Are you searching for ways to boost your focus and productivity at work?
I find that while tips for time management and task prioritization are helpful—”Batch your work!” “Make a to-do list!”—often they ignore the external factors that make it harder to get work done.
While researching my book about the five senses, I discovered that to a great degree, it’s often our surroundings, our screens, and other people that hijack our attention.
Surroundings: whether we’re working in an office or from home, elements of our environment often grab our attention
Screens: whether in the form of a smartphone, a computer monitor, or a TV, screens tempt us with entertainment and information
Other people: Human survival has always depended on our ability to cooperate, and we have an insatiable curiosity about other people.
Information about other people is so compelling that it can be tough to concentrate in the presence of others—something bemoaned by many office workers who sit in an open-plan design, or by people who work from home with family members nearby.
These and other external factors make it hard for us to:
Focus—to concentrate; complete the tasks we start; stay alert to errors or oversights; think deeply and creatively; and persist through frustration.
Be productive—to maintain our energy from morning to evening; avoid time-wasting activities or distractions; and identify ways to work more efficiently; learn to use new tools.
Here’s one simple, manageable solution: Tap in to the power of our five senses.
By being mindful of our senses, we can identify factors that support or disrupt our focus, and boost or diminish our productivity. With that knowledge, we can improve the experience of the workplace, whether we work in an office, at home, or hybrid.
Fortunately, this tip is quick, easy, and inexpensive to implement! We don’t need to buy something, take a class, or make an appointment. Our senses are available to us right now.
Note: As we shape our environments, it’s crucial to remember that we all experience our own unique sensory world. If you share surroundings with other people, what feels comfortable to you might not feel comfortable to them. The aim is to create an environment where everyone can thrive.
30 Ways to Use Your Five Senses to Boost Focus and Productivity
1. Ask yourself: Are you a simplicity-lover or an abundance-lover? For some people, creativity and productivity are sparked by orderly arrangements, bare counters, empty shelves. Other get a boost from profusion, buzz, piles, and collections.
Neither way is the “right” or “wrong” way, but if you share a space with someone who prefers a different style, you might need to compromise. If you’re the boss, don’t make the mistake of insisting that everyone do things your way—what works for you might not work for your employees.
2. Get enough, but not too much, light. (If your eyes feel relief when you make a salute, you have too much light.)
3. For many people, outer order contributes to inner calm, focus, and energy. If you have trouble concentrating because your surroundings are messy and cluttered, take time to establish order. You might…
4. Follow the one-minute rule; anything you can do in less than one minute, do without delay.
5. Do a daily 10-minute closer and take ten minutes at the end of the day to organize your work space.
6. But beware procrasti-clearing! I sometimes fall into this trap—when I have a very strong urge to clear clutter as an excuse to delay working on a tough task.
We often lose time and focus when we’re fussing with our smartphones. Our phones provide valuable tools that save us time and energy, but they also offer many temptations. By changing the appearance of your phone, you can make it work better for you.
7. Delete time-sucking apps, such as games or social media.
8. Turn your phone to “grayscale” so its images appear only in white, black, or gray—much harder, and less fun, to use!
9. Delete apps you don’t use and organize your apps by function, alphabetically, or even—whimsically—by color.
10. Use your home screen to remind you of an important goal—a friend put the word “WRITE” on her home screen so that each glance at her phone reminded her to stay productive.
11. Just as you clear clutter, clear clatter. Identify and eliminate bothersome noises that distract you while you work. Note: Our brains are wired to be particularly attentive to human voices, so you may be especially distracted by other people’s conversations.
12. Wear noise-cancelling headphones.
13. Turn off your smartphone’s notifications sounds so those pings and buzzes won’t interrupt your train of thought.
14. Play white noise, brown noise, or pink noise to create a more consistent sound environment. Especially if you’re distracted by overhearing other people talking or moving around, white noise can muffle sounds that might otherwise catch your attention. (My favorite is pink noise.)
15. Figure out whether listening to music boosts or diminishes your productivity. To work, I need silence or a busy hum (such as a coffee shop), but some people benefit from music. Different sound environments help people to improve their focus and productivity, so shape your surroundings to suit yourself.
16. Here’s a useful hack: if you need to quiet a group—say, you need to start a meeting with a roomful of people who won’t stop talking—blow into a harmonica. It’s a pleasant sound that instantly communicates, “Quiet, it’s time to start.”
We often disregard our sense of smell, but it’s a very powerful influence and can make a big difference in how we experience an environment.
17. Use a pleasant smell as a way as a cue, “Time to buckle down.” I have a gardenia-scented candle that I only burn when I really need extra focus, so I associate the scent with times of intense productivity.
Note: only use this hack when working at home; when working with other people, it’s best to avoid creating smells. People often have very different ideas of what they want to smell!
18. Because bad smells can drain our energy, tackle a stench at the source. The garbage pail, the fridge, and the microwave are common culprits. (It’s best to avoid using highly scented cleaning products, see point above.)
When we work, we sometimes grab a tasty bite as a way to give ourselves boost—and often, we makes choices that aren’t healthy.
19. If you’re a coffee drinker, drink some coffee! Even if it’s de-caffeinated, many people associate the smell, sight, and taste of coffee with energy and refreshment.
20. Keep healthy foods near at hand. If it’s easy to pull a bag of chips from the cupboard or vending machine, and it’s hard to assemble a healthy snack, you’ll find it hard to resist temptation. Also, if you’re being productive, you won’t want to break your focus by using your time and attention to prepare foods.
21. If you’re not hungry, but feeling distracted by your desire to find a sweet or salty snack, brush your teeth.
22. I find that keeping a sugar-free mint in my mouth helps me concentrate. I don’t know why, but it works. Some people prefer to chew gum.
23. More and more, people turn to pop fidget toys, therapy dough, weighted blankets, and other touch tools to stay calm, focused, and productive. It helps! I have a fidget spinner that I love—I find it especially helpful when I’m sitting in a long video call. No one on the screen can see or hear what I’m doing, and the activity of my hands helps me concentrate my mind.
24. Eliminate scratchy shirts or tight pants, and replace an uncomfortable chair or a desk that’s too high or too low. Discomfort can distract and drain us. Along the same lines…
25. Adjust the temperature of your work space.
26. If you’re distracted by the TV, store the remote control in a very inconvenient space–ditto, with the phone. If a device is in your hands, you’ll probably use it; if you have to go to a lot of trouble to get it, you won’t thoughtlessly pick it up.
Use Your Five Senses to Take Energizing, Relaxing Breaks
Our five senses also help us to stay focused and productive by giving us a break from focus and productivity! Sometimes, if we want to keep going, we have to allow ourselves to stop.
Taking a break to indulge in a sensory experience is a quick, easy way to refresh our minds and bodies.
27. Because research shows that being in the presence of nature both calms and energizes us, if you can, stimulate your senses with nature—walk outdoors during your lunch hour, sit near a window that offers natural light and fresh air, add a plant to your work area.
28. Listening to a favorite upbeat song is one of the quickest, easiest ways to give yourself a boost. (Get a bigger boost by dancing along to the music, or doing some jumping jacks.)
29. Allow yourself to goof around. Research shows that periods of play help us to stay focused and creative. Pick up an instrument you haven’t practiced in a while, doodle with colored pencils, smell five jars of spices in the kitchen, walk barefoot and pay attention to the texture of the floor, make a paper airplane, invent a new kind of sandwich.
30. Strengthen teams by encouraging people to share playful, relaxing sensory experiences. Such team-building activities include:
- doing a huge puzzle together
- building a LEGO structure
- taking a cheese- or chocolate-tasting class
- playing with games such as Follow Your Nose, Lite Brite, or Operation
- playing with Model Magic or kinetic sand
- spending a few hours picking up trash or planting flowers in a park
Remember That People Experience Very Different Sensory Worlds
Whether we’re working in the office or at home, we often face conflict with others that arise from different sensory experiences and preferences.
One person like scented candles; someone else finds the smell unbearably strong. One person doesn’t mind the sound of other people’s conversations; someone else is very distracted by the sounds of voices. One person doesn’t mind piles of papers and shelves of trinkets; someone else wants to hide everything in drawers and behind doors. One person turns on all the lights someone else finds the room unbearably bright. One person likes to open windows to feel a breeze and hear outdoor sounds; another person dislikes the draft and the noise.
Recognizing that people experience sensations in different ways can help us all to be more understanding—not to dismiss people’s objections to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or touches, but instead to respect them, so that we can create sensory environments in which everyone can feel comfortable.
With mindful planning and attention, tapping in to our five senses is an important tool for helping us to transform the workplace so that we can be more focused, more productive, more creative, less stressed—and happier.