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Last Updated on December 8, 2020

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

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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 September 9, 2021

The Ultimate List of Deep Focus Music for Productive Work

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The Ultimate List of Deep Focus Music for Productive Work

Everyone has their favorite habits for boosting productivity. Your desk setup, morning routine, and diet all play a role. But there’s one thing that everyone agrees can make a difference: focus music.

Soothing beats can keep distractions at bay, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. Whether you’re trying to drown out mowers or simply get into a groove, put on a pair of headphones. Music can make all the difference in your focus.

With that said, not all music is equally conducive to productivity. You need to be careful about what you listen to. Getting work done calls for very different sounds than getting a workout in.

If you need a little more help to get rid of distractions, check out Lifehack’s free guide End Distraction And Find Your Focus. In this guide you’ll learn the simple techniques to stay focused and boost productivity. Grab your free guide here.

This article will walk you through selecting the best music for productivity, as well as a list of tunes to help you get started.

How to Pick the Best Focus Music For Yourself

With so many genres and artists out there, there’s a lot of music to choose from. Before you press play, keep the following guidelines in mind:

1. Stick With Instrumental

Songs without words in them make it easier to focus. Lyrics can distract you from what you’re trying to accomplish because you might get the words mixed up with what you’re trying to read. If you’re writing something, you might find yourself typing the lyrics instead.

Intelligence and instrumental music are correlated, perhaps because instrumental music is less intrusive.[1] Instrumental music tends to fade into the background, giving you a rhythm without pulling your mind away from the task at hand.

Stay away from instrumental versions of songs you recognize. It’s easy to fill in the blanks with the lyrics if you’ve already committed them to memory.

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However, some exceptions can be made. Creatives who produce videos or audio might prefer tracks that get their creative juices going, lyrics and all. However, if you find lyrics to be distracting, switch back to instrumental tunes.

2. Take It Easy

Not all instrumental music is calm and relaxing. Focus music should be, however. So, beware of instrumental songs that are too loud and stimulating. High volumes and tempos can work you up when you need to stay calm.

Again, some roles can make exceptions. Physical laborers can use more rambunctious tunes to keep them energized. While calm tunes work best for those in desk-based roles, don’t go too extreme. Something that’s too soothing might make you feel tired, and yawning all day isn’t exactly the path to productivity.

3. Pick Music You Enjoy

At the end of the day, the best focus music is what you enjoy. If you hate classical music, don’t put together a classical playlist just because you stumbled on a study about its benefits.[2] Your dislike of the music will take away the productivity you’d otherwise get out of listening to it.

Don’t be afraid to try something new. If you’ve never worked while listening to jazz before, why not? Save songs you like for later listening. Over time, you’ll build a playlist of tried-and-true focus music.

4. Update Your Setup

Before jamming out to your productivity tunes, make sure you have the right equipment. Invest in a music streaming service so you don’t have to listen to ads. Purchase noise-canceling headphones to avoid distracting your co-workers.

Focus music is all about ambience. Anything that interrupts your flow—whether that’s poor sound quality or glitchy streaming—needs to go.

Expect to spend at least $100 on headphones or speakers. For the streaming service itself, Spotify Premium is the standard at $9.99 per month. Slacker, Apple Music, and YouTube Music are also popular.

Building Your Perfect Playlist of Focus Music (With Recommendations)

Now that you know what to look for in focus music and how to listen, it’s time to build your playlist. Get started with these smooth, instrumental genres, artists, and songs.

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1. Chillhop Music

This YouTube channel has almost 3 million subscribers. Its music videos run 24/7 and feature driving yet relaxing beats.

Most songs on this channel fall into a category called “lofi hip hop,” a type of electronic R&B. Unlike traditional hip hop, lofi hip hop songs follow a slow, steady pattern that induces focus and relaxation.

Chillhop playlists can also be streamed on Spotify, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp. Popular artists include nymano, No Signal, and Sleepy Fish.

2. Andy McKee

Andy McKee is an acoustic guitarist who became famous after “Drifting,” one of his early songs, went viral on YouTube. “Drifting” exemplifies the creative, quiet guitar techniques found in the rest of McKee’s music.

Today, McKee has six albums of primarily acoustic guitar. One of McKee’s most popular pieces, “Rylynn,” is a perfect example of his soothing yet upbeat sound.

3. John Butler Trio

The band John Butler Trio became popular after releasing “Ocean,” a 2012 hit with more than 50 million listens on YouTube.[3] Heavy on acoustic guitar, “Ocean” is an intricate ballad that ebbs and flows like the ocean itself.

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Known for flowing changes in key and mood, the John Butler Trio proves that fast songs can stand in as great focus music. The group’s long songs—“Ocean” is 12 minutes long—are less disruptive for long projects. Two other favorites by John Butler Trio are “Betterman” and “Spring to Come.”

4. Classical Radio on Pandora

Classical music has long been a staple for music lovers looking to get work done. Pandora’s classical station features a great mix, from Beethoven to modern artists like Maria Callas and Jorge Bolet.

Pandora has radio stations for every genre imaginable. You can generate playlists based on genre, artist, or even a specific song.

Other music apps offer similar playlists and radio stations you can turn to for your classical music fix. From piano-heavy tunes to violin concertos, you’ll find plenty to perk up your ears.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean Soundtrack

Movie soundtracks are full of amazing focus music. One of my favorites is the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which is lively and adventurous but not in your face.

If you like what you hear, Hans Zimmer, the mastermind behind the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack, has worked on a huge array of films. Zimmer also put together the soundtracks for The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and Inception.

One thing to watch out for with cinematic music is associations. As iconic as the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack is, if you’re thinking about Jack Sparrow instead of balancing spreadsheets, you should probably switch to a new song.

6. Legend of Zelda Soundtrack

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Another hotspot for instrumental music is video games. If you’re not sure where to start, check out selections from The Legend of Zelda.

Anyone who’s played The Legend of Zelda games will immediately recognize what they hear. The soundtrack is light, airy, and full of awe. Keyboards, harps, and flutes feature prominently.

Although you could spend hours listening to The Legend of Zelda music, don’t forget about fan-produced songs in this genre. The video-gaming community is robust, and instrumental re-creations of your favorite games’ soundtracks can be found all over the internet.

7. Nature Sounds and White Noise

This genre may be too relaxing for some, but others prefer less structured focus music. Sounds like thunder, wind, and rushing water can transport you to a quiet, idyllic place to get work done.

One type of white noise to avoid is city-related sounds. Even without lyrics, honking horns or chattering crowds can be distracting.

An advantage of this type of focus music is that it can be set on a loop. If you find a track you like, go ahead and put it on repeat. When it starts over, you won’t even notice.

Ready, Set, Play

The best part about focus music is that nothing is off-limits. Some people work better listening to Tom Petty tunes than instrumental music, and that’s okay. What’s important is that it’s motivating without being distracting.

To unlock your next tier of productivity, spend a couple of hours clicking around on your favorite streaming music site. You’ll get more done, and best of all, you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

More Tips to Improve Your Focus

Featured photo credit: Lala Azizli via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] New York Post: Smarter people listen to instrumental music: study
[2] Forbes: Does Classical Music Help Our Productivity?
[3] YouTube: Ocean – John Butler – 2012 Studio Version

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