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Published on May 25, 2020

10 Ways to Find Your Focus When You’re Stressed Out

10 Ways to Find Your Focus When You’re Stressed Out

How do you focus when you’re stressed? The truth is, you don’t.

You know what anxiety is like: Your mind can’t stick to any one topic for more than a few seconds. You shift restlessly, as if settling your body might also settle your thoughts.

Stress short-circuits the mind in all sorts of ways. Before you can learn how to focus when stressed, you need to understand what’s going on in your brain.

Why We Lose Focus When Stressed

When you experience stress — whether the cause is a tiger chasing you or a snarky comment by a co-worker — a chain reaction happens in your brain. Harvard Medical School lays this out in detail, but what’s important is understanding how an emotion can trigger a fight-or-flight response[1].

Changes begin in the amygdala, a brain area that is responsible for processing emotions. The amygdala then contacts the hypothalamus, which acts as the brain’s command center. From there, the hypothalamus spreads stress signals throughout the nervous system.

The nervous system readies the body for fight or flight. Pupils dilate to improve eyesight. Digestion slows. Pulse and heart rate increase, which can cause jitters. The mind races, constantly on the lookout for threats.

In a survival situation, those changes can keep us alive. But in the workplace, they can do quite a bit of harm.

Why Focus Is Key at Work

Work is full of stressors. If you can’t figure out how to focus when stressed at work, you’re going to struggle.

Stressful work situations where focus is required include:

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Client Conversations

When you’re talking with a client, you have to focus. But when a client relationship is tense or adversarial, it can pull you out of the present moment. That’s why corporations often focus on a sense of community. A sense of being on the same team creates a sense of comfort, which in turn allows the mind to focus.

Sales Calls

Much like client meetings, sales calls can be stressful. People on both sides of the table are trying to put themselves in the best position. Focusing on win-wins can make things easier on everyone: Perhaps one person comes down in price to give the other party more time to deliver on the agreement.

Product Development

When they hit the market, products should be perfect. That puts a lot of stress on the team. Engineers have to root out bugs. Designers need to make sure the layout works well for everyone. If they don’t know how to focus when stressed, their attention to detail can suffer.

Business Analysis

Figuring out a company’s next steps is stressful. People’s livelihoods are on the line, and competitors keep their own strategies secret. Crunching the data without making mistakes requires intense focus.

Customer Service

Nearly two in three people say they find customer service the most stressful aspect of shopping[2]. But that stress cuts both ways: Service people feel pressure to resolve the situation in a way that works for everyone. If they don’t know how to focus when stressed, they’ll have trouble calming the customer and finding a solution.

Whatever your role at work, there’s plenty to stress about. But there are also some easy solutions to the challenge of finding your focus.

How to Focus When Stressed

If you aren’t sure how to focus when stressed, don’t stress about it. Many of the following approaches require little time or money:

1. Tackle One Thing at a Time

Although some people swear they’re good multitaskers, the science says otherwise. The human mind is set up to handle a single thing at a time. Multitasking forces it to change gears, often called “context switching.”[3]

Every time the mind moves to a new context, there’s a lag period. It’s impossible to focus during that period because the brain is in the midst of reorienting itself. That sense of disorientation can compound the stressors that led someone to multitask in the first place.

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2. Meditate

Meditation can be thought of as the opposite of multitasking: It forces your mind to deeply explore the present moment — in other words, to stick to the task immediately in front of you.

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years to reduce stress and improve focus. It’s free, can be conducted anywhere, and has almost no learning curve. To meditate:

Sit or lie down in a comfortable spot.

Experienced meditators can do it anywhere. But for the rest of us, trying to meditate in a public place like an airport can be overwhelming. Find a comfortable bed or chair and minimize distractions around you.

Focus on your breath.

Don’t try to control it. Just notice: Is it slow and steady? Fast and uneven? As you listen to it, it’ll naturally calm down.

Listen intently.

Another way to meditate is to pick a single sense and really zoom in on it. Try to capture every noise you can. What’s the smallest, least noticeable sound you hear?

3. Minimize Caffeine

Coffee and tea might help you focus temporarily, but they’re not a good solution when you’re already stressed. Try cutting back and see how your stress levels respond.

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Caffeine is a stimulant, so it engages your fight-or-flight response. If you’re already in that mode, the solution to your focus issues is to relax.

4. Try Supplements

There are all sorts of herbal teas and supplements that might help you focus when stressed. CBD oil, for example, is a popular solution for stress and anxiety[4]. Chamomile and lavender tea are also safe, inexpensive herbal remedies.

Don’t relaxants make it more difficult to focus? Not for people who are stuck in flight-or-flight mode. A little calming effect can go a long way.

5. Go for a Walk

Sometimes, the best way to reclaim your focus when you’re stressed is to simply take a break. If taking a break at your desk is tough for you, why not go for a walk?

Nothing clears the mind like a walk outdoors. Take the opportunity to try one or more of those meditation tactics: pay attention to your breathing, or focus on the natural noises around you.

6. Catch up With a Friend

Humans are social animals. Another great idea for a focus-restoring break is to call up a friend. It doesn’t matter who, so long as you enjoy talking to them.

Try to really listen to the other person. Let yourself react rather than thinking about what you’ll say next. Living in the moment is a great way to reduce stress and rediscover your focus.

7. Read Something Aloud

One of the best proofreading tactics out there is to read aloud. The reason is that it’s easy for the mind to fill in gaps when reading something silently.

Either proofread content of your own, or offer to edit someone else’s work. Treat this as focus training. Each time you spot an error, don’t get stressed about it. Be glad that you noticed it, associating that positive emotion with focus.

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8. Try the Pomodoro Method

Working with the Pomodoro method means making a deal with yourself: If you buckle down and focus for 25 minutes, then you get a 5 minute break.

Set out tasks for yourself ahead of time, and then set a timer. When it goes off, set another for relaxation time. Do your best to embrace the work time as well as the breaks.

9. Be Positive

One of the smallest yet most significant ways you can reduce your stress levels is to change your mindset. If you see everything as scary and stressful, it will be. If you tell yourself you can buckle down and get through it, then you really will.

Try paying yourself a compliment. It doesn’t need to be a big one, but it does need to be genuine. A little reassurance can give you the confidence to get back to the task at hand.

10. Ask for Help

If nothing you do to reduce your stress levels or improve your focus seems to help, it might be time to ask for help. Anxiety is a serious medical condition, and it can affect everything from your employment to your marriage.

Start by having a conversation with your doctor. S/he can suggest lifestyle changes, prescribe medications, and if needed, refer you to a specialist. If you aren’t ready for that, it might be easier to hop on the phone:

  • National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-6264
  • National Institute of Mental Health: 1-866-615-6464
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America: 1-240-485-1001
  • American Psychiatric Association: 1-800-357-792

Final Thoughts

Whether you can do it yourself or need a little help, it’s important to get your stress levels in check. A little stress can light a fire under you, but it only takes a little too much to kill your focus. Learning how to focus when stressed is really about learning how much stress you need to stay on task. Once you’re there, let go of the rest.

More Tips on How to Focus When Stressed

Featured photo credit: Gabrielle Henderson via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

John Hall

John Hall is the co-founder and president of Calendar, a leading scheduling and productivity app that will change how we manage and invest our time.

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Last Updated on November 5, 2020

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. A rut can manifest as a productivity vacuum and be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. Is it possible to learn how to get out of a rut?

Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, or a student, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

1. Work on Small Tasks

When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks that have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

Whenever I finish doing that, I generate positive momentum, which I bring forward to my work.

If you have a large long-term goal you can’t wait to get started on, break it down into smaller objectives first. This will help each piece feel manageable and help you feel like you’re moving closer to your goal.

You can learn more about goals vs objectives here.

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2. Take a Break From Your Work Desk

When you want to learn how to get out of a rut, get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the bathroom, walk around the office, or go out and get a snack. According to research, your productivity is best when you work for 50 minutes to an hour and then take a 15-20 minute break[1].

Your mind may be too bogged down and will need some airing. By walking away from your computer, you may create extra space for new ideas that were hiding behind high stress levels.

3. Upgrade Yourself

Take the down time to upgrade your knowledge and skills. Go to a seminar, read up on a subject of interest, or start learning a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college[2]. How’s that for inspiration?

4. Talk to a Friend

Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while. Relying on a support system is a great way to work on self-care when you’re learning how to get out of a rut.

Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

5. Forget About Trying to Be Perfect

If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism can lead you to fear failure, which can ultimate hinder you even more if you’re trying to find motivation to work on something new.

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If you allow your perfectionism to fade, soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come, and then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

Learn more about How Not to Let Perfectionism Secretly Screw You Up.

6. Paint a Vision to Work Towards

If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the ultimate goal or vision you have for your life?

Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action. You can use the power of visualization or even create a vision board if you like to have something to physically remind you of your goals.

7. Read a Book (or Blog)

The things we read are like food for our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great material.

Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. You can also stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs and follow writers who inspire and motivate you. Find something that interests you and start reading.

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8. Have a Quick Nap

If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep[3].

Try a nap if you want to get out of a rut

    One Harvard study found that “whether they took long naps or short naps, participants showed significant improvement on three of the four tests in the study’s cognitive-assessment battery”[4].

    9. Remember Why You Are Doing This

    Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

    What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall your inspiration, and perhaps even journal about it to make it feel more tangible.

    10. Find Some Competition

    When we are learning how to get out of a rut, there’s nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

    Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, and networking conventions can all inspire you to get a move on. However, don’t let this throw you back into your perfectionist tendencies or low self-esteem.

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    11. Go Exercise

    Since you are not making headway at work, you might as well spend the time getting into shape and increasing dopamine levels. Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, or whatever type of exercise helps you start to feel better.

    As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

    If you need ideas for a quick workout, check out the video below:

    12. Take a Few Vacation Days

    If you are stuck in a rut, it’s usually a sign that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

    Beyond the quick tips above, arrange one or two days to take off from work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax, do your favorite activities, and spend time with family members. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

    Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest.

    More Tips to Help You Get out of a Rut

    Featured photo credit: Ashkan Forouzani via unsplash.com

    Reference

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