One afternoon last week, I found myself staring at a draft of an email. I was mid-sentence and just…could not focus. After reading and re-reading the words I had already managed to get down, I finally hit save and closed the draft.
When I looked at the clock, I realized I had been slogging away rather unproductively since I completed and sent off a proposal about an hour before.
Instead of getting upset at myself for wasting time, I decided to take stock.
Was I distracted? Yes. In fact, I was pre-occupied with an unrelated looming deadline and was fielding texts from my mom. Was I hungry/thirsty/tired? My water glass was empty on the desk in front of me. Come to think of it, I was thirsty. My back was also achy because I was hunched over.
A lack of focus is just one more message our brains are sending us that we can listen and learn from. Typically, when we can’t focus we are being bombarded with distractions, we are experiencing stress or overwhelm, we are ignoring another signal our bodies are sending us (e.g. thirst), or we have just reached our cognitive limit for that moment/hour/day. The following tactics address these underlying causes to help you get back on track.
From smartphone notifications to coworkers with questions, our work environments are full of distractions. If you’re having trouble focusing, do what you can to remove as many distractions as possible. Put your phone on silent and into your desk drawer. Take your work to an empty conference room or other quiet space. Close slack and email and turn off their notifications for an hour.
Choose One Thing
Sometimes a lack of focus is a symptom of overwhelm. You’re thinking about all the things you have to do – or jumping between them. Choose one single task that will move you forward on one single project. Shut down everything else and commit to work on just that one thing for say, the next 30 minutes.
Offer to Help Someone Else
Helping others not only gives you a mental break from your own work, but it activates the release of dopamine that will boost your mood. Anxiety and depression are linked to procrastination, so that elevated mood may help you focus when you get back to your to-dos. In addition, having healthy relationships with your coworkers is all kinds of good for your well-being!
Take a Break
Sometimes we just need a break. One oft-cited study found that the most productive workers plugged away for 52 minutes, followed by 17-minute breaks. While I wouldn’t worry too much about setting yourself 52 and 17-minute alarm reminders, the idea of an hourly break holds water. When you can’t focus, give yourself some time to walk away and let your mind wander. You’ll be better able to buckle back down when you return.