You’re bent on finishing the work at hand, and suddenly something comes up. You don’t give thought to how pressing any distraction is — you just give it attention. Five minutes, ten minutes., and even an hour sometimes… When you get back to work — boom — you’ve no idea where you left off or why you couldn’t get your mind and heart into it…
Ring a bell to you? You’re not alone.
When you can’t stay focused at work and are become less productive, your valuable time and effort is gone forever. And there goes your momentum and peak of creativity.
Word of caution – there is no “quick or easy” fix on how to focus at work. The key is to be very strategic in your approach and to be prepared to experience some discomfort.
If you can’t, your work hours will slip away towards activities that Cal Newport, a renowned author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, refers to as ‘shallow work’:
“Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
This is the type of work that fills most of our days.
A more efficient and ultimately productive way to spend our work hours is by practicing what Newport calls ‘deep work’:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Why Is It So Hard to Focus at Work?
If your ability to focus at work is suffering, it can hamper your professional life in a lot of ways. Not only can this lead to mistakes, but it can also stop you from moving up the corporate ladder.
Before you find out ways on how to focus at work, you have to know what’s causing your inability to concentrate in the first place.
Is it something minor, or are you struggling with a mental health condition? We’ve rounded up the most common reasons why people can’t focus at work below:
- Unhealthy or stressful lifestyle
- Poor self-care
- Insomnia (prioritize sleeping for at least 8 hours a night)
- Depression and anxiety
- PTSD and emotional shock
There are tons of reasons why your focus is running low, so don’t worry if you can’t exactly pinpoint what’s causing your lack of concentration on any task at hand.
The truth is, everyone experiences bad days. So unless you’re an airplane pilot and your task for the day isn’t life or death, take a break for a few minutes and use this time to refocus your brain.
Because there’s no chance of shutting out the world while you’re busy, the decision to stay focused at work is in your hands. It’s about finding the right techniques, knowing your priorities, and sticking to them.
How To Focus at Work Easily?
You are not the only one struggling to improve your concentration at work. Thankfully, there are many tips you can follow to improve your focus and increase your attention span while working.
Here are 18 ways on how to focus at work:
1. Know Your Triggers
To consistently stay focused for long periods, the first step is to look deep into yourself to find out why you’re resisting focus in the first place.
We are all different in some way or another. Some of us can have a desk filled with work material and still be able to concentrate but get thrown off by a co-worker just entering our space.
The likelihood of being distracted is directly related to the amount of pull something is having on our attention. So, increased self-observation and deep introspection will help you to identify boundary cues.
There are three typical cues that you need to either set boundaries for or you are letting your boundaries slip:
You can’t always avoid every single distraction. But if you’re aware of your weaknesses, the better the chances of putting the right systems in place to greatly reduce exposure to distractions.
A boundary is a limit defining you in a relationship with someone or something. Boundaries can be physical, digital, emotional, and even spiritual.
Learning how to set boundaries is essential in limiting disruptions and distractions in your life. Healthy boundaries give you the room to do what you want to focus on. It serves as the framework to focus your efforts and harness your energy enabling you to do your best work.
The first step in setting boundaries is knowing your triggers and limits – are they mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual?
Keep in mind that your limits are your own, so it’s likely to be different than the limits of others.
Imagine the ridicule you’ll receive for placing a “Do not interrupt” sign on your office door or your desk in this ultra-sensitive era. It will likely not be received favorably by your colleagues.
Most of us are just too much of a crowd-pleaser to become conveniently reclusive and risk getting rebuked for it.
Often, our inability to set boundaries results from our fear of offending those around us. But frankly, you have little to no obligation beyond your own guilt to be immediately available to everyone all the time.
2. Eliminate Digital Distractions
We mentioned earlier how much of a distracting force digital devices have become.
If you’re like most workers, you don’t spend all of your hours at work doing actual work. Be honest. And even if you do, you’re the envy of many reading this article.
Cyberloafing is so rampant in workplaces that it costs US businesses up to US$85 billion a year, according to a University of Nevada study.
To overcome this, Newport suggests staying away from distracting websites and apps for a predetermined amount of time.
“Schedule in advance when you’ll use the Internet, and then avoid it altogether outside these times.”
Here are several strategies to help with your digital de-clutter:
- Use site-blocking apps to access the internet at set intervals.
- Develop the willpower to not check your phone every 10 minutes. Get used to selecting the ‘do not disturb’ mode on your smartphone or keep it face down.
- Minimize Your Notifications – Ignore the Noise
- Unapologetically screen your phone calls – set boundaries to accept only very important calls during work hours.
3. Make Your Computer Distraction-Free
This is very important for people who always work on their computers. Put in just one folder all files related to each project or task. Then ensure your computer is always virus-free to saved you the hassle of checks and repairs. Instances such as these cause stress and will wane your interest to finish the tasks.
4. Methodically Schedule Each Day
Meticulously planning each day is the best way to approach deep work and one of the best strategies on how to stay focused at work. It imposes time limits, creating a healthy ‘pressure of time’.
One of the main reasons why most people lose focus during a workday is because of a lack of a structured plan or schedule.
Newport acknowledges that not every day will go exactly as planned. But recommends that you “schedule every minute of your day” regardless.
The time-blocking (also known as time boxing) approach will hold you accountable by allocating specific periods for specific types of work. Dividing your workday into blocks and assigning activities to each one allows you to prioritize what’s most important.
There are different time-boxing methods such as Day-theming. Day-theming is dedicating each day of the week to a specific theme instead of switching between different types of work or areas of responsibility throughout the day. This strategy is not about scheduling a perfect day. It’s really about giving structure to your workday by forcing you to be more intentional with your time.
When you schedule each workday you’ll be more control of time because you’ll know exactly what you want to accomplish and when.
5. Make a Daily “To-Do” List and Keep It Nearby
It’s always helpful when you have your list of tasks beside your computer, at any conspicuous place in the work area, or in an accessible app. Here you can learn The Right Way to Make a To Do List and Get Things Done.
Cross out the “done” tasks when you’ve completed them, and you will have a sense of accomplishment and feel satisfied.
6. Prioritize Tasks
The first hour at work is where most people are productive. This is because all energies are yet to be spent. So To Be More Productive, Never Do This To Start Your Morning.
One of the ultimate tips in how to focus at work is to put the taxing and difficult task on your agenda during the first hour. Follow these with the less pressing work, and then end with those routine tasks that you find boring.
Such methods makes you stay focused at work, without spending precious time on doing tasks you don’t like. Do this and you won’t be stressed with important projects at the end of the workday.
7. Let Others Know of Your Strict Personal Policies
If you’re bent on making your personal working system work, let others know it. Chances are, you’d be left alone on the hours where you’re focused on the really big, important work.
When people at work know you’re on your “free time”, they will pose questions and talk during such periods. Unless there’s a very urgent matter at hand, they’ll leave you at work. After all, they want the same.
8. Be Unreachable, Busy, Away…Or “Invisible”
Not all calls are about your apartment being burglarized, or a loved one being in precarious situation. So turn off your mobile phone to silent mode during hours where you really need all attention on your work. You can also opt to activate the voicemail service.
As for instant messaging, set the status to indicate you’re “busy” or stay “invisible” while you work so you can remain focused on a task. If you still get IMs, then just turn the notification or program off. Turn it on later when your current task isn’t as pressing.
9. Stay Away from the Social Media
These sites aren’t meant to be checked all the time. So discipline yourself to log in only when you have extra minutes free.
There’s a strong tendency that you’ll stay much longer than planned because something new, interesting and perky always comes with most social networking sites. Not only will it defeat your purpose of staying focused at work, but there’s plenty of information there that could get your mind unnecessarily perturbed — like a friend’s status about her heartbreak, or someone from work getting a raise.
10. Organize Your Emails
Another really stressful and distracting activity is email. Depending on which company you work for and your specific role, there’s a strong possibility you’ll receive a steady stream of company emails daily.
Let’s face it: You get a lot. Likely a heavy mix of personal and work correspondence, promos and updates from your sites, and undoubtedly, spam.
Emails are one of the most inescapable aspects of work life. We’re currently sending approximately 200 billion emails per day.
One good way to avoid this is to have a separate email address for work and one for your personal email. Have them both powered to filter all emails. Once you have free time on hand, check emails again and unsubscribe from senders who you could live without. Then, organize the emails you’d attend to later. Delete the rest.
Newport argues that emails take up mind space and attention that could be devoted to deep work. He believes that email is the:
“Quintessential shallow activity is particularly insidious in its grip on most knowledge workers’ attention.”
Those little virtual envelopes spark such feelings of curiosity and excitement, it’s quite difficult to loosen its powerful grip on our attention.
Newport recommends several strategies:
Guard Your Email Address
- Don’t list your email address publicly or have it on your website if you’re a business owner.
- Have different emails or separate contact forms for different queries.
- Have a process-centric approach. Reduce some of the back-and-forths of emails by sending more thorough and complete correspondence. This will close the loop on a conversation more quickly.
- Prioritize the emails you receive. Understand that not every email you receive requires a response.
The Inbox Zero Method
Another email strategy you could apply is the polarizing Inbox Zero method.
Originally coined by Merlin Mann, owner of 43 Folders, Inbox Zero will help you to dedicate specific chunks of time to reading and answering emails so that they don’t take over your day.
Here are some tenants of Mann’s original view of Inbox Zero:
- Keep your email application closed for the majority of the day.
- When processing emails follow the principle of Delete, Delegate, Respond, Defer or Do.
- Respond immediately to messages which can be answered in two minutes or less.
11. Redesign Your Phone Use
Phones are meant for important concerns, chats about the previous night’s date are meant for long lunch breaks. Observing such rule would help you stay focused at work.
You could also request your workmates to inform your callers you’d get back to them at a later time instead of always tapping your back or shouting out that you’ve got a call at any time.
Once you’re done with work, call back the earlier callers and explain your situation briefly. In the next two minutes, ask about their concern, note it down and tell them you’d call them back for their needed action. Prepare and write all their needed details, bearing in mind their possible follow-up thoughts on the matter. Then, call them back and always limit the phone conversation to less than three minutes.
12. Put on the Headphones
In most offices, there are various sources of sounds that can prove distracting — like the floor polisher, the mail cart, workmates talking, phones ringing, and sounds of things dropped on the floor. So why not block out distracting stuff?
Protect yourself with headphones so you can stay focused at work. The headphones will ward off surprising sounds — and those that get your mind wandering.
13. Choose Suitable Music
The point of having music in the background while you’re working is to provide ease and inspiration so you can stay focused at work. For some, listening to music pumps up their adrenaline so they can work with greater energy.
But not all kinds of music are pleasant for everyone — and some are not suited for one’s mood. This tip in how to focus at work recommends organizing your music library accordingly.
Apart from helping you stay focused at work, no distractions should take place. There’s nothing more jarring than suddenly hearing loud, heavy metal screaming after some relaxing jazz music.
If you want some ideas for the kind of music to listen to, check out this Productivity Music for Focus (Recommended Playlists).
14. Always Find the Fun in What You Do
Any meaningful task or routine takes a large part of one’s focus. Before starting anything, ask yourself why you should do it. With your answer, there will be that output you so desire — and so you value the task.
Then, find ways for the task to become fun, like allowing your creativity and imagination to play in the process. Don’t stick within borders of “approved” output; have your options opened for new, fun ideas.
When you make something you can call your own, you’re more likely to stay focused at work.
15. Choose a Great Chair-And-Table Combo
Many people find working physically strenuous even if it’s done seated most of the time.
One of the best tips in how to focus at work is to not lose precious time and be distracted with discomfort. Get a really good chair with great back support; make sure your desk or worktable is well-structured as well. That way you can work for many hours and not find your body and eyes getting strained.
16. Get Your Work Station Organized
Too much stuff within arms’ reach or atop your desk can prove to be really distracting. To stay focused at work, only have the things you need neatly piled on your desk — put the rest away properly, like in a desk drawer or shelves. Have an area for food and drinks, your bag or purse, and other personal items. But have them within reach so you can just grab a drink without losing focus on what you’re doing.
Take a look at these 15 Best Organizing Tips For Office Organization and Getting More Done for inspiration.
17. Have Enough Water Nearby
Drinking water isn’t only healthy, it refreshes you as well. Once you feel the first sign of fatigue or hunger, a glass of water can push them away. Then you can finish what you’re doing and rest at a later time.
Besides, not all stomach rumblings are signs of hunger, and drinking a glass of water usually deals with it.
Just make sure you have water within arms’ reach. That way you stay focused at work instead of walking to the water station — and becoming prey to distractions!
18. Bring in the Healthy Snacks
Like having water close by, the food that could settle a grumbling stomach must always be at hand. For the same reason of having 90% of your attention at work, eating within your workspace area will not expose you to unrelated activities.
Also, make sure your snacks within arms reach are healthy so you can stay energetic: 25 Healthy Snacks for Work: Decrease Hunger and Increase Productivity
The Bottom Line
Just remember — you are surrounded by events and people at work that could cut off your momentum and affect your ability to concentrate. You can help keep these at bay with the above 18 effective ways to focus at work.
Featured photo credit: ROOM via unsplash.com