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Last Updated on December 8, 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 June 22, 2021

How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster

Every one of my team members has a bucket load of tasks that they need to deal with every working day. On top of that, most of their tasks are either creative tasks or problem-solving tasks. Each one of them has had to learn how to prioritize tasks in order to get everything done.

Despite having many tasks to handle, our team is able to stay focused and creative and work towards our goals consistently in a set amount of time.

I’m going to reveal to you how I helped my team get more things done in less time through the power of correct prioritization. A few minutes spent reading this article could literally save you thousands of hours in the long run. So, let’s get started with my method on how to prioritize things:

How to Prioritize With the Scales Method

One of our new editors came to me the other day and told me how she was struggling to keep up with the many tasks she needed to handle and the deadlines she constantly needed to stick to.

At the end of each day, she felt like she had done a lot of things but often failed to come up with creative ideas and to get articles successfully published. From what she told me, it was obvious that she felt overwhelmed and was growing increasingly frustrated about failing to achieve her targets despite putting in extra hours most days. All of this was making it impossible for her to develop a good work life balance in the long term.

After she listened to my advice about utilizing the Scales Method, she immediately experienced a dramatic rise in productivity, which looked like this:

  • She could produce three times more creative ideas for blog articles.
  • She could publish all her articles on time.
  • And she could finish all her work on time every day (no more overtime!).

If you’re curious how she did it, read on for the step-by-step guide:

1. Set Aside 10 Minutes for Planning

When it comes to tackling productivity issues, it makes sense to plan before taking action. However, don’t become so involved in planning that you become trapped in it and never move beyond first base.

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My recommendation is to give yourself a specific time period for planning, but keep it short. 10 or 15 minutes should be adequate to think about your plan.

Use this time to:

  • Look at the big picture.
  • Think about the current goal and target that you need/want to achieve.
  • Lay out all the tasks you need to do.

2. Align Your Tasks With Your Goal

This is the core component that makes the Scales Method effective as you learn how to prioritize.

It works like this:

Take a look at all the tasks you’re doing, and review the importance of each of them. Specifically, measure a task’s importance by its cost and benefit.

By cost, I am referring to the effort needed per task (including time, money, and other resources). The benefit is how closely the task can contribute to your goal.

    To make this easier for you, I’ve listed below four combinations that will enable you to quickly and easily determine the priority of each of your tasks:

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    Low Cost + High Benefit

    Do these tasks first because they’re the simplest ones to complete, but they’ll help you get closer to your goal.

    Approving artwork created for a sales brochure would likely fit this category. You could easily decide on whether you liked the artwork/layout, but your decision to approve it would trigger the production of the leaflet and the subsequent sales benefits of sending it out to potential customers.

    High Cost + High Benefit

    Break the high cost task down into smaller ones. In other words, break the big task into mini ones that take less than an hour to complete, and then re-evaluate these small tasks and set their correct priority level.

    Imagine if you were asked to write a product launch plan for a new, diary-free, protein powder supplement. Instead of trying to write the plan in one sitting, aim to write the different sections at different times (e.g. spend 30 minutes writing the introduction, one hour writing the body text, and 30 minutes writing the conclusion).

    Low Cost + Low Benefit

    When learning how to prioritize time and tasks, this particular combination should be your lowest priority. Either give yourself 10-15 minutes to handle this task, or put these kinds of tasks in between valuable tasks as a useful break.

    These are probably necessary tasks (e.g. routine tasks like checking emails), but they don’t contribute much towards reaching your desired goal. Keep them way down your priority list.

    High Cost + Low Benefit

    Review if these tasks are really necessary. Think of ways to reduce the cost if you decide that the completion of the task is required.

    For instance, can any tools or systems help to speed up doing the task? In this category, you’re likely to find things like checking and updating sales contacts spreadsheets. This can be a fiddly and time-consuming thing to do without making mistakes. However, there are plenty of apps out there that can make this process instant and seamless.

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    Now, coming back to the editor who I referred to earlier, let’s take a look at her typical daily task list:

      After listening to my advice, she broke down the high cost + high benefit task into smaller ones. Her tasks then looked like this (in order of priority):

        And for the task about promoting articles to different platforms, after reviewing its benefits, we decided to focus on the most effective platform only, thereby significantly lowering the associated time cost.

        Once you’ve effectively analyzed the cost and benefits of your daily tasks, you can dive into this Full Life Planner to make sure you complete everything on your list in the best way possible.

        Bonus Tip: Tackling Tasks With Deadlines

        Once you’ve evaluated your tasks, you’ll know the importance of each of them. This will immediately give you a crystal-clear picture on how to prioritize based on which tasks would help you to achieve more (in terms of setting goals). Sometimes, however, you won’t be able to decide every task’s priority because there’ll be due dates set by external parties, such as managers and agencies.

        In cases like these, I suggest that, after considering the importance and values of your current tasks, align the list in a way that helps you meet deadlines and adjust the priorities accordingly.

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        For example, let’s dip into the editor’s world again.

        Some of the articles she edited needed to be published by specific dates, so these are urgent and important tasks. The Scales Method allows for this, and in this case, her amended task list would look something like this:

          Hopefully, you can now see how easy it is to evaluate the importance of tasks and how to prioritize them into a workable order.

          The Bottom Line

          The Scales Method is different from anything else you’ve tried. By adopting the Scales Method, you’ll begin to correctly prioritize your work and boost your productivity by up to 10 times!

          Unlike other methods that don’t really explain how to decide the importance of a task, my method will help you break down each of your tasks into two parts: cost and benefit. My method will also help you to take follow-up action based on different cost and benefit combinations, which can boost your career development overall.

          Start right now by spending 10 minutes to evaluate your common daily tasks and how they align with your goal(s). Once you have this information, it’ll be very easy to put your tasks into a priority list. All that remains is that you kick off your next working day by following your new master list.

          More Productivity Tips

          Featured photo credit: Scott Graham via unsplash.com

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