The chilliness of winter is here and everywhere reminds us about the hustle and bustle of Christmas. On top of this, there are colds and flu spreading around. It’s been a long year (as always) and many of us are probably feeling more than ready for the festive break. We’re winding down at work, but whether it’s preparing for Christmas, going on holiday or getting things done at work before the break it’s a busy time and one where we could really use our focus to get to the end. So how can we find our focus to round the year off?
It’s not long till many of us are able to retire for some holiday and fireplace rest. We’re asking our brains to make a final sprint to wrap up the year, meet some final work deadlines and get all the Christmas gifts wrapped up as well. Not to mention those of you who are working directly in the festive industry - this is probably the busiest time of year! So whether we’re back at work after a week off with the flu rushing to catch up and finish for the year, listening to classic Christmas songs as we return from the shops, or trying to imagine how to schedule the next few weeks with the kids off school, how do we focus at such a chaotic time of year?
First of all, we have all been through it or it is just a matter of time before we start feeling our brain batteries run out of charge. But we are all different individuals, and so the causes of our lack of focus, as well as its remediations, are not the same for everyone. The bad news, we don’t have a magic pill to light the brain up like a Christmas tree, but we can share some expert tips on how to navigate your way back to the lost focus.
1. Planning and organising
When we’re overwhelmed by too many things to do and our focus goes in too many directions, one of the best things we could do is to sit down, stop doing for a bit and start thinking. What tasks do we need to complete before the end of the year? Which deadlines do we have before closing off for holidays? A list can be a good starting point for some of us, or you might want to try a kanban board (an agile project management tool designed to help visualize work, limit work-in-progress, and maximize efficiency or flow) with actual or virtual post-its to highlight your goals and your to-dos for the current week. You might think this is only for work-related stuff but can help a lot in your personal life as well. Planning and organising will allow you to set pathways to guide your focus and allow you to channel it into one thing at a time - and what a relief as each thing is ticked off!
2. Avoid multitasking
This is an immediate consequence of the point above, but worth mentioning separately. We all may be tempted to address our attention in multiple directions at the same time, as it gives us the impression of achieving more tasks in a shorter amount of time. False! Unfortunately, multitasking produces the opposite effect most of the time. Quickly switching our focus from one thing to another means that we need some adjustment time every time we switch to fully concentrate on a single thing. If we stayed on it until completed before starting a new task, this would save us a lot of the time we would use to force our attention to go from one task to another. Plus, we will feel much less stressed and overwhelmed by doing one thing at a time!
3. Set boundaries to distractions
So many times we tend to multitask because there are so many distractions interfering with our flow of activities. We think we can easily reply to text messages while we eat, search online for a winter chalet for the holidays while we are in a long meeting, or think of gifts for our family while we are cooking dinner, but the consequence is that we are straining our focus to look after too many things. Plus we’ll probably miss a key question during the meeting, boil over the soup and forget auntie Annie on the gift list. Around this time of the year, distractions can come from anywhere, from friends asking you to meet for a cuppa, to nephews’ recitals you are invited to, to your partner asking your help at the shopping mall - to the football, that so nearly came home. This is all nice as long as you can cope with it, but when you feel it is taking too much of your energy, learn to say no and reschedule, to make sure nothing is driving your focus away from what is most important for you to achieve.
4. Set focus time
When our diary looks pretty much free, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of letting too many distractions come our way. That’s why setting some ‘formal’ focus time might really help to optimise our concentration efforts and energy. When we have all day to do something, we might struggle (for most of the day) to focus and complete it, and we don’t mind if we are constantly interrupted. What we could finish in 20 minutes can last an entire afternoon, making us feel exhausted. Committing ourselves to focus for short periods of time helps us to do our best in that time and will give us a fulfilling sense of accomplishment, leaving the rest of the afternoon free for rest and thinking about the other 30 things on the to-do list. A Pomodoro timer (a time management method based on 25-minute stretches of focused work broken by five-minute breaks) could be a good gift you can give yourself for Christmas to create a habit of focus time in your daily schedule.
5. Take (mindful) breaks
Many of us believe that powering through will keep our focus or at least get done quicker, but actually taking a break helps us gain clarity and refocus for the next task or just to continue with a big one. Actually, those of us who struggle to use time effectively to complete tasks likely to value time in restoring ourselves, but there can’t be a strong focus without good restoration. If we take breaks from tasks but let distractions steal our break time, we will come back to the task even less focused and more tired than before. Setting boundaries to distractions also means saving quality time for ourselves, and for our minds to restore. No matter how many unread messages you have, they can wait (and even become your next task if needed), and they cannot take you from your rest time. Especially during festivities, it might be very difficult to cut some time off just for yourself, but don’t take it as optional: a thoughts-free, mindful time is essential to restore your mental focus at its peak levels.
6. Try attention training
If we try to demand ourselves to think of nothing, it’s likely all sorts of thoughts will come our way, and we'd bet most of them will be about stressful or worrying things we have to do. Meditation techniques offer a great opportunity to train our ability to control our focus, letting our thoughts drift in our consciousness, but not letting any of them steal all our focus, which remains free, and anchored in the present moment. To start, usually, meditation-based attention training asks you to focus on your breath. This is a very effective way to reset your focus and after some practice, you can use this as a tool to refresh your mind between tasks, without being in a formal meditation class or totally silent setting. If meditation is not really for you, you can try other forms of attention training, such as our brain training game AquaSnap, providing progressively challenging tasks to stretch your attention abilities within a calming underwater virtual environment.
Music can be an excellent ally for focus, meditation and attention training. But it’s not for everyone, and we’ll all have different vibes for focus, so you might need to try a few before finding your best genre. Explore genres you would not normally listen to: we might be big fans of punk rock, but find out that classical music is our focus jam. Wham!'s Last Christmas jingle is likely not to be ideal for anyone to focus! Spotify (or whatever music platform you normally use) offers a wide selection of playlists for focus. Try a few and find out what works best for you.
8. Declutter your environment
The space around us has an influence on our ability to focus greater than you would expect. A messy environment full of clutter naturally offers distracting stimuli to our brains, creating barriers to our minds to free up and focus on a single thing. We know at this time of the year there's a lot of things around: all gifts you prepared and still have to give to people, festive decorations, bulky warm clothes and coats all around. Try to keep your spaces organised and leave at least one room clear of extra stuff so that you can use it for focusing when you need it. Don't let them take all the empty space available and evaluate to give away what you don't need.
9. Consider your biology as well
We can do our best to remove distractions and set time and space to focus, but we will still struggle if we don't equip our bodies for focus. Attention is a key brain function and as such, it depends on our biology - the chemicals going around our body and the biorhythms regulating them. The best way to do this is through our key life habits: eating, sleeping and moving. Falling into overindulging is an easy trap during the festive period, but we can still choose some delicacies to feed our brain - including the festival's snacks like walnuts and oranges! Also spending longer hours in bed is very common when it's cold outside, but that's not ideal for the quality of our sleep. Maintaining a regular sleep routine is essential to keep our brain alerted during the day and restore it fully during the night. As well as restoration, our body needs movement to keep active: even in the busiest time of year, try to maintain some regular daily movement: you'll see benefits to your mental focus as well as to your overall wellbeing.
10. Final check
The seasonal flu spreading around is affecting our cognitive abilities as well. In fact, to fight the virus, our body activates an immune response causing inflammation, which has a negative effect on the brain and its functioning. So no worries if you feel blurred, unable to concentrate for a long time or forgetful after the flu: it's normal, and it will usually resolve in a couple of weeks. If those symptoms become prolonged or are significantly interfering with your daily activities, talk with your GP to evaluate taking supplements to give a boost to the restoration of your normal brain function.
Fixing your focus: don’t forget to enjoy yourself in the run-up to festive breaks, happy holidays and the big day. While many of us wind down our focus is needed to get to the end, but we’ll all feel the struggle from time to time, have days where it just doesn’t come, and moments where we simply cannot get off social media (those pesky reels and TikToks). It’s a busy, cold and exciting time of year so take it as it comes, take care of yourself, and remember everyone has blurry days where the focus is the last thing we can find. It’ll come back soon!