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How to focus when distracted at work

Do you find yourself losing focus when you really need to get the job done? Here are 12 quick ways you can get back on track and tick off that to-do list in no time

Are you having one of those days? We’ve all been there. You’ve got a to-do list a mile long, yet you keep finding yourself staring off into space, re-checking your inbox, or watching the clock tick (so, so slowly) towards lunch or home time. Here are 12 quick, simple and effective ways that you can improve your concentration, find your focus, and make being distracted a thing of the past.

Why do we struggle to find our focus?

In our modern, tech-dominated world, we’re used to switching our focus pretty fast. Just think about it: when was the last time you didn’t have your phone within arm’s length? Or your smartwatch? How about your smart TV, your laptop or desktop? Some of us are so plugged in, we automatically look to our phones or watches mid-conversation, when we spot that tell-tale notification ping or vibration trying to get our attention. We’re so used to having our attention being pulled in a dozen different directions, it’s no wonder we struggle to get things done.

The more distracted we feel, the more likely our productivity is to take a hit. That can mean even longer spent on tasks we may already find boring or unengaging. And it’s not just distractions that can affect our concentration. How we’re feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally can have a significant impact. Not to mention our environments, with noisy offices and home comforts just as likely to distract us whether we’re working remotely or in the office. So, how can we shake things up and bring the focus back to our workdays?

How to stop being distracted at work

1. Set up your space for success Removing distractions from around you can help to create the right kind of environment to promote concentration and improve focus. Having a clean and clear desk not only helps you to find things more easily, but research shows that having clutter around you could be affecting your productivity. One study by scientists at the Princeton University of Neuroscience Institute found that we’re better able to focus and process information, thereby increasing productivity, when we clear the clutter from our work environment.

The same can be said when working from home. The more ‘stuff’ we have around us, the more likely we are to procrastinate. Too much clutter can even make us feel more stressed and anxious. So clear off your desk, put your phone on silent (and ideally out of eyesight), and ensure you’ve got everything you’ll need (e.g. noise-cancelling headphones and water) to help set yourself up for success.

2. Get your priorities straight Feeling overwhelmed or unsure where to start can lead to procrastination and being more easily distracted. To head this off at the pass, set yourself a short list of priorities you absolutely must get done today. This could be one bigger task you want to achieve throughout the day or a couple of smaller things you want to tick off by set times.

Having these clear starting points can help you to focus on these first, leaving all the little extra things and last-minute additions to your task list to wait until you’ve already managed to create a sense of accomplishment and achievement. Once you’ve had that first win, it can make moving on to the next thing feel that little bit easier.

3. Pick one thing to focus on right now Multitasking sounds great in theory but, in practice, it often results in lower productivity and trouble focusing. Trying to do multiple things at once can feel like we’re trying to be productive – but, often, it leads to overwhelm, getting several tasks half-done, and a sense of disappointment when we aren’t able to see a definitive result despite our hard work. Go for quality over quantity: pick one task, and give it your all.

4. Frequently interrupted by meetings or colleagues? Write notes for future-you Whether you’re in the office and that one coworker keeps stopping by for a chat, you keep being invited to last-minute meetings, or you’re working remotely and your team’s chat keeps popping up with new messages, being interrupted by colleagues can be a bigger distraction than we might realise. If you find yourself being disrupted by frequent interruptions, make a habit of writing down notes for yourself. Ask your colleagues to give you 30 seconds to finish off what you are working on, and write yourself a quick note to help signpost what you were working on, and what you were planning to do next. This can help you to get back to things more quickly and efficiently.

5. Set boundaries with co-workers (and anyone who shares your space) Having healthy boundaries isn’t just important for our personal relationships – it’s vital for our working relationships, too. As one counsellor explains on Counselling Directory, “A person with good boundaries is able to communicate their needs and wants and may well speak up before they are taken advantage of.” Setting and communicating clear boundaries can help us to protect ourselves from overwhelm, guide others in the best ways of communicating with us (e.g. you may be able to get back to them quicker if they pop a question into an email instead of finding time to jump on a call), and let them know what is and isn’t OK. This can be a great help in building focus time into your day to clear out your inbox, concentrate on certain tasks, or plan your time for the days ahead.

6. Ditch the distractions What is it that most distracts you? Are you being bombarded by email notifications, tempted by social media updates, or interrupted by Slack, Discord, or your colleagues IRL? Identify your personal biggest distractions, and make a plan to eliminate them. This could mean logging out of social media, keeping your notifications on silent, or popping your phone into your desk drawer. If others are interrupting you, setting boundaries, blocking out quiet time in your calendar, or switching Slack to ‘do not disturb’ could be the answer.

7. Try the Pomodoro technique The Pomodoro technique (also known as the Pomodoro method) is all about ditching multi-tasking for task-switching. If you find yourself struggling to sit and focus on a single task, this could be the answer for you. Set a specific time on a timer - for example, 25 minutes to work on a presentation; this is how long you’ll focus on your task. Once your time is up, set a new timer for a five-minute break. This is your time to do whatever you want. Make a cuppa, check your email, or browse Facebook for a few minutes. Once your timer goes off, set another 25 minutes to work on the same task. Once you’ve done this cycle four times, take a longer 15 to 30-minute break. By giving yourself permission to take breaks instead of getting distracted, it helps activate the reward system in your brain, making tasks seem more manageable and less like a chore.

8. Check in with yourself (physically) How are you feeling right now, physically? Do you have a headache? Backache? Are you feeling hungry, thirsty, or tired? Sometimes, we may not realise why we’re feeling grumpy, distracted, or uncomfortable. Not drinking enough water (or having too much caffeine) can lead to persistent headaches, feeling sluggish, fatigued, or having low energy levels. It can also lead to greater sugar cravings, meaning you’re more likely to snack.

Nutritional therapist Amanda Morris explains more about the importance of hydration – and how it can affect you. Ensuring you’ve drunk enough water isn’t the only way to look after your physical health for better focus. Nutritional Therapist Claire Hargreaves, BSc Hons, explains more about foods that can help improve your concentration.

“The role of food in helping maintain optimal concentration and motivation is paramount. It may also play a role in any medical conditions that could develop that have an impact on the brain or mental health in general, which would impact one’s daily performance greatly.”

Ensuring your diet includes foods high in omega-3 like oily fish and nuts can help support your mood and memory, and food high in antioxidants like fruits and vegetables can help your brain to function optimally. Find out more about how food can help improve your concentration with Nutritionist Resource.

Sleep can also play a huge role in your overall ability to focus. When you don’t get enough sleep, or that sleep is poor quality, it can lead to fatigue, overwhelm, making poor food choices, and a number of physical and mental health issues. Read more about the reasons why you may be feeling tired all of the time, as explained by Naturopath, Nutritional Therapist and Functional Medicine Practitioner Olianna Gourli, and find out more about how you can combat persistent fatigue.

9. Check in with yourself (mentally) How are you feeling mentally right now? Feeling stressed? Overwhelmed? Lost? Burned out? When we’ve got too much on our to-do list or we’re trying to juggle too much, it can have a real knock-on effect on our overall sense of wellbeing. Working with a coach or counsellor can help you to identify new strategies to help you prioritise your workload, learn how to set healthy targets and boundaries, as well as how to manage feelings of stress, anxiety, and worry. Find out more about the differences between coaching and counselling, and whether you need a counsellor or a coach.

10. Get away from your screen Having regular screen breaks can have a multitude of benefits. Stepping away from your computer can help you to re-centre yourself and feel more present in the moment. This, in turn, can help you to break away from unhelpful thought patterns that may be leaving you feeling distracted or overwhelmed, bringing you back into the moment, and allowing you to regain a sense of control.

11. Listen to music Studies have shown that music can have a calming, therapeutic effect – when we pick the right kind. Sticking to lighter, more classical, instrumental or gentle music and nature sounds can help you to concentrate, while louder tunes or music with lyrics may prove to be more distracting.

12. Switch it up If you’re still feeling stuck and focusing on the task at hand doesn’t seem possible, it could be a sign it’s time to switch tasks. Sometimes, we get stuck and giving ourselves something new to work on can help us to focus, get back in the zone, and reengage with work. So don’t be too hard on yourself - try switching to something new.

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