Escaping The Concentration Treadmill
Even if this is the first time you are hearing of it, I guarantee that you are familiar with the concentration treadmill. The cycle goes something like this:
- You have a task to do that requires concentration — perhaps its a last minute assignment from your boss, or a looming deadline that won’t stop getting closer and closer.
- You sit down and concentrate on the task in hand. You may even get a lot of work done. Some time passes, and your brain starts to waver. You check your LinkedIn. Perhaps you read the headlines. But after a while, you force yourself back into the work.
- The work gets harder to concentrate on, and you go back to thinking about distractions. Maybe you even check your profile one more time or read another article.
- You go back to work, and its even harder to concentrate on.
- Go back to step 3, and repeat ad infinitum.
Does that sound familiar? The concentration treadmill will wear you down if you aren’t careful. Its only human to experience a bit of burn out, especially when dedicating yourself to one task. Its one of the reasons why some companies are questioning the 40 hour work week. Once you step onto that treadmill, productivity starts to die and the task becomes more difficult.
Those deadlines are coming, those articles need to be written, and that analysis should be on the boss’s desk by the end of today. So how do you escape the concentration treadmill and still get the work done? There are pitfalls that are easily escapable, and tactics to ensure you are working at your best level — even when focusing on a singular task.
Slow down on the caffeine
I love caffeine as much as the next person — some days, I am up and down like a yo-yo as I endlessly refill my cup. And there is nothing wrong with a bit of stimulation. Studies have shown that caffeine can increase learning by up to 10% and enhance memory retention. But relying on a cup of coffee for concentration is a surefire way to get distracted. Caffeine heightens your senses to everything — that includes those distractions you are trying to avoid. Limit yourself to a few cups a day, and don’t binge or use caffeine as a crutch.
Snack on foods that increase brain power
Sugar and fat are concentration killers — so foods like chips are the kind of thing you want to avoid when trying to escape the concentration treadmill. Junk food can decrease brain function according to some scientists, so stay away from anything with complex carbohydrates, processed sugars, and trans fats. Instead, try snacking on something like blueberries. I often talk about making your diet work for you, and blueberries are a great example of this. They are delicious and are packed with antioxidants that can boost concentration and memory for up to five hours after eating them.
Define your breaks
One of the biggest pitfalls that keep us on the concentration treadmill is the blurred lines between work periods and breaks. By checking your phone in the middle of a stretch of work, or by checking in on a topic of work while relaxing, you never feel like you are doing either thing properly. The work drags on and we get trapped in the last 3 steps of the treadmill. Leave the work at the desk, and leave the distractions elsewhere. Even if it means stopping early when you can’t concentrate and taking longer breaks.
In a similar vein to the last point, when your breaks are too similar to your work, you won’t feel rested. It’s good to change up what you are doing as much as possible, especially when it comes to working at a desk or on a computer. If you have a longer break, go for a walk around the block or head out to the gym. And stay off your phone while you are walking around — make it a real break.
Use a system
Find a system that works for you when planning out your workload. Some people use calendars to mark out their workload. Others swear by milestones, rewarding themselves with a break when they hit a word count or complete a task. I love The Pomodoro Technique. “Pomodoro” is Italian for tomato. Its named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer owned by Francesco Cirillo, the creator of The Pomodoro Technique. The idea is to break down your workload into 25-minute intervals. Every time you finish a 25-minute sprint, you take a short break of 3–5 minutes. After four intervals, you take a longer break of 15–30 minutes. It works because it manages distractions, controls your time and reminds you to take intentional, deliberate breaks.
We all have tasks that require us to strap in and get the work done. It’s an unavoidable aspect of life. But we don’t have to let these tasks control us. If we aren’t careful, we can force ourselves on to the concentration treadmill and destroy our productivity. Make sure that you recognize when this is happening, and remember to step off the treadmill. Give yourself breaks, fill your body with food that will help you concentrate, and get a system that works for you.
Jon Straub is a health and wellness coach in NYC. He is on a mission to elevate the effectiveness of world-changing leaders through the food they eat and the way they live.