How to stay focused on one thing at a time?

Our day-to-day work and home life hosts a plethora of distractions making it challenging for us to stay focused on one thing at a time.

Commitments, social events, high workloads, multitasking, meetings, and not to mention the constant flow of information via email, internet and social media all play a role, leading us to often experience a cycle of anxiety, stress and a sense of ‘it’s too much’ about not fulfilling our daily jobs and tasks. As a result, we feel more stressed, less and less focused. Often we hear ourselves say: ‘I am all over the place’, meaning that our attention is split. It undermines the quality of our actions. 

Is multi-tasking a myth?


Multi-tasking has long been a celebrated ‘skill’, however, consider this statement by world-renowned neuroscientist and founder of the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds Richard Davidson. He says, “Multitasking is a myth. Multitasking is shifting our attention rapidly, it deteriorates the results of what we do and think.”

As creatures of habit, rapidly jumping from one thing to the next can quickly become a habitual way of being and behaving. As a result, we can not only feel distracted but we can also begin to experience sustained levels of anxiety and burn out. This in turn can result in a lack of motivation and energy, low mood, a sense of discontentment with ourselves and life, stress and at worse depression.

Running my own coaching and mindfulness business, I often find myself not knowing what to do first and when I am not aware, I find myself flitting from one thing to another: responding to an email, writing up client notes, looking at a text message and checking LinkedIn. It’s tiring and a hugely dissatisfying way of working.

How can we respond to distractions and stay focused?

Our modern lifestyle strains and often overwhelms the brain with more information than it evolved to handle. Some things we can’t control or change directly – like our workload, family and children related commitments – but how we respond to our external circumstances, events and happenings in terms of our thinking, behaviour and communication is within our control.

The benefits of becoming more self-aware

Setting intentions

To change our habit of being easily distracted to one that can stay focused on one thing at a time, we need to become self-aware. And self-awareness requires an inner discipline, a willingness to pause and to look, to observe how we do what we do. When we become aware of our habits, we can do something about them. Becoming self-aware then also requires a willingness to make an effort to change, to make progress, to train our mind to pay attention to one thing at a time. 

Try setting an intention at the start of each day

Setting an intention at the beginning of the day can greatly influence how we are and behave throughout the day. For example, when getting up, over breakfast or on our way to work, we can take a moment, breathe, and say to ourselves: “Today, I want to slow down, stay focused and pay attention to one thing at a time.” It helps raise our awareness to keep on track with how we want to be and behave moment by moment.  The more we practice doing one thing at a time, the more likely we will form a new habit, one that allows us to stay focused regardless of what’s going on around us.

Tips to help us stay with one thing at a time:

  • Catch yourself when engaging in several things at a time, eg writing an email while tweeting and responding to a phone call; cooking while helping your kids with their homework; having dinner while watching the news. Finish one task before starting a new one.

  • Take regular short breaks to clear the mind and relax the body. Step outside into the garden or walk around the block – changing scenery for just ten minutes can make a big difference to staying focused throughout the day.

  • Focus on your breath when doing daily activities. Notice your breath in your upper body, particularly in your chest and belly.

  • Connect with your colleague when making a cup of tea or in your lunch break and chit chat less at your desk.

  • Take your meeting outside. Holding a 1:1 or catch up outdoors while walking – getting out of the office into open space ignites our thinking and creativity, helps gain perspective and clear the mind.

  • Relax into a feeling of calm presence with other people, breathe and take them fully in.

  • Use routine events – such as the phone ringing, going to the toilet or drinking a glass of water or a cup of tea – as ‘temple bells’ to return to a sense of centeredness.

  • Have a regular lunch break – at least 30 minutes – away from any electronic devices

  • Tame your smartphone and disable needless notifications. Most of the time we don’t need to know about incoming emails and tweets. I’ve become better over time – not there yet – at looking at emails and social media only at set time of the day.

Posture and focus

What else supports our attention and focus?

Sleep. On average most of us get about one to three hour’s less sleep a day than our body really needs. We all know what it feels like when we had a good night’s sleep and when we haven’t. Lack of sleep blurs the mind, makes us irritable, grumpy, reactive and undermines our resilience to respond to life’s ups and downs creatively.

Posture. Rick Hanson’s Buddha’s Brain states that sitting in an erect posture provides internal feedback to the reticular formation – a mesh like network of nerves in the brain stem which is involved with wakefulness and consciousness, telling it that you need to stay vigilant and alert.

Oxygen. Oxygen is to the nervous system as petrol is to a car. Our brain uses approximately 20% of our oxygen. By taking a few deep breaths several times a day between tasks, when going to the toilet, making a cup of tea or between meetings, we increase oxygen saturation in our blood and hence rev up our brain.

To train our mind, to change our habits – how we do what we do – is a tall task for many of us while living our busy lives. To train the mind, to stay focused is a daily practice. But when we do, the payoff is huge: we feel more energised, more satisfied, creative, kinder to ourselves and others, resourceful, engaged, present…

We can’t stop the brain from changing. The only question is: Are you getting the changes you want? – Rick Hanson.

Rick Hanson is a neuro-scientist and meditation teacher and has written several books.

“Just one thing” – one simple practice at a time – is a fab little book – practical, insightful, life changing.

Book your free initial coaching conversation in beautiful Victoria park, East London, via video call or phone.

With warmest wishes,