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5 reasons why you can’t focus at work…and what to do about it.
Do you ever feel completely frazzled at the end of the workday? You know that you did something during your day, but you’re not quite sure what. You’ve had information coming at you from all angles, all day long, and honestly, you are just happy you made it through the day still standing. You tell yourself to “focus”, but despite your best efforts, your mind is running a million miles an hour in all different directions.
Focus is an incredibly powerful skill. In fact, the ability to focus is one of the number one differentiators I see between people who work effectively and people who struggle to get things done. And yet, focus is elusive to many of us. When trying to focus, it feels like the rest of the world is conspiring against us, and in all honesty, it often is. Even worse perhaps, is that our own brains often stop us from being able to focus. Below are some of the key reasons why you can’t focus at work, as well as some tips and tricks to overcome them.
Top reasons why you can’t focus at work
During the average workday, most people encounter a huge amount of information. From emails, to meetings, to reports, you are constantly faced with new data. Without a way to process and prioritize this information, your brain starts to overload, and you feel exhausted. You’ve spent all of your mental energy just processing incoming information and have no energy left to do anything about what you’ve encountered.
What to do about it: Without intervention, you will be overwhelmed by information every day. This is just the reality of working in today’s world. To help counter this, you need to set up systems that help you receive and process information in a productive way. This can include setting structure and limits around when you check email, a system for taking notes in meetings, and a system for how you sort and store information that you receive throughout your day. The key here is to set up systems that minimize the amount of thought you need to give to each piece of information. You want to flag what is high priority and then sort and store everything else, so it is available to you when you need it later. You can find a quick tutorial on how to set up an information processing system here.
If you’ve received a lot of information and your brain is feeling very full, you may want to take a “palate cleanser” before you jump into further work. This could be a quick walk, a stretch break, a chat with co-workers, or a short meditation. This break helps you to get out of information overload mode, and into a place where you can focus on deep work.
Who here hasn’t had that frustrating experience of being deep in thought only to be interrupted by a co-worker walking by with a question or a ringing phone? This happens to all of us and is rarely 100% avoidable. These interruptions pull your attention away from what you are working on. Gloria Marks, who studies interruptions at UC Irvine found that it takes 23 minutes to refocus on a task after you have been interrupted. Multiply that by the number of times you are interrupted in a day, and the time you spend trying to focus adds up!
What to do about it: Being proactive will help you. If you work in an office environment and need to do deep focused work, you want to communicate with your co-workers not to interrupt you. This can be a verbal request or can be communicated visually by closing your door, wearing headphones, or even putting up a sign that says, “In Deep Work”. If these strategies don’t work, look for opportunities to work at home or when fewer people are in the office. Additionally, you should minimize other opportunities for external interruption – put your phone on silent and away in a drawer and close your email inbox. You will likely still experience some interruptions, but each of these strategies should help to minimize them.
In addition to external interruption, deep focus is often interrupted by your own actions. This happens when you are working on a project and decide to shift into other activities. The results are very similar to external interruptions – it takes time to get refocused back on the previous task. Studies have found that people who experience external interruption are more likely to also experience self-interruption. Self-Interruption can also become a norm of a workplace or a personal habit that can be difficult to break.
What to do about it: Taking breaks isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if it happens while you are in the middle of something, self-interrupting can undermine your efforts. One approach to this is to set a fixed amount of time that you want to work on a project. Set a timer and minimize all distractions so you can focus during that time. Again, hiding the phone is a good idea here. Sometimes even just seeing your phone on your desk can tempt you to pick it up and check it when you get stuck on a complex problem.
Also, self-interruptions often happen when you remember something else that you need to do. Instead of switching tasks, simply write down the thought that occurs to you on a piece of paper, so you can capture it and then direct your attention back to the project you are working on. Later you can add this to your Master To-do List and schedule it for completion.
Multi-tasking happens when you are trying to work on more than one project at time. You are switching back and forth between tasks, trying to move forward on both of them at once. This often happens when you are under time pressure. You are trying to get a lot done at once and so you attempt to fit two or more projects into one work session.
What to do about it: You can combat this by having clear goals for every work session you have. When you schedule your week, you can assign specific items from your To-Do List to specific blocks of time in your calendar. It is super important to be realistic when you do this schedule. If you underestimate how long something will take, you’ll end up in a situation where you are trying to do two things at once. Build in some wiggle room so you can single-task and capture your best focused attention.
This is what happens when you don’t prioritize your focus on a regular basis. Simply put, you lose the ability to focus and you have to build back that skill set. If you’re spending every day feeling frantic and frenzied, then it is likely you need to build back up your focus muscle.
What to do about it: The number one way to build up your focus muscle is through meditation. This allows you to observe your thoughts and slow down the unending stream of chatter in your brain. If you are new to meditation, you can start very small. Find a quiet space, set a timer for five minutes, and close your eyes.
Use those five-minutes to observe. Observe how your body feels, observe any sounds around you, and observe the thoughts running through your head. Doing this practice once a day will significantly improve your ability to focus at work.
Your ability to focus can be a superpower. But it takes some planning and practice to harness it in the workplace. If you regularly feel overwhelmed at work, try some of these steps to help restore your focus. With practice, you’ll get better and better at focusing and will be able to take on deep and complex work with a clear mind.