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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.

How to Set Milestones to Progress Towards Your Goal 3 Biggest Time-Management Myths to Stop Believing 10 Ways to Find Your Focus When You’re Stressed Out How to Master Delayed Gratification to Control Your Impulses When Does Time Management Matter Most?

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Last Updated on July 10, 2020

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

The Power of Ritual: Conquer Procrastination, Time Wasters and Laziness

Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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Program Your Own Algorithms

Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

How to Form a Ritual

I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

  1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
  2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
  3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
  4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

Ways to Use a Ritual

Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

1. Waking Up

Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

2. Web Usage

How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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3. Reading

How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

4. Friendliness

Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

5. Working

One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

6. Going to the gym

If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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7. Exercise

Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

8. Sleeping

Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

8. Weekly Reviews

The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

Final Thoughts

We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

More Tips to Conquer Time Wasters and Procrastination

 

Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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