligned little fishy that gets flushed down the loo can probably focus longer than you. If you find that a trifle embarrassing, and are able to stick with me for just a few more minutes, I’ll show you how you can blow that goldfish benchmark right out of the toilet bowl.

Still with me? Great!

While the goldfish analogy is pretty extreme, our deplorable level of focus is no joke. A US study found that adult office workers stay on task for an average of just 3 minutes. That’s right, 3 minutes. That’s not even long enough to soft boil an egg.

Another study found that 40% of knowledge workers in the UK never work for more than 30 minutes straight, and are productive for just 2 hours and 48 minutes of their 8-hour workday. That’s a lot of work day spent doing stuff that’s not work.

Why do we find it so incredibly difficult to focus?

In our hyper-connected world, distractions and disruptions are everywhere. In fact, Clockify research revealed that the average employee experiences as many as 56 disruptions per day.

One behaviour study of more than 50,000 people found that the average worker ‘checks in’ with communication tools every 6 minutes, while 35.5% of workers can’t wait even 3 minutes before checking their email and messages. 

When you consider that it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus after a disruption to our concentration, it’s little wonder that we’re such an unproductive bunch.

Blame for this attention epidemic has been laid pretty heavily at the feet of technology. Microsoft research found that “digital lifestyles have a negative impact on prolonged focus.” Factors including social media usage, multiple screening, tech savviness and increased digital consumption had the biggest impact on attention span, negatively affecting our ability to stay focused on a task.

And smartphones have just exacerbated the problem. A 2018 survey found that 36% of Millennials and Generation Z’ers say they spend two hours or more checking their smartphones during the workday, while Joseph McCormack, in his book Brief, asserts that the average professional checks their smartphone 36 times an hour

We’ve been admonished all our lives for not listening, reprimanded for not staying on task, told to ‘focus’ when our attention wanders – yet it remains one of the toughest ongoing challenges we face. Why? Because very few people were ever taught how to actually do it.

Learning to focus is just like any other skill – it requires lots of practice, and the more time you spend doing it, the better you get at it. Do you think Maggie the goalie became so laser-focused without some intense training? #focusgoals!

If you’re keen to develop Maggie-level focus, here’s what you need to do:

1. Don’t multitask

This is the big one. Our brains simply aren’t wired to multitask. You may think you’re multitasking, but as author Susan Cain explains, “What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.”

In one study, University of California professor Gloria Mark found that workers average just 3 minutes on any given task before switching, and about 2 minutes using any digital tool before switching. She also found that for every disruption, it takes more than 23 minutes to fully refocus on the task. This is the switching cost – and it means that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your time.

The average worker uses 56 different apps and websites a day, switching between them more than 300 times, and switching between documents and pages within a site 1,300 times. All that switching literally drains your mind’s energy reserves, causing you to lose focus and become more anxious. It also changes the structure of your brain – MRI scans show that multitaskers have less brain density in the regions responsible for empathy and emotional control. Distractions are literally shrinking your brain. It’s also really rotten for your working memory. You might want to write that one down!

There is definitely a scientific explanation behind our brain’s inability to multitask, but the upshot is that it’s bad for you, and it’s really bad for your work. As author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang said, “Busyness is not a means to accomplishment, but an obstacle to it.”

2. Block off time for focused work

I’m a big believer that we’re at our most productive when we structure our day around our internal rhythms and cycles. As our body clocks are designed for greater mental agility in the morning, you’re best off scheduling a block of time for focused tasks before lunch (unless you’re a night owl!). I build fantastic Energy Maps with my clients (individually and as teams) to align their working week to their energy rhythms and have seen a massive shift in their sense of accomplishment, motivation and ability to ‘get it all done’.

Schedule the time block in your diary and be super diligent about setting boundaries so that your co-workers, family and friends know you’re off-limits. Get comfortable with having brave conversations to protect your block… this is your time, and it’s precious.

3. Change your environment

Tim Ferriss, Productivity guru and author of The 4-Hour Workweek, said in his book, “Focus is a function, first and foremost, of limiting the number of options you give yourself for procrastinating… It’s not a magical ability. It’s put yourself in a padded room, with the problem that you need to work on, and shut the door. That’s it.”

Manipulate your environment so you’re not faced with temptation everywhere you look. Willpower is great but it’s not the best solution – it’s just too darn hard. Create a space that’s uncluttered and free from distractions, where you can go purely to be productive. Sometimes just stepping into a dedicated space is enough to switch your brain into focus mode.

4. Disable notifications

In her soon-to-be-released book, Attention Span, Gloria Mark suggests that constant distractions have rewired our brains to seek stimuli that release bursts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. We’ve been conditioned to respond to the constant pinging and pop-ups from our multitude of devices, and it’s hugely distracting. So in this case, no news is good news – disable your notifications or, even better, remove unnecessary devices altogether.

Johann Hari, author of ‘Stolen Focus’, said one of the biggest life changes he made was buying a kSafe that locks your phone away for as long as you program it to. He also uses an app on his laptop called Freedom, which cuts it off from the internet so he’s not tempted to browse. There are a heap of fantastic distraction blocker apps on the market to choose from, all designed to help you focus.  

5. Create productive habits

Your habits account for about 40% of your behaviours on any given day, so you want to create habits that help you focus (especially on the right things).

There are plenty of productive habits worth exploring, but here are a few of my favourites:

  • Focus on the priorities in your life. As Steven Covey says, “the key to productivity is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” His big rocks analogy beautifully illustrates what happens when you don’t.  
  • Two-Minute Rule asks you to commit to just two minutes on task without distractions. By committing to just two minutes of a new habit, consistently, you’ll build the behaviour change you’re after as a new habit forms, and you’ll end up sticking at it for a lot longer than two minutes.
  • Eat That Frog is a metaphor for tackling your most challenging and important task first every day. If you start each day by focusing on just one critical task, then you’ll be making progress on something meaningful every day.
  • Pareto Principle (otherwise known as the 80/20 rule) helps you focus on your highest-impact tasks rather than spending too much time on tasks that are of low value. Work out which 20% of your tasks will have the highest value when completed, and focus 80% of your time on completing those tasks.

6. Take a break

The ‘thinking’ part of your brain – the prefrontal cortex – is responsible for logical thinking, executive functioning and using willpower to resist impulses. And just like any muscle, the longer we work our brain without rest, the more fatigued it gets, then mistakes start to happen and before you know if you’re being seduced by the lure of cat videos. It’s a slippery slope.

It’s not just me either – research reveals that prolonged attention to a single task hinders performance, finding that “brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.” Scientific studies have also proven how important mental breaks are for fuelling productivity, replenishing energy, improving decision-making, solidifying learnings and encouraging creativity.

According to the time-tracking app, Desktime, productive people always take breaks. In fact, the most productive people work for 52 minutes, then break for 17 minutes. The Pomodoro technique works on a similar break philosophy, proposing 25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break.

Whatever timer you put on it, just make sure you move away from your computer. Go have some lunch, grab a coffee, take a power nap, go for a run, meditate or – my best advice? Get some fresh air, soak up the vitamin D and just walk it out.

Way back in the early 1800’s Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard realised the power of a quiet walk, declaring “I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Johann Hari is also a walker, saying “I make it a point to go for a walk for an hour every day without my phone or anything else that could distract me. I let my thoughts float and find unexpected connections. I found that, precisely because I give my attention space to roam, my thinking is sharper, and I have better ideas.”

I also treasure a good walk. Pre-kids I used to walk for a couple of hours a day, and I still try to walk for an hour a day with the dog and no phone. I used to try and multi-task with a podcast, but now I love the silence and being present with my thoughts in nature, observing life in our little suburb. I also offer walk and talk sessions with my clients – it helps the brain to problem solve better and shift energy states, with the left/right motion aligning the two regions of the brain.

Finding your focus flow

When it comes to focusing, we only have a certain amount of bandwidth to play with before our brain starts to go haywire. So if you’re looking for that holy grail focus ‘flow’ state to make your precious work time count, you need to cut out the distractions getting in your way. Just because you can switch between a zillion tasks or work off three screens at once doesn’t mean you should. As Aristotle said a mere 2,500 years ago, “What lies in our power to do, lies in our power not to do.”

Hey… congratulations – you’ve made it to the end of the article and you’re still here! Give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve got those goldfish well and truly covered.

If you’d like some help improving your ability to focus, one whole module of my Recalibrate Self-Paced Coaching Program is focused on helping you improve your productivity. You’ll also learn other life-long skills like value-setting and taking action to achieve your goals, as well as how to smash through limiting beliefs, bad habits and negative thinking. You can download an Info Pack for all the details, or simply get in touch and we’ll organise a time to chat!

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I’m an experienced career coach and mentor here to help you improve your mindset, motivation and momentum. I believe everyone has the power to change their lives. It starts with taking responsibility.