3 Simple Ways to Clear Brain Fog and Focus on Your Tasks
You don’t need to work harder — you just need to focus
This article was first published in Small Business Strong.
So, you got up at a decent hour. Made your first cup of coffee. Even swapped the sweatpants for some ‘regular’ clothes.
You sit down, ready to work, and… hit a wall of brain fog.
You just can’t focus. Your mind starts wandering anywhere but the task at hand.
Wondering what’s for dinner. Replying to DMs. Checking the news. Checking if those jeans you like are back in stock. Watching another Instagram live to ‘get inspired’. Taking another walk to the fridge just to stretch your legs. Having yet another spontaneous tidying session.
Anything to clear your head, right? Except that nothing works.
Before you know it, it’s the end of the day and you’re staring at that ambitious to-do list you made at the start of the day and wondering how you ever expected to fit it all in.
So you shift it over to tomorrow and hope for the best.
Of course, not every day is a brain fog day.
Some days, focusing comes easily. No need to make an effort: from the moment you sit down to work, you’re already in your genius zone.
But for the most part, staying focused is a matter of training. It’s a mixture of habits, cues and self-discipline that allows you to get the work done, even when it’s the last thing on your mind.
There’s no need to beat ourselves up about it. With so much mental energy redirecting to crisis mode right now, it’s natural to seek out the pleasant distractions all around us. Besides, nobody knows what a ‘normal’ workday looks like anymore, making it near impossible to get into a consistent routine.
That said, most of us have work, study and other projects to get on with. Deadlines and projects haven’t stopped; for some of us, they gained speed. And getting into a deep focus zone is crucial to staying on track and keeping performance levels high.
A few months into working from home, I’ve (just about) cracked the code on handling my vices and getting into focus mode. I still get the occasional brain fog day, but for the most part, I’m able to work through it instead of dodging work for the day.
If you’ve been struggling with a mind that roams free when you most need it to work, here are a few tips I’ve found helpful. Hopefully, they’ll help you find your focus too.
1. Recognise the distractions you need to overcome
In order to stay focused, you need to become hyper-aware of everything that knocks you off-course. That way, you can learn to stop yourself in your tracks and learn to say no.
You can make it easier to say no with these tips and tools.
For scrolling temptations: Forest App My biggest distraction comes as no surprise. Whenever there’s a lull in my workflow, I reach for my phone. And I know I’m not the only one. Research shows the average person picks up their phone 58 times per day. I’d wager a guess the number is much higher on foggy focus days.
This is where an app like Forest comes in handy. In essence, it’s a timer that blocks off access to the rest of your apps and curbs temptation. As soon as you set the timer, you plant a tree. You can leave the app before the timer is up, but if you do, your tree will die. The more trees you plant, the bigger your forest. It’s a fun, visual way to stay off your phone and get work done.
For time management: Tomato Timer If you struggle with taking breaks that stretch for hours or waste whole days on low-impact tasks, you might need some help with your time management.
The Pomodoro Technique is a famous time management technique designed to break down large work projects into manageable chunks. Traditionally, it involves working for a 25-minute interval, followed by a 5-minute break. Having mini-deadlines keeps your focus sharp, and keeping your breaks short and sweet brings you right back into the zone when the time is up. I use the Tomato Timer website to time my intervals.
For not knowing where to start: Eat the Frog Eating the frog means tackling that one thing on your to-do list that you absolutely don’t want to do — or, the frog. This funny-sounding technique comes in handy on days when you don’t even know where to begin.
By eliminating that task you keep putting off first thing in the morning, you guarantee yourself an instant win. This kickstarts a feeling of accomplishment and motivation to carry you through the rest of your day. Plus, you don’t have to look the frog in the eye anymore when it gives you a sideways stare from your planner.
2. Fill the silence (or silence the noise!)
Some people need complete silence to focus, while others work best with background noise. I fall into the latter category — I just can’t focus when it’s too quiet. Throughout the last few months, I’ve been finding ways to fill the silence.
Lo-Fi Music Lo-fi music is a chill, relaxed genre that aids deep focus. Most of the songs are instrumental, keeping distractions to a minimum. After a few months of listening to various lo-fi playlists as soon as I start my workday, it has become an instant productivity trigger — even on foggier days. The lo-fi playlists on my rotation are: Lo-Fi Beats on Spotify, lo-fi hip hop and jazz hop playlists by Feardog, and the live lo-fi radio by ChilledCow.
White Noise Rain sounds, waterfalls, cafe sounds, nature walk sounds — all of these can help to create a cosy, focused study space. MyNoise.net is a free white noise website with a great selection to choose from. It’s completely customisable, meaning you can adjust the sliders to get your perfect background noise. I usually listen to coffee shop sounds to remember the pre-pandemic joys of working at coffee shops, but with minimal noise from the table next to me. If only it were that easy in real life!
Noise-cancelling headphones If you live in a noisy household and need to drown out the chatter, noise-cancelling headphones will do the trick. As with the lo-fi beats, this can also act as a trigger if you practice it often enough. As soon as your headphones are on, it’s time to put your head down and get stuff done.
3. Set yourself up for success
Before you sit down to work, there are a few things you can do to help yourself focus. After all, you don’t want to stand in your own way.
I’ve written a whole blog post on making your home workspace more creative, so make sure to check it out for more useful tips and inspiration!
Here are a few simple things you can do to encourage deep focus to come your way.
Plan your day the night before. By jotting down the tasks you need to do the night before, you’ll know exactly where to start when the time comes — and won’t waste time checking your emails for an hour before you start. I like to plan digitally in Asana and Google Calendar, but also jot things down in my planner.
Streamline your to-do list. Nobody likes seeing a million things they need to do. It’s in your best interest to keep it to the bare minimum. Two or three priority tasks for each day should do the trick — you won’t feel overwhelmed, but you’ll still tackle all the important bits.
Batch work helps. Jumping between tasks, such as research, writing and emails, scatters your focus, making everything take twice as long — and adding to your overwhelm. You’re much better off sticking to one type of task at a time and doing it in bulk. This is what productivity expert Cal Newport calls ‘deep work.’ By clearing the mental clutter of a million different tasks per day, you leave “more mental resources available for deep thinking. No one ever changed the world, created a new industry, or amassed a fortune due to their fast email response time.”
Give yourself deadlines. If you, like me, feel most motivated when you’re on a deadline, you might struggle to focus when one isn’t in the calendar. Setting strict deadlines for each task (even if it’s just the end of the workday) will help you stay on target instead of letting everything drag out.
Grab every moment of inspiration. If you feel a sudden urge to work on a project or idea, do it. Even if you’re still in bed sporting your pyjamas! Those rare moments of focus will spur you on and make it easier to keep going when inspiration is in short supply.
To sum it all up:
Next time a wave of brain fog washes over you and focus seems impossible, mix and match some of these tips.
First, recognise your vices and stop them in their tracks with simple cues such as app blockers and task timers. Next, give yourself a sound trigger that gets you into deep focus mode — whether that’s complete silence or a relaxed playlist. Finally, set yourself up for success by streamlining your tasks into manageable chunks.
Focus is an individual thing, and you might have to try out a few methods to see what works best for you. But once you’ve cracked the formula, you’ll be left with an easy-to-implement focus routine that you can whip out when you need it the most. Consider that brain fog cleared.
Which tip was your favourite? I would love it if you shared it in the comments below.