How to stay focused at work, even when it feels impossible

We’ve all been there: it’s already 11 AM, you have 50 tabs open in your browser, 20 unanswered emails, 10 unread chat messages, and so far you’ve accomplished… nothing.

Distractions are one of the most common problems people face in the modern workplace. But just because you can’t shut out the world, doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be more focused at work. All it takes is the right changes to your environment and your attitude.

Here are eight ways to stay more focused at work.

1. Eliminate distractions from your work area.

When our desks are cluttered or filled with objects that can distract us, it’s much harder to stay focused.

Organize your desk, so anything unnecessary is neatly tucked away. If you have a desk drawer or shelves, use them to stow away snacks, your bag or purse, or other personal items.

This includes your phone. People check their phones anywhere from 35-74 times a day on average. That’s a lot of moments of distraction.

If you really want to focus on what’s in front of you, turn your phone upside down. Check it at timed intervals. And if you really can’t resist it, tuck it away somewhere until you’ve completed your most important task for the day. You can use checking your phone as a small reward each time to complete an important piece of work.

2. Clear your desktop of anything unnecessary.

We tend to keep multiple programs and windows open at once because we know we’ll need them at some point. But this is an invitation for distracting notifications.

Don’t leave every program you use throughout the day open. Open only the programs and windows you need for the task you’re currently working on. When you’re finished, close them.

This goes for tabs, too. We keep millions of tabs open for various reasons: to remind us to do something, to save an article we want to read later, to make something faster to access (just in case).

  • If you need a reminder to do something: make a to-do list.
  • If you want to read an article later: save the URL.
  • If you want something to be easily accessible: bookmark it.

Stop making excuses for cluttering up your desktop. All you’re doing is making it more challenging to stay focused.

3. Create a prioritized to-do list.

It’s impossible to stay focused when new requests keep interrupting you. Instead of reacting to requests as they come in, be proactive in logging a prioritized to-do list.

If one task will help your entire team move forward on a big project and the other will correct an out-of-date spreadsheet, which one do you think you should work on first? If you answered the former, you are correct.

Not only will a properly organized to-do list help you choose which tasks to work on in which order, but it will also help you provide your coworkers with accurate time estimates for when their requests will be complete.

4. Split larger tasks into smaller parts.

It’s overwhelming to tackle a task like “Create a 50-page guide to project management.” You’re likely to spend weeks without being able to check this task of your to-do list, which is terrible for your morale and focus.

Instead, split this task into smaller pieces that can be completed each day. You can split it any way you’d like: by the number of pages, sections, words, etc.

Just make it so that each day you’re setting yourself up with a list of accomplishable tasks.

5. Ask yourself why you’re doing your work.

We often lack focus when we consider tasks to be annoying, time-consuming, or pointless.

Before you get started on any task, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Come up with a meaningful purpose behind the task.

Maybe the task helps align your team so that they can collaborate more efficiently. Maybe the task helps your customer better understand your product. Maybe the task improves team morale.

Whatever reason you find, it’s important to state to yourself why it’s important. When you make something meaningful, you’re more likely to want to focus on it.

Your “why” statements will also further help you prioritize your to-do list. You should always complete the tasks that have the greatest impact (i.e. biggest “why”) first.

6. Check your email at designated times.

Don’t check every email as it hits your inbox. In fact, (if you can) close your email and only open it during designated times throughout the day.

Check your email after you finish your first big task. Check it again mid-day, and check it before you leave.

Obviously, some jobs require you to be much more active on email than this, and that’s ok. But if your job doesn’t require you to respond to emails within a certain number of minutes or hours, why are you giving it attention like it does? In most cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to respond to an email anywhere from 4-24 hours after it’s been sent. If you’re not comfortable letting an email sit for more than 6 hours, check your email every 5.

7. Use a timer to train your brain.

Even with all these tips in place, some people still have trouble focusing for long periods of time. These days, we’re so used to task-switching that it can be mentally challenging to focus on just one thing.

Larry Rosen, Ph.D., research psychologist, and author of “iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us, told Business Insider that we struggle to “focus and attend” to any task for more than 3 to 5 minutes before getting distracted.

His answer? We need to retrain our brains to respond to a set schedule rather than spontaneous cues.

If you feel like this is you, try practicing how long you can stay completely focused on one task using a timer. Start with 15 min intervals for a few weeks, working your way up to longer periods. When you’re comfortable with 15, try 20, then 30.

8. Take breaks.

No one can focus for 8+ hours straight. As you improve your intense focus periods from 15 to 20 to 30 minutes at a time, also make time throughout your day to clear your mind.

Walk around the office. Step outside for some fresh air. Make a new cup of coffee or tea. Do something away from your screen that physically takes you out of your workstation. And while you’re up, stop thinking about work. It’s not really a break if you take your work with you in your head.

One break you should never skip? Lunch. That’s right, stop eating lunch at your desk! Your mind will thank you for the 30-60 min off.

Final Thoughts

Focus is important for productivity, but so is happiness and a sense of connection to your fellow coworkers. Don’t focus so much that you end up cutting yourself off from others. Say good morning to your desk neighbor; ask your boss about their long weekend.

As you’re taking short breaks throughout the day, connect with others. You still want to enjoy your workday! Productivity tips should never make you feel like a robot. They’re just meant to make the work part of your day a little easier.

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