What to Do When You Can’t Focus at Work

Breena Fain

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woman focusing on work at home

Maintaining focus at work can seem impossible in today’s world. With the constant barrage of messages on multiple channels (texts, emails, Slack), unending news rabbit holes, and social media flurries – it’s no wonder people are struggling to focus at work. You can attempt to multi-task, however trying to focus on multiple things at a time reduces your productivity by as much as 40%. Unfortunately, it’s a problem that countless employees face but rarely talk about with their teammates. According to Udemy’s 2018 Workplace Distraction Report, 70% of people admit they feel distracted when they’re on the job and 66% have never talked to their bosses about it.

There are several reasons why you can’t focus at work; everything from lack of sleep, major life events, family matters to address, and right now – a global pandemic and constant social and political unrest. You become trapped in a vicious cycle as burnout decreases your ability to focus and your inability to focus pushes you further into burnout. So what do you do to break the cycle?

Two Steps:

First, know that right now it’s hard for everyone to focus. Be kind to yourself – things are objectively challenging right now and you can’t expect yourself to focus 100% of the time you’d like. We are not able to conduct ‘business as usual’. Entire corporations are implementing new remote working systems and it will take time to adjust to this new way of working. If you’re at home, struggling to stay on task, it is completely normal. Feeling ashamed about it will only add more stress and further distract you from what you need to accomplish.

Secondly, at Flourish, we know that a lack of focus at work is one of the main symptoms of a deeper problem – burnout. Below are a few things you can do to stay focused during your workday. However, if you think you might be suffering from persistent burnout, and that your inability to focus might just be a symptom, you’ll need a long-term solution. You can learn more about what you can do to end your burnout and feel re-energized, motivated, and back in control here.

Once you’ve ruled out burnout, here are four things you can do to stay focused at work:

1. Set clear priorities each week.

On Mondays, or whenever you start your work week, create a clear list of your top priorities. Be intentional and realistic about how much time you have to commit to tasks each week. It can be helpful to assign points to each priority based on how much time you’ll need to complete them. For example, small tasks under 30 minute can be one point; tasks that take 1-2 hours can be two points; and tasks 2-4 hours can be three points. Each week, perhaps you can tackle two big tasks, three medium tasks and five small ones.

If tasks go beyond a few hours, break it down even smaller until you can take manageable chunks of time to complete your work. Trying to take on a 5+ hour task at once is too daunting and will be ripe for distraction. If you are looking for inspiration on how to structure and keep track of your priorities each week, we have created a template you can download below.

2. Block time on your calendar to tackle bigger priorities.

Once you have your list of tasks, schedule time on your calendar to complete them. Stick to short blocks as it becomes too difficult to stay focused beyond that. Treat these blocks of time like meetings with important people. The time you take for yourself to complete your work is just as important as the time you give to others. Plus this will allow you to have a visual reference for the most important items you need to complete that week.

3. Take regular breaks and move around.

One great way of staying focused at work is to plan on taking breaks to let your body move and your mind wander. It’s essential that you walk around, stretch, meditate, and do whatever you can to release some of that stiffness in your body and mind. You can also try alternating and focusing on creative tasks to break up ones that require more critical thinking. Being sedentary for multiple hours will definitely lead to not only mental distractions, but also possible physical ailments. The Marinara: Pomodoro Assistant is a great tool for this. You can set how much time you want to be in “Focus Mode” and it will automatically alert you when it’s time to take a short break. You can even set it to have longer breaks after you get through a few short sessions of work.

4. Check in daily on your priorities list.

Each morning and evening, update your status and assess which items are on-track to be completed by EOW and which are at risk. For the items that are at risk, figure out why and what you might do to put them back on track; if something major has changed that changed the timeline, that’s okay. Just make sure you’re clear with yourself and those you work with. There’s nothing worse than knowing something won’t happen by a specific date, then pretending it will, creating unnecessary stress. You can also check in midweek when you still have time to reevaluate your priorities without being overly worked.

5. Conduct a retro at the end of each week.

While your daily check-ins are good for making sure you’re completing tasks, your end-of-week retro is time for you to assess how you did. For any tasks you didn’t complete, spend a few minutes reflecting on it. One great way to get to the heart of what’s there is to ask “why” 3-5 times. The intention here is not to blame, but to be constantly learning together with your team. When you continue to dig deeper, there are often important learnings beneath. For example, our team noticed we often missed sending out emails to large groups of people because there was a desire to ensure something going to thousands of people was perfect. When we learned that, we could build a process to mitigate that risk and the fear that came from it. Don’t be afraid to keep asking yourself “why” and take that as an opportunity to grow.

We are living in unprecedented times, and staying focused at work is going to be difficult no matter what you do. So just take a moment to reflect on how much is on your shoulders and practice a bit of self-compassion. Staying focused is a tough challenge for everyone, especially right now. If you feel like the distraction is becoming too overwhelming and you’d like more guidance on how to stay focused,  click here to schedule a discovery call.

Regain focus with the flourish weekly priorities template

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