Improving Your Concentration Span

Rinoa posts, “Could you post something about improving your concentration span? I know the reason why I procrastinate is because I know I won’t be able to concentrate long enough to finish the task. Please help.”

Inability to concentrate comes from three main sources:

1.      Technology

2.      People

3.      Your brain

1.  TECHNOLOGY.  First, you must disable your global email alerts, so you don’t receive a notification for every garbage email coming into your in-box but still be able to receive an alert for “important” people.  Turn off your global desktop alerts in Outlook:

  • Under the Tools menu
  • Select Options
  • In the Preferences Tab, select Email options
  • In the Email Options dialog box, select Advanced E-mail Options
  • In the middle of the dialog box, under the heading “When new items arrive in my in-box,” uncheck all four boxes
  • Click OK, OK, OK

Then, create a RULE to play a sound for “important” people. 

Rules help you manage your e-mail messages by performing actions on messages that match a specific set of conditions. After you create a rule, Outlook applies the rule when a message arrives in your Inbox or when you send a message.

  • Right-click on an email in the In-box FROM a person for whom you’d like to create a rule.
  • Select “Create Rule”
  • Check the “From (user)” box
  • Check “Play a selected sound” box.
  • Click OK

Second, turn on your voice mail, send all calls, take your phone off the hook, hide your blinking light—WHATEVER you have to do so you’re not disturbed by your phone.

2.  PEOPLE.   Now that you have your technology under control, you must head off drop-in visitors.  (If you’re in customer service or drop-in visitors are your JOB, such as a bank teller, this doesn’t apply to you, sorry.)


Use a signal.  If several people in your department are having problems with drop-in visitors, agree on a signal that communicates to others, “Please don’t interrupt me unless it’s an emergency.” A manager I worked with at Coca-Cola had an “open-door” policy. He wanted his employees to feel comfortable talking to him about anything, anytime. Unfortunately, he rarely could find time to get his work done. At his next staff meeting, he explained the problem he was having. He said that when he had a deadline, he would put on his red Coca-Cola baseball cap. His door would remain open in case there was an emergency, but he would prefer employees didn’t interrupt him during those times. He reported it worked like a charm. Get together with your department and agree on a signal everyone will use consistently. Installing curtains across the cubicle door? Turning your nameplate around? Wearing orange armbands? Partially closing the door? One group I worked with found that coworkers respected the signal about 80% of the time. When I questioned the people who said others weren’t respecting their signals, it turns out they never took down their signals. They were never available to their coworkers, so their coworkers simply ignored their signals. If you use this system, make sure you don’t abuse it.

Consider the physical layout of your office.  Does your desk face a door or a hallway?  Humans are curious beings.  When someone walks by, it is our nature to look up to see who just passed.  If that person is wandering around looking for someone to bother, they will catch your eye and smile.  Not wanting to be rude, you smile back.  They enter your office and ask the death question, “So, how’s it going?”  Congratulations, you just bought yourself an easy ten-minute interruption.  One solution is to rotate your desk or change the layout of your cubicle so that your back is facing the door.  If someone walks by and sees that you are busy, they are less likely to interrupt you (but not always).  As an added benefit, you focus longer on the work in front of you.  If you can’t rotate your desk completely around, try at least to work sideways and use a computer screen or cabinet to block your view to the corridor.


Don’t obey your thoughts. Many times you interrupt yourself. You’re sitting at our desk, concentrating on an important project, when all of a sudden you remember you forgot to tell Chris about a project update. So you get up or pick up the phone or dash off an email to tell Chris. Then you go back to your desk and start working again, only to get another thought. “Oh, that’s right!” you say, and you do that. Stop! Don’t listen to your brain or you will never complete what’s in front of you. This is why so many people have “half-done” projects all over the place!

Write down distractions, but don’t follow them. If you think of something that needs to be done while you’re working on a higher priority task, capture the thought (in your paper or electronic system) to remember it, then get back to the task at hand.

Here’s an example. If you’re working on a proposal and you think, “My living room couch is really dirty. I really should have that couch steam cleaned,” stop. When do you plan to do that? Today? I doubt it. It’s probably just something you want to remember to do at some point. Capture the thought in your time management system (Tasks, planner, notebook, whatever) but don’t do it.

Whatever you use, keep something with you at ALL times to write on to capture your thoughts.  My planner is too large to carry around everywhere, so I keep a small jotter notebook in my purse to write down things I think of or come across. If you use the Task list on Outlook or an electronic to-do tool, you still need something to write on until you get back to your computer. Perhaps you could carry around printed lists from Outlook, update them manually, and then update Outlook when you’re back at your desktop. If you don’t have something handy to capture thoughts while you’re working or out and about, you will end up with scraps of paper everywhere.  Or worse yet, you’ll just do it right then so you don’t forget and distract yourself from your priority task.

If you align with the way your brain works and work with your memory, you will not only clear the brain clutter but stay focused as well.

Hopefully this helps, Rinoa.  I’d love to hear any comments out there on what you do to concentrate.