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What to do when you really, truly, absolutely, no-joke must concentrate

You know the problem: The deadline is looming, emails are piling up, the phone is ringing and your boss just asked you to finish next week’s project by tonight. But swarms of distractions can make focusing seem like an impossible feat. Here, how to manage your mental traffic jam.

woman walking down stairs

1. Use technology to keep you focused, not distract you.

There’s no shortage of apps that can help you stay focused. Identify your most concentration-busting habits (maybe it’s surfing the web or checking email too often)—and find an app that helps you stay on track. You can also try something as simple as turning off notifications on your phone and setting a timer, even just for 30 minutes, to keep you in the zone while you focus on what you need to do.

2. Check the thermostat.

Are you shivering inside your office even though it’s a warm, sunny day outside? Or are you so hot you keep fanning yourself? Research has found that an indoor air temperature of about 21 to 22 degrees Celsius, or 71 or 72 degrees Fahrenheit, is the ideal temperature for productivity. If you’re in an environment where you can adjust the temperature, try setting it to that range. If you can’t, dress accordingly (think: keep a wool blazer at your desk, even in summer) to try to keep yourself at the right temp.

3. Stop doing so much at the same time.

Ever find yourself cooking dinner, watching TV and checking emails from your boss? You’re setting yourself up for failure. Your mind can’t handle more than two big tasks at the same time. The reason: A part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex allows you to split work between the two hemispheres. Your head essentially doesn’t have room to handle a third task.

Woman on Stairs

4. Take a break from your task (really!).

Science agrees with this idea: one study found that taking brief, infrequent breaks from what you’re trying to do may help with your focus overall. Their theory is that you simply just can’t focus on something for too long. And if you’re looking for something to do in that break.

5. Hit the gym — or at least take the stairs to your next meeting.

It may seem counterintuitive to go for a power walk when you’re frantically trying to finish a project. But all those walks will add up; research shows a connection between regular exercise and cognitive ability. One way this works: When you exercise, the brain makes a chemical called brain derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which helps improve learning and mental performance (among other things!).

6. Swap sugary treats for foods with omega-3s.

If you don’t normally eat oily fish like salmon or other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids—such as flaxseed oil, soybeans and spinach—consider starting. One study showed that they improved memory and reaction time in healthy young adults. So when you go to reach for a snack, try a bowl of edamame or a smoothie that includes flax. What should you skip? Yeah, basically anything from the vending machine.

woman chewing gum on laptop

7. Chew gum

Not hungry? You might pop in a stick of gum. The evidence is weak, but one study did show that people who chewed gum during a stressful task were more alert afterwards than those who didn’t. For some people, it even helped them multitask. Maybe give it a try?