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16.02.2022 Company culture

Improve concentration with these 5 alternative productivity hacks

Improve concentration with these 5 alternative productivity hacks

Whether it’s constantly wandering thoughts, a hectic environment, or a lunchtime slump: We at JOIN are also all too familiar with these problems. So we wanted to specifically combat such moments and days. But since we’ve already written so many organisation guides, this time around we reached into the rather unconventional (some call it “alternative”) bag of tricks. And we actually found some of them very helpful!

Below, you will find the most effective alternative productivity hacks so that you too can give your team’s concentration an extra boost:

But no solution without a problem. So before we turn to the individual tricks to improve concentration (and we’ll get to those in just a minute!), let’s take a brief look at where concentration problems actually come from. Join us on this short excursion!

What prevents us from concentrating on our work?

In a fast-paced work environment, distractions are bound to happen. Team members at the table next to you chatting about the news, the endless pinging sound of incoming email and Slack notifications, or a last-minute task being dumped on you by a passing colleague… And your concentration is gone. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The core of the problem is that the human capacity for concentration is really limited. With a maximum of 4-6 hours a day, your concentration span simply isn’t enough to get you through an 8-hour working day.

On top of that, this limited concentration capacity is rarely used efficiently, as a study by the British savings brand Vouchercloud showed. The surveyed office workers stated that they work productively for an average of just 2 hours and 53 minutes on an ordinary working day. And that’s not even in one stretch, but spread out over the day. In fact, the majority of people can only concentrate for about 20 minutes tops at a time before they need a break.

Although this might sound disturbing at first, it does certainly give reason for hope! ‘How so,’ you ask? The fact that apparently only half of the possible concentration time is actually used shows: It is very much possible to improve concentration! How much exactly depends on the individual, but overall our brain is capable of concentrating for about 90 minutes at a time, before requiring a break.

The main problem, therefore, doesn’t seem to be the distractions themselves. Rather, it’s the lack of knowledge about how to improve the available concentration capacities and use them more purposefully.

With just one or two hours of more targeted concentration per person per day, much more could be achieved at the company level. And that’s where our alternative productivity hacks finally come into play.

Our top 5 alternative productivity hacks

So more concentration means more productivity, but how can concentration be increased? With the right mix of minimising stimuli, gentle brain stimulation, and—who would have thought—a suitable diet and exercise regime, you can achieve positive effects in both the short and long term. Combine all five of these alternative productivity hacks to get the best results.

1. Feng shui desk: Gone with all that stuff!

More concentration goes hand in hand with reducing distractions. And that’s why a little desk feng shui is a good place to start improving your productivity.

Don’t worry, desk feng shui doesn’t mean you have to create a spiritual-looking work environment or align the team’s desks according to complicated guidelines. Our version starts right on your desk—and with order and cleanliness, the most important hallmarks of feng shui.

Clean and tidy working desk in natural light to increase focus
Photo by Domenico Loia on Unsplash

Create order: Less is more

Tidying up on the outside also keeps things tidy on the inside, as they say. So step number one for this alternative hack to increase concentration is to equip the desk with as little as possible and only as much as necessary. Or, to put it differently: just enough so that you don’t have to do a lot of tidying up when you need to clean the desk.

Example desk essentials include:

  • Laptop/computer with monitor, keyboard and mouse
  • Pencil box
  • Lamp with warm light
  • Closed filing system
  • Plant, but please, no cactus!

Decoration is allowed

A bit of decoration is also OK, but: Anything that makes noise or moves, invites you to play, or could otherwise cause distraction must be banned from the table. Examples of banned items include analogue clocks, digital clocks with second displays, desk toys such as waving cats or wiggly dachshunds (no matter how adorable!), Fidget Spinners, or mini aquariums.

Tip: From personal experience, I can recommend a nice fragrance stone for essential oils. They come in numerous shapes (from neutral stone shapes to Buddha figures). With just a few drops of oil (e.g. citrus notes or sage), this decorative object can be instantly transformed into another concentration booster with feng-shui character to brighten up any desk.

Away with the smartphone!

By the way, your phone has to go as well! A study by the scientist Adrian F. Ward found that the mere presence of the smartphone on the table severely impairs concentration (regardless of whether the display is up, down, or covered).

And it’s really true. When I see my mobile phone in front me, a lot of things pop into my head. Things I could quickly do on the side. This tempts me to multitask and destroys my concentration. In my backpack, on the other hand, it takes up much less of my time.

You can find more useful tips on workplace design (e.g. colour design) that can also be applied to your company headquarters in our article on setting up remote workplaces.

2. Binaural Beats or meditation music

Now that the basic distractions are off the table (literally), we can take the next step and create our own little bubble of concentrated work. To do this, we’ll now spend about 2 minutes with so-called binaural beats.

At JOIN, we’re big fans of upbeat music to really get into the flow. But there are some tasks where even that creates distractions—for example, during creative work. An example from my own experience: Listening to Eminem (or other very text-heavy music) makes it absolutely impossible for me to concentrate on creative work like writing blog posts. Still, I do need some food for my headphones to build my focus bubble. Otherwise, the silence gets on my nerves or ambient noise distracts me.

This is where noise-cancelling headphones and so-called binaural beats make a great duo and an effective support when I want to improve my concentration. What are binaural beats, you ask?

Binaural beats are acoustic frequencies that stimulate the brain. Using headphones, two sounds are played simultaneously at different pitches, with one ear always hearing a slightly higher or lower frequency than the other.

young man wearing headphones sitting in front of macbook in busy room focusing with binaural beats
Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Binaural Beats: Effect and frequencies

When processing these sounds, certain waves (brain waves) are created in the brain, which can induce different mental states depending on the frequency level:

  • Light to deep sleep (delta or theta brain waves, 0.1 – 8 Hz)
  • General relaxation (Alpha Brain Waves 8 – 13 Hz)
  • Increased concentration and ability to think (Beta Brain Waves, 13 – 30 Hz)
  • Improved receptivity (Gamma Brain Waves, < 30 Hz)

Which brain waves are generated is determined by the difference between the two frequencies played. If the difference is 15 Hz, for example, we speak of beta brain waves. Meaning, those brain waves that increase our ability to think, our memory capacity, and our concentration.

A study on this topic showed a 3% increase in performance after only 5 minutes of stimulation at 15 Hz. Long-term studies are not yet available, but it is quite likely that the regular use of this small but powerful concentration booster can have a much greater effect in the long term. I tried it out myself and was amazed at what can be achieved with active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones and binaural beats.

Binaural beats as music for meditation

The actual binaural beats are not really music, but (sometimes rather unpleasant) vibrating humming sounds. You can listen to examples of actual binaural beats on the brainaural website.

However, this alone can quickly cause headaches, which is why binaural beats are often embedded in quiet sound spheres, soft instrumental music, nature sounds, and other creative sound settings that ground and centre their listeners. This helps them order their thoughts and makes them less sensitive to distractions and stress. In this form, they are also used as meditation music, gaining them a lot of popularity.

Perhaps you and your team will soon be using binaural beats too? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. You can find binaural beats or meditation music in different frequencies for free on YouTube, Spotify, and other platforms. Here is a video example:

If this proves useful for individual or all team members, you can find a tool (for a fee), such as focus@will, which can even track the performance improvements achieved in this way. A cool work aid!

Before you use binaural beats to increase concentration

First of all, binaural beats only work with stereo headphones! The desired effect can only be achieved by having a different sound for each ear. Otherwise, the decisive difference is no longer perceptible.

So if you prefer to use loudspeakers rather than headphones, you can alternatively rely on monaural beats (direct overlapping of frequencies on one channel) or isochronal tones (using only the frequency difference for stimulation), which can have similar effects.

But beware:
Persons with epileptic tendencies should generally avoid the use of binaural beats, as the acoustic stimulation can cause seizures. Audio-sensitive persons may also develop headaches or nausea from the use of binaural beats.

It must also be said at this point that this trick should be used with caution. In fact, binaural beats can have a doping-like effect and massively overstrain brain power. This leads to a faster fatigue of the brain and can cause stress and a feeling of overwork. Especially frequencies above 30 Hz intensify this effect. I was able to experience this for myself quite quickly.

Fun Fact: Funnily enough, binaural beats were sometimes thought to be alternative drugs and their consumption was called I-dosing. In the meantime, however, it has been proven that this is not the case.

Nevertheless, it is advisable to use binaural beats at lower (beta) frequencies first and to increase the frequency slowly. This should also be deliberately limited to a maximum of 70–80 minutes at a time, and the work should be divided into several stages. In between, you should take mandatory relaxation breaks.

But don’t worry: meditation music without brainwaves can be used at any time without any problems.

3. Brain food: Nourishment for concentration

Stimulating the brain can have a big impact. But for it to work with concentration, the brain must also be supplied with suitable food. That’s why our diet is often another concentration killer—especially after a (too) rich lunch.

We were literally fed up with having to put valuable energy, which we could invest much more productively, into overcoming a food-induced performance low. Our third alternative concentration booster therefore deals with the topic of eating for more concentration. In the next two minutes, we will explain how you too can boost your energy intake to improve concentration.

A poor diet costs brain capacity

Eating gives pleasure. But the meals we eat to stave off hunger are rarely composed in such a way that the brain can really benefit from them. And that’s a shame, really, because it takes up around 20% of our daily energy capacities.

A quarter of this goes to regeneration and maintenance alone, and a good quarter to basic cognitive functions. Each additional activity costs extra and can be quite expensive. On average, our brain eats a total of 516 kilocalories per day so that we can not only breathe and move, but also think adequately, recognise connections, internalise facts, and much more.

If the brain isn’t supplied with enough of the necessary nutrients, it first and foremost reduces our ability to concentrate and think in order to maintain the capacities for life-sustaining activities.

And that’s where brain food comes in. Foods rich in water, proteins, unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, trace elements, and “good” carbohydrates. Precisely the substances from which the necessary brainpower for more concentration is derived.

Appealing fruit and porridge bowl and halved avocado on wooden chopping board next to plate of sliced brainfood snacks
Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Which foods are considered brain foods?

The following are examples of brain foods:

  • Fruit & berries (e.g. apple, banana, blueberry, raspberry).
  • Vegetables (especially green ones, e.g. cucumber, avocado, broccoli)
  • Mushrooms (e.g. mushrooms, shiitake and co. — but not the funny ones!)
  • Nuts & seeds (e.g. walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds)
  • Fatty fish (e.g. salmon, tuna, trout)
  • Pulses and wholemeal products (e.g. porridge, unsweetened muesli, wholemeal bread)
  • Dark chocolate (from 70% cocoa)

However, the brain also needs to be well supplied with blood in order to work effectively. And since water is important for good blood circulation in the body, drinking plenty of it (at least 2 litres a day), measured in water, tea and unsweetened drinks, is of course a must. Coffee, energy drinks, cola, and similar drinks have at most a brief boosting effect on concentration, but in the long term they are rather counterproductive and should generally only be used in moderation.

Incidentally, it has been scientifically proven that brain food can improve brain function in the long term. Walnuts, to name just one example, not only contribute to better neuronal communication, but also keep our brain fit and healthy even in old age.

Brain food snacks instead of a sweets-filled snack box

Of course, this does not mean that you and your team have to completely change your eating habits. But it would be very helpful to at least replace yesterday’s lasagne at work with a good salad or the chocolate bar with a nut mix, fruit salad, or vegetable sticks with dip.

You can find many great and simple recipes, either sweet or savoury, vegetarian or not, that you and your team can easily try out in BBC Good Food’s brain-boosting recipes section.

Tip: Why not start the whole thing as a team project? Let every team member regularly bring a brain food snack, or maybe you even turn it into a brunch or a joint lunch. This approach is much easier to integrate into your daily business and will even help your employees bond!

4. Meditation and relaxation exercises: Breath in

With the first three alternative productivity hacks, we have minimised distractions, established nutritional foundations for the ability to concentrate, and presented a way to stimulate the brain for more focus. Besides the right food and the right stimuli, however, the thinking apparatus needs one thing above all: oxygen!

Tension reduces the ability to breathe

In our highly motivated team, most workdays are fast-paced and demand a lot from us in terms of productivity. However, if concentration lags behind motivation, one quickly puts oneself under (performance) pressure or generally gets stressed. Hypersensitive people like me can be particularly affected by this.

This stress leads to tension and tightness (often in the shoulders and neck) and puts us on alert. Above all, however, it results in poor breathing (fast and shallow or even halting). This causes a suboptimal supply of oxygen to the brain and, in combination with tense muscles, typically headaches.

All this does not help us in our project to increase concentration, so it was important for us to find a practical and simple solution without painkillers or other pharmaceutical products. And we found just that—with simple exercises for meditation and relaxation.

Person meditating on gangplank surrounded by lake and mountains
Photo by S. Migaj on Unsplash

Breathing consciously promotes the ability to think

A good mix of relaxation and meditation exercises helps us to calm down in stressful situations.

Relaxation exercises for stress can quickly counteract slight tension and headaches right at the desk—but this is only a superficial help.

As a relaxation exercise for the psyche, meditations have proven to be very effective for some of our team members. They make us focus on our breathing and ensure deep and regular breathing. After just a few minutes, subconscious tension usually subsides.

Those who breathe deeply and consciously also ensure a better supply of oxygen to the brain and thus improve their concentration and ability to think.

I myself tried it out and have been meditating daily ever since—especially while in home office, where work was particularly difficult for me for a long time. By now, these are probably the most relaxed and productive workdays, which I never expected they would be!

Mindfulness Officers can help

It can be difficult at first for you and your team to incorporate this alternative productivity hack into your daily routine as a regular ritual. However, there is the possibility of getting in-house support. For example, with a so-called Mindfulness Officer, who can assess your team members and their tension after some short familiarisation to then guide them with suitable meditation and relaxation exercises.

However, it can also work to simply offer your employees a quiet and undisturbed place to retreat to and meditate undisturbed for themselves.

To try out whether this hack also works for you and your team, you can access numerous free guided meditations for inner peace on YouTube, Spotify, and Co. In our experience, 5-10 minutes are already sufficient for most cases. Personally, I am a big fan of The Daily Calm by Calm.

5. Desk yoga

And now a minute to our fifth and final alternative productivity hack: office yoga! Because concentration is not only a question of nutrition, but also of physical fitness.

However, the way to the nearest gym can be long, because not every company has the luxury of a gym in the immediate vicinity. And even if it does, even the short way there can still be nerve- and time-consuming.

In addition, although demanding training sessions initially stimulate the circulation and the mental apparatus, they also cost a lot of energy afterwards, quickly leading to fatigue again. And that can thus cause a performance slump similar to the dreaded food coma.

Fortunately, yoga is a sport that can be practised almost anywhere (just like meditation). That includes doing yoga in the office.

Why yoga is great for improving concentration

According to a study on the positive health effects of yoga by the US National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), more than 80% of the over 34,000 yoga practitioners surveyed said they experienced less stress through regular training sessions. At the same time, as many as 40% felt motivated to eat healthier and over 66% said they felt healthier and fitter overall.

So, the best prerequisites for increasing concentration through yoga in the office! Here are some simple office yoga exercises with video explanation that you can do without any yoga equipment at all and sometimes even while sitting. You just have to get involved…

Try it out and find your own way

Now we’ve given you some food for thought. It’s perfectly OK if you prefer to rely on conventional measures, because our alternative productivity hacks are in no way intended to replace your tried-and-tested organisational strategies. However, it is definitely worth trying out the easy-to-integrate tips and tricks listed above and combining them with your preferred methods.

However, you should not see our alternative productivity hacks as a miracle cure. They are merely intended to help you use your team’s available concentration capacities more effectively. Because, as already explained at the beginning of the article, the natural limit of 4-6 hours of concentration per day per person still remains.

Also, remember that the human brain can only concentrate for a maximum of about 90 minutes at a time. So regular, timely, and sufficiently long breaks (10-20 minutes) are particularly important to prevent mistakes and stress reactions such as the dreaded burnout.

We further explain how you can make the best use of optimised concentration phases in the team in our article on calendar management. For example, you can fill the breaks excellently with brain food snacks, meditation and relaxation exercises, yoga, or a short walk in the fresh air.

Increasing concentration in the team in a controlled and collective way offers essential advantages not only in terms of productivity, but also in terms of motivation, satisfaction, and, last but not least, the health of your team. Speaking of employee satisfaction: Have you already read our article on employee benefits? Here you will find more interesting suggestions on this topic.

And now it’s your turn. Together with your team, find the best way to make even better use of your potential through optimal use of your concentration capacities!

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