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Being Focused Can Make You Happier

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's idea of 'flow' has become an important concept for those looking to improve productivity. A recent study suggests that sustained focus not only helps you get more done - it can also make you happier. Learn more about this research and how you can improve focus.

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Focus as Mood Enhancer

We all know that focus is important when we write papers or prepare for exams. Paying attention during study sessions can help ensure that we perform well. But recent research suggests that focus may provide benefits beyond getting work done - in fact, our very happiness may depend on it.

That is the conclusion of a new study published in Science. Harvard researchers used an iPhone app to track the feelings of more than 2,220 people from around the world. Participants in the study were asked to rate how they felt at random times. They were also asked to report what they were doing at the time and whether they were focused on the task or daydreaming.

More than 250,000 responses revealed some startling results: Almost 47 percent of the time, respondents weren't focused on what they were doing. And people who had a wandering mind also had lower rates of happiness. This finding held true regardless of what people people were doing - or what they were daydreaming about.

Daydreaming about positive things did not produce the level of happiness that came with paying attention during activities - even those as mundane as grocery shopping or personal grooming. In short, happiness was not dependent upon what people were doing, but how mindful they were in doing it.

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Staying in the Flow

Aside from perhaps the most adamant daydreamers among us, we all want to maintain our focus. Sometimes, though, that proves a lot easier said than done. When a particularly difficult or loathsome task is before us, it can seem relieving to enter the world of daydreams. But idle thoughts won't allow you to be productive or - as study shows - content. Here are some tips for improving your focus.

Be intentional. Before you start working, think about what it is you want to achieve. Keep working until you finish whatever task it is you've assigned for yourself. If you won't be able to complete a task, resolve to work on the project for a specific period of time.

Create a schedule. Human beings are creatures of habit, and we're at our best when we have routines. Set up a schedule that allows you to capitalize on this fact, setting up specific blocks of time to study or do work. Be disciplined in compartmentalizing study time from other parts of your day.

Remove distractions. Perhaps the biggest impediment to concentration is distraction. You can set yourself up to be more productive by blocking out possible interruptions. Turn off your phone as well as IM and email notifications. Also ask friends and family to respect your study time.

Find your ideal space. Whether it's the library, a study room or another place, try to spend your time studying in the place that is most comfortable to you. Leaving your living space can help you avoid any interruptions there. Not only that, going to a separate space to study can serve as a mental cue that it's time for you to start getting things done.

Know yourself. If you're most productive in the morning, that's the time to do work requiring a lot of focus. Our bodies can be more receptive to the 'flow' state at different times of day, so it's a good idea to take full advantage. Also utilize any concentration triggers you benefit from - whether that is soft background music or another cue.

Take breaks. It may sound counterintuitive, but taking breaks is actually more efficient than working for hours on end. Experts suggest getting up from your desk to stretch, getting a snack or briefly walking renews our energy and ultimately allows us to be more productive.

Avoid procrastination. Procrastination leads to anxiety. And anxious thoughts lead to distraction. Instead of expending mental energy worrying about an outstanding task, take care of it. When a task is done, your concentration will improve. Prioritize tasks to determine which are important to finish right away.

Take care of yourself. It might seem hard to get all the sleep and nourishment you need with a busy schedule, but these basics are essential to focus. Without your body running at optimum levels, getting into a state of flow will be very difficult. That's not to mention that being hungry and under-slept can also cause your level of happiness to drop even more dramatically than daydreaming on its own.

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