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It’s crunch time, and you can’t focus on the presentation you have to give in the morning, but you successfully got your email inbox down to zero.
Or you zone out during an afternoon Zoom meeting. The thoughts in your head were bouncing like ping-pong balls as you secretly checked your emails from the phone on your lap.
It’s getting harder to focus. With so many other things going on in the world, our homes, and our minds, it can be hard to concentrate on the task at hand. Many people are wondering how to focus better at work.
If you can relate, don’t worry – here are some top ideas to increase your focus at work. But first, let’s get down to basics. What is focus, and how is it influenced?
What is focus?
Focus is a person’s ability to concentrate on a single point or task. A person who understands how to focus well at work can channel their attention and energy into completing their work.
Without this focus, many people become overwhelmed and start multitasking, procrastinating, or both.
The most common factors that affect concentration can fall into two categories: internal and external forces. Recognizing these forces at play will enable you to focus better and not succumb to debilitating distractions.
Internal forces that inhibit focus at work
Internal factors that influence our ability to focus may be emotional, mental, or physical.
Emotional: Fear of failure, anxiety, and lack of confidence can be effective saboteurs. They contribute to the inability to concentrate and a tendency to procrastinate. They have a fantastic ability to steer us off course, whispering things like, “I don’t know enough.”
Mental: Technological tyranny invades our lives, taking many different forms. Take cell phones, for example. Checking email every 10 minutes seems to be commonplace.
The compulsion to answer our mail immediately sets up the expectation that we will be on call anytime and anywhere. This “always-on” attitude and connection to technology can hinder our ability to focus on the present moment and can muddy prioritization.
“One look at an email can rob you of 15 minutes of focus. One call on your cell phone, one tweet, one instant message can destroy your schedule, forcing you to move meetings or blow off really important things like love and friendship.” —Jacqueline Leo
Physical: Our inability to concentrate can stem from a lack of sleep hygiene, inattention to good nutrition, and lack of physical activity. If we made our bodies our BFF, we’d be able to cross that marathon finish line.
We can develop strategies to use our emotions, intellect, and bodies to support our ability to focus.
External forces that limit focus at work
External pressures are much harder to manage.
Commitment to your relationships and giving them the attention they deserve can be hard to do. Managing them while working from home can be even more challenging.
Here are a few examples of external forces that can hinder your ability to focus at work:
Meeting overload: On one hand, the shift to online meetings lets people maximize their time. People who used to have to travel between offices now can meet with the push of a button.
For virtual workers, however, this can be a nightmare. While meetings were once more generously spaced out, they’re now stacked back-to-back.
Lack of commute: Commuting isn’t the most enjoyable experience, but for some, it was precious alone time. Workers could listen to podcasts and music, and those taking public transportation could read or nap.
If you started to work remotely during the pandemic or beyond, what happened to the travel time you used to spend commuting? The chances are that this “you time” is no longer spent on you.
You may even have filled that time with more work or multiple tasks that keep you busier than ever without giving your mind a break.
Multitasking: In one survey, over 92% of meeting attendees admitted to multitasking during meetings. Between checking emails, managing Slack messages, and working during meetings, it can feel like there’s a need to multitask to get everything done. As a result, expectations and commitments make it hard for you to prioritize.
“Many people feel they must multitask because everybody else is multitasking. but this is partly misleading because they are all interrupting each other so much.” — Marilyn Vos Savant
Benefits of staying focused at work
The most clear-cut benefit to staying focused at work is increased productivity. The more time you can devote to a single task, the more efficiently you’ll be able to complete it. This efficiency can lead to better work performance, which can positively impact your career trajectory.
The unsung benefit of learning how to stay focused at work is reduced stress. Focusing on one thing at a time and seeing it through to the end is rewarding. It also closes that task out and gets it off of your plate.
13 ways to focus better at work
Here are 13 ways you can improve your focus while working:
- Track your mood
- Assess your mental focus
- Eliminate distractions for better concentration
- Give mediation and mindfulness a try
- Notice your sleep patterns and lift your cognitive function
- Get your body moving to improve your brain function
- Pay attention to what you put in your mouth
- Find a time management system that works for you
- Set boundaries around your time — focus on that critical task
- Reduce your number of meetings when possible
- Practice active listening
- Turn off work at the end of the day
- Make time for your social connections
1. Track your mood
Record triggers that derail you and negatively affect your mood. Note what’s happening in your body when you start down a path that doesn’t serve you.
- Does your heart race, or is it steady?
- Do you clench your teeth, or is your mouth relaxed?
- Does your body cave in on itself, or are you standing firm?
- Do you feel light or heavy?
Notice what environments make you more stressed. If you’re happier and more productive, it means that you are more focused.
Devise some strategies to help you manage your triggers.
Mapping your moods can help you see patterns in your thinking and behavior. Daylio is an app that allows you to track your feelings using visual imagery. The app shows you videos that represent different moods. You can match your mood to the images, and the app records them.
Here’s a low-tech way to adjust your emotions. Make playlists of your favorite “feel good” music and play them at intervals during the day, especially when you are in low-energy, low mood mode.
A word of caution: If you find your moods and emotions overwhelming and immobilizing, don’t wait to ask for professional help.
3. Assess your mental fitness
Take a week to notice the times of day when you are most productive. Attend to your most important tasks during that time. Notice those low-energy times.
Practice mental fitness daily. The app Lumosity helps you exercise your mind with scientifically validated tasks while making them fun.
You can target the skills that matter most to you by taking a Lumosity lunch break.
3. Eliminate distractions
Take control of your technology. Disable your phone at certain times a day. That means turning off notifications from social media or opting for a complete digital detox.
Freedom is an app designed to block distractions on all your devices. There will be no checking Instagram on your device while you’re writing that report because the app won’t let you.
Reward yourself with 30 minutes, tops, to indulge in surfing.
4. Give meditation and mindfulness a try
Just a few minutes of sitting in silence, listening to calming music, and connecting to your breath will help you become centered.
You’ll return to your work calmer and less reactive to negative emotions, pressures, and demands.
InsightTimer is a helpful tool for guided meditations, courses, meditative music, and yoga practices to support your well-being.
Alternatively, you can set timers that remind you to move and breathe at intervals during the day.
If you crave sound, but music is too much for you, try listening to a pre-recorded mindfulness meditation. It adds background noise that doesn’t become a constant distraction.
“When you connect to the silence within you, that is when you can make sense of the disturbance going on around you.” —Stephen Richards
5. Notice your sleep patterns
Getting enough sleep is one of the best ways to maintain focus.
Do you maintain a healthy schedule for going to bed and getting up? Are you steering away from foods and drinks that keep you awake? Watching the news can be one of the worst things to do before going to bed. When is it ever good news?
Again, there are many apps to help you track your sleep.
The Sleep Foundation recommends WHOOP, WithingsSleep, and Fitbit Versa.
A few other quick tips for improving your sleep patterns include:
- Reading before bed
- Using a guided meditation app just before you sleep
- Reducing your caffeine intake
6. Get your body moving
Take active breaks. Get up and move. Take a walk. Leave the building.
It’s also important to take time to stretch your neck, shoulders, arms, and legs. Set a timer on your phone for five minutes, at least five times per day, to stretch. Get yourself a standing desk or try sitting on an exercise ball while working.
If you feel like some face-time, try scheduling a walk or run with a friend. You don’t have to go far, even laps around your block or your house are beneficial. Smartwatches are great ways to record miles, times, and distances. But don’t use lack of technology as an excuse!
7. Pay attention to what you put in your mouth
Nutrition plays a massive role in maintaining focus.
While caffeinated drinks can raise your energy level for the short run, you’re likely to crash when the high is over. Better to eat snacks with complex carbs and fiber found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts for sustained energy and concentration.
Try sticking to just one to two cups of coffee per day. This will keep your energy levels more steady and reduce any cloudy jitters.
“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have twenty-four-hour days.”—Zig Ziglar
8. Find a time management solution that works for you
Managing your time effectively will give you time back to take breaks or shift gears between projects.
One method worth trying is the Pomodoro Technique. It involves working on a task for 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute break before starting the next 25-minute sprint.
These short rest periods are enough time to give your brain a break and step away from your desk. For example, this could be to stretch, walk outside, or grab a glass of water.
9. Set boundaries around your time
At what time of day do you have the most energy? Set time on your calendar for “white space” during that time.
When you have a large project to do, block off a substantial amount of time that will be distraction-free. This is beneficial even if you can only manage to do it once or twice per week.
Let people know when you are not available and when you will respond to requests. Create blocks of time between meetings to reflect and regroup. Be clear about what’s realistic for you to commit to.
Set time aside for a short break in between deep work projects, and you’ll find that you’ll have better focus when you’re working on a single task.
10. Reduce your number of meetings when possible
Consider alternative solutions to meetings.
Ask whether you really need to meet. Is there another way to get information that is not time-intensive but still effective?
Ask for an agenda for meetings. Determine whether your presence is needed if your organization allows for the option. Send agendas before meetings that you’re running. Stick to a designated amount of time.
“Focus is about saying No.” —Steve Jobs
11. Practice active listening
Develop your listening skills by paying active attention to what others say during meetings.
Rather than zone out, ask questions. Engage in the discussion to bring value to the meeting or call.
12. Turn off work at the end of the day
Leave each night with a to-do list, then revisit it in the morning.
Determine your top three priorities. Decide what goes in your “parking lot” of tasks that don’t meet the criteria. You can determine when you can do those things, perhaps assigning them to non-peak times during the workday.
13. Make time for your social connections
Don’t let social connections take a backseat to work.
Ideally, you’ll have downtime to be able to bring your best-focused self to all that you do.
Set up phone calls with friends and coffee chats with co-workers.
Play. Schedule it. Commit to your social well-being and ask others to hold you accountable.
The myth of multitasking
MIT neuroscientist Dr. Earl Miller has studied the science of multitasking. He reports that “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
He argues that, while you think you’re attending to two things simultaneously, what you’re actually doing is switching from task to task rapidly.
“A person who is interrupted while performing a task takes 50% more time to complete it and make 50% more errors.” — David Brooks
How often have you successfully written an email while having a productive phone conversation on an entirely different subject? Because those functions use the same part of the brain, you can’t do them simultaneously.
Though you may not even realize it, you are briefly putting one task on hold while attending to the other. This is how embarrassing “reply alls” happen!
These intellectual machinations go on in the frontal lobe, the parts of the brain controlling the executive system that coordinates the switches. Fortunately, we can use that system to focus, blocking out stimuli that distract us from our task and devising strategies and practices to get and maintain focus.
How to focus better: Do the Inner Work®
Now you have the tools you need to focus better at work. Follow the steps outlined above, and you’ll be able to improve your focus and breathe a new level of productivity into your professional life.
Need a little motivation? See how BetterUp can help you improve your mental fitness and organizational health.
Betterup Fellow Coach, M.S.Ed, M.S.O.D.