About Maggie Pancheva: I’m a writer and certified productivity ninja for Hibox. We provide a platform for teams and companies to communicate internally with ease, manage tasks and boost overall productivity.
We’ve all been there. It can strike first thing in the morning, just as you’ve sat down with a piping hot cup of coffee, ready to start work. Or it can be the middle of the afternoon, and you’ve already had a day of meetings and emails to get through. As soon as you’re alone, and you need to think – you’re stuck.
Your brain just won’t work. Whether it’s a blank sheet of real (or virtual) paper you’re staring at, or thousands of lines of coloured code: you just can’t think. Your mind: totally blank. Empty. Nada.
And somehow, that’s all you can process in the moment. The one thought you can actually muster is that – paradoxically – there are no other thoughts.
For whatever reason, your brain has – annoyingly – decided to stop functioning. It can prove disastrous, whatever you’re working on. Long-term, personal goals can feel light years away. And if it’s a concrete task to complete, with a real deadline, and someone depending on you – it’s all the worse. You can feel the panic setting in: you truly want to work, and finish the task at hand, but you just can’t.
It can come all of a sudden, or you can feel it happening to you all the time – like a kind of twisted (yet ironically functional) clockwork. Sometimes it feels never-ending, and your productivity seems doomed. But, rest assured, it happens to absolutely all of us.
Writer’s block is a famous and well-covered topic, but the same phenomenon can happen to anyone: whether it’s words, code or images you’re working with, sometimes your brain refuses to cooperate.
I’ve been there. Like a lot of you before me – I had an academic behemoth facing me at the end of my undergraduate degree – a dissertation. A huge 10,000-word study into a specific field that I ought to be an expert in. So, imagine the pressure and panic you feel when – as the submission date creeps closer and closer with each day spent hibernating in the library – you just don’t get anything done. The minutes go by and by (slowly), and yet the word count refuses to budge.
Now, I’m an expert in personal and team productivity! I work for a company that helps teams achieve just that. So surely, I wouldn’t have to worry about that ever again? Sadly, that’s not the case (yet).
Even now – as a supposed expert in productivity – I sometimes struggle to get my brain to refocus. I catch myself staring out of the window and scold myself for procrastinating. There’s no magic switch for your brain, to flick on and off and get it to reboot. (And coffee can only ever help to a certain extent…) But, I have learnt that there are literally hundreds of tools, tricks and tips from experts on how to refocus your mind and hone your concentration. And, refreshingly, a lot of them actually work!
Step 1: Take a (cerebral) break
Putting pressure on yourself won’t help. Your mind is probably exhausted – whether you’re conscious of it or not. The brain is an organ like any other, and just like your legs, it can’t keep on running indefinitely. So make sure to give the old grey matter a rest, even if it’s just temporary. In fact, if you haven’t heard this a million times yet, go for a walk.
Going for a simple, 10-minute walk does wonders to jog your mind back to working capacity. Multiple studies show that going for a walk outside will help ease brain fatigue, and help you to regain your concentration when you do get back to work. Plus, researchers from Stanford have concluded that walking – wherever it is – can boost your creativity by 60%.
No wonder entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg are famous for holding walking meetings al fresco. So not only will you clear that brain fog – but you’ll actually have better ideas when you sit down at your desk again.
Step 2: Prioritise your brain’s tasks
Your brain is probably trying to keep up with several long-term goals, a daily to-do list, a bunch of reminders, remembering and holding multiple conversations, as well as all the keeping-you-alive-by-doing-a-million-things-at-once stuff.
So when it comes to the tasks you’re giving your brain: make sure you’re selecting the right ones.
Studies have indicated that only 2% of people can successfully multitask. The rest of us – when we try to – face a 40% decrease in productivity… Not worth the risk, then. If, like 98% of us, you’re not superman (or woman), stick to the one task at a time.
However, trying to ascertain which tasks to prioritise isn’t as easy as you’d think. It’s actually a topic that’s intrigued countless entrepreneurs over the years. From Warren Buffett’s list of 25 goals, to Stephen Covey’s ‘time management matrix’, there are multiple tactics to determine where you should be spending your mental energy.
When you have figured out what actually requires your mental efforts, how do you best organise your time?
Step 3: Schedule your time
To battle the dreaded brain fatigue that comes from overworking, make sure you’re effectively using the time your brain is actually switched on and raring to go.
As with a lot of productivity topics, there are debates on how best to schedule your working time.
Some people will swear by the Pomodoro method. It’s a technique that schedules breaks into your work – and they’re mandatory. You can start easily enough, working for 15 minutes straight, and then taking a 3 minute break. Over time, you can build up your concentration to work for 35 minutes straight and only take a 5 minute break. It’s a great technique for avoiding unplanned breaks that can last excessively long.
Other experts will vouch for the ‘Power Hour’. It’s a technique to schedule your most optimal, productive hour. You eliminate all distractions, plan your tasks in advance, and just sit down and do it. You have one hour and you have to work for all of it (or until you’ve finished your set tasks). It sounds a little extreme, but some people swear it quickly makes you become much more efficient.
Whichever method you prefer, both emphasise the danger distractions pose to your focus.
Step 4: De-distractify your life
Emails, social media, phone calls, notifications – whether they’re a necessity or not depends entirely on what you do for a living. But they’re almost inevitably a huge source of distraction. And when you’re already struggling to focus, that all-too-familiar ‘ding!’ emitting from your phone or laptop won’t help you at all.
Even worse, studies show that after a distraction, it takes 25 minutes to resume focus. That’s a worrisome statistic if you consider how often it happens during the space of one work day…
So, to get yourself (and your struggling brain) back on track, take control. To achieve a state of deep work: hide, mute or unplug anything that will hinder your progress. Sometimes, it’s as simple as turning your phone on silent and putting it away – out of sight out of mind, right?
It’s only logical, after all. Think of the mental gymnastics your brain has to do to constantly keep refocusing. Switching from work – to an unscheduled phone call – to work – to a funny cat GIF email – back to work. It’s exhausting just thinking about it!
And the distractions are everywhere. In an office, you can physically see them (yes, I mean your coworkers). But even if you’re a remote worker – like a lot of my team members – they’re still everywhere to be found online.
That’s why you have to make sure your tech tools aren’t another stimulus for your brain block.
Step 5: Find tools you trust
For remote workers, there is the added struggle of having to be online. Almost all companies nowadays use chat or project management apps to connect their staff, so you’re constantly checking those instead of actually getting on with work. This multi-app nightmare is why Hibox just combined everything in one team task management platform.
There are also some handy tools to manage your personal tech space. There are apps designed to help manage your virtual workspace. They’re great for decluttering, and letting you refocus on the task at hand.
There are also plenty of task-organisers and daily planners. But if you find yourself getting overwhelmed with the sheer number of apps, programs and widgets you’ve got running at once, there’s an old-school solution.
Bullet journals are increasingly popular day-planners, that simultaneously offer you a creative outlet. Since you make your own bullet journal, you can decide exactly what goes in it. Some of the ones I’ve seen have pages to doodle, colour in, or even connect-the-dots. And sometimes that’s exactly what you need! Unplugging and spending a few minutes letting your hands do the thinking will do wonders for rebooting your tired brain.
Step 6: Calm down and relax
The most important thing to do is not worry about why you can’t get anything done. Again, it happens to all of us! (Maybe apart from those who’ve studied meditation for several decades in a remote monastery…)
If you want to pre-emptively boost your concentration and increase the length of time you can work without interruption, that’s fantastic! There are techniques and experts to help you do just that. And there’s heaps of scientific evidence that shows that exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep is essential to your brain productivity, too.
But for now, when you find yourself in that hazy, blank and unproductive mental state – just do this: calm down, go for a walk, and when you return, create the right environment to focus. You’ll be back to work in no time.