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

Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

September 15, 2023

In today’s fast-paced work environment, distractions can be the ultimate productivity killers. From overflowing inboxes to incessant notifications, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. However, staying focused at work is not an insurmountable challenge. With the right strategies, you can regain control over your attention and enhance your productivity. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore not only how to eliminate distractions but also delve into the psychology of focus and productivity. Plus, we’ll introduce eight effective strategies to help you stay on track during your workday.

1. Eliminate distractions from your work area

The first step to staying focused is to create a clutter-free work environment. When our desks are cluttered or filled with objects that can distract us, it’s much harder to stay focused. Here’s how to declutter your workspace:

  • Organize Your Desk: Keep your desk tidy by stowing away unnecessary items in drawers or on shelves. This includes personal belongings like bags or snacks that might tempt you to stray from your tasks.
  • Store 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 want to focus on what’s in front of you, turn your phone upside down. Check it at timed intervals. And if you still 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 unnecessary items

An overcrowded computer desktop can be as distracting as a cluttered physical workspace.

Here’s how to streamline your digital environment:

  • Close Unneeded Programs: Resist the temptation to keep multiple programs and windows open simultaneously. Only open the software required for your current task and close them once you’re done.
  • Manage Your Browser Tabs: Browser tabs can quickly accumulate and overwhelm you. Instead of using tabs as reminders, employ other methods such as creating to-do lists, saving URLs, or bookmarking web pages.

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 off your to-do list, which is terrible for your morale and focus.

Instead, split this task into smaller pieces that can be completed daily. 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. Find the “why” behind your work

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

Before starting 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 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 help with prioritizing your to-do list. You should always complete the tasks that have the greatest impact (i.e., the 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. Some jobs require you to be much more active on email than this, and that’s okay. But if your job doesn’t require you to respond to emails within a few minutes or hours, why are you giving it attention as if 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 six hours, check your email every five.

7. Use a timer to train your brain

Even with all these tips, some people still have trouble focusing for long periods. 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 regular 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, 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 the screen that physically takes you out of your workstation. And while you’re up, stop thinking about work. It’s not 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.

How to stay focused while working from home

Working from home presents its unique set of distractions, from household chores to family members vying for your attention. To stay focused while working remotely, consider implementing the following strategies:

  • Designate a Dedicated Workspace: Set up a specific area in your home for work-related tasks. This separation helps create a boundary between work and personal life.
  • Establish a Routine: Maintain a consistent daily schedule that includes regular work hours and breaks. A structured routine helps condition your mind for focused work.
  • Communicate Boundaries: Inform your family or housemates about your work hours and the importance of uninterrupted focus during these times.
  • Minimize Household Distractions: Address household chores and responsibilities outside of your designated work hours to minimize disruptions.

Incorporating these strategies tailored to the challenges of remote work can significantly enhance your ability to stay focused and productive.

Final thoughts

Staying focused at work is essential for productivity, but it’s equally vital to maintain a sense of happiness and connection with colleagues. Productivity tips should streamline your workday without making you feel like a robot. By combining these eight effective strategies with the unique considerations of remote work, you can regain control over your focus, accomplish tasks efficiently, and enjoy a balanced work-life integration.

In addition to the right habits and strategies, having the right task management software is akin to having a trusted ally in your pursuit of enhanced focus and productivity. Task management tools like Backlog are designed to streamline your work processes, ensuring you can prioritize tasks, set deadlines, and collaborate seamlessly with your team. Backlog empowers you to create, assign, and track tasks efficiently, allowing you to concentrate on what truly matters. With features like Gantt charts, burndown charts, and Kanban boards, Backlog offers a comprehensive solution to help you stay organized and focused from wherever you’re working.

This post was originally published on May 19, 2017, and updated most recently on September 15, 2023.



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