Staying focused can help you to stay safe on site and when carrying out safety-critical tasks.  Read on to find out how to improve concentration and beat distraction.

Distraction doesn't just come from outside of us – such as a colleague's warning shout, or a noise that means something isn't right.  In fact, that can even benefit safety.  We can also be distracted by our thoughts or by having a short concentration span. These internal distractions can put us at risk. 

If you’re doing anything safety-critical at work, or driving a car or van, you’ll need to stay focused to stay safe.  Beating distraction has become harder with all the technology around us.  Despite this, there are still ways you can improve your concentration and focus.

Blurry clock face in blue

What's distracting us?

With the vast majority of people using smartphones these days, there’s a danger our brains may get hijacked. And that applies even when our phones are off and out of sight!  We’re all becoming more distracted these days.  In fact, being distracted is the new norm.  We check our phones every 12 minutes on average in the UK.  And 71% of us never switch off our phones.  Not only do they wake us up, but they’re likely to be just inches away from our pillows when we fall asleep.

As a result, we can find ourselves never really switching off.  Excessive social media use can make the issue worse, potentially having a long-term impact on our mental health.  Smartphone alerts and notifications all demand our attention.  Alerts and notifications tend to be switched on by default.

Smartphone technology has been engineered to extract as much of your attention as possible – and it won’t give up without a fight.  In the time it takes you to read this article, you may well have experienced that ‘need’ to check your phone several times.  This heightened state of ‘readiness to respond’ takes its toll on our ability to concentrate.  Your brain starts to become distracted by the expectation of being distracted. 

We might persuade ourselves we have an always-on, anywhere, anytime mindset.  The myth of multitasking convinces us that we’re working more effectively.  In reality, our minds are split between different activities competing for our attention.

To use an analogy, your brain is a bit like a computer.  You may have lots of applications running in the background, but each one is using up a chunk of the overall computing power.  At some point, if you demand too much of your computer, it is liable to freeze up.  It is the same with your brain.  What can you do to concentrate better?  There are lots of things you can do to improve your attention span.

Do nothing

Regularly sit doing nothing for five minutes and focus on your breath in this mindful exercise.  Ease yourself into a supportive, comfortable position, and just bring your attention to your breathing.  Every time your attention wanders, bring it back to your breath. 

Leave your phone alone

Try leaving your smartphone alone at lunch, or keeping it out of the bedroom altogether (which might mean buying an alarm clock). You could also take a break from it for six hours at a time once a week.

Extend your focus

Focus on an activity for longer.  When you want to quit, think, ‘I will do five more.’ It might be five more minutes of jogging, or reading a book or magazine for five more pages.  This helps you push beyond the normal limit of your concentration.

Read for pleasure

Read a book or magazine (but not on a mobile device because you might be distracted!) and exclude every other kind of distraction.  Do your best to stay with the thread or story and enjoy the experience.

Watch a clock face

For a full minute, focus your attention on the seconds hand.  Gather your attention as you wait for the seconds hand of a clock to reach 12 at the top, then follow the movement of the hand for 60 seconds.  

Count or spell backwards

It sounds much simpler than it is.  For example, start at 100 and count down from there in 5s – 95, 90, 85, 80, 75 and so on.  Hold your concentration until you reach zero, bringing your mind back to the task if it wanders.  You can increase the difficulty level by counting back in say 7s, 8s or 9s.  If you’re feeling more confident, pick a higher starting number.  Spelling backwards is just a variation on this theme.

Pay attention to detail

We often walk past objects, even those we love, such as a family photo or painting, without paying any attention.  After a while, they tend to blend in with their surroundings.  In taking them for granted, we may miss their important meaning in our lives.  This very same principle can be applied in safety-critical environments, where focusing on detail can help us anticipate hazards and prevent injuries.

In a similar way, you could listen closely to music.  Choose a track that's three minutes long or longer, and one you know well.  Instead of just hearing the track, listen more attentively to the voices, lyrics, notes, and instruments.  See if your ear can pick up features that you haven’t heard before.  On repeat listens, try focusing on a certain feature for the whole track.

Other tips

  • Stay hydrated.
  • Try to focus on one thing at a time, with a brief break between tasks.

If you consistently seek to build your concentration skills using these activities, you will find yourself being better able to resist distractions.  You will be able to get your work done more effectively because your mind has been trained to pay attention.  You are also helping both you and your colleagues to get things done as safely as possible.