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Why you can’t focus at work — and what to do about it

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

March 18, 2020

We all have those days when it feels impossible to focus at work. You may notice yourself repeatedly refreshing your inbox, making countless cups of coffee, and doing pointless busy work, like Inbox Zero.

The worst part is the longer you can’t focus, the more you fall behind. Eventually, you either rush through your tasks in a panic, which results in low-quality work — or you procrastinate even further, sometimes skipping tasks altogether.

No one thinks this is a great place to be. So why do we do it to ourselves? Read on to find out why you can’t focus and, most importantly, what to do about it.

Reason 1: You’re stuck in a cycle of procrastination

There will always be parts of your job you don’t enjoy. For some people, it’s mundane admin tasks like filling out timesheets. For others, it’s the prospect of something daunting, like preparing a big report or presentation.

When faced with a task we don’t like, there are two options: one — find the motivation to focus and do it. Or two: put it off.

The problem with putting it off is that procrastination increases stress. That task will keep hanging over your head, and your deadline’s approaching.

Stress is never a good thing in the workplace because it kills performance, causes analysis paralysis, and makes it even harder to focus and learn.

The fix

Doing something you don’t enjoy is a struggle, but you can make the process less painful.

According to one study, cognitive ability peaks between 8 am and 10 am — so do your toughest tasks first thing in the morning, when your energy is high, and you’re most alert. Once the worst of your day is behind you, the rest of your to-do list will feel easy. If the morning has already come and gone, put off the job until the following morning.

Another option is to break large tasks down into smaller chunks. Splitting them up makes the larger job seem less daunting and time-consuming. Tackle a little bit each day; before you know it, you’ll have conquered the beast.

Reason 2: You’re exhausted

We’ve all been there: after a night of tossing and turning, we fall asleep just before our alarm goes off and drag ourselves to work red-eyed and cranky. Apart from feeling awful, lack of sleep does all kinds of bad things to our brains.

One recent study says alertness, attention span, and vigilance take a nosedive. In the workplace, you’re more likely to make mistakes and less likely to learn, participate, and come up with ideas.

Long-term, a continued lack of sleep can even destroy brain cells. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that sleep deprivation permanently kills brain cells in mice — and it may well do the same in humans.

The fix

If you’re tired right now, there are a few things you can do to help. Rather than reaching for another coffee — which will eventually make you crash — down a large glass of water. Dehydration is a major cause of sluggishness, so rehydrating will help you feel more alert.

It may sound counterproductive, but going for a walk or a short workout at the gym can also perk you up. The fresh air and improved circulation help you feel more refreshed than if you’d taken a nap. In fact, according to the UK’s NHS, “Even a single 15-minute walk can give you an energy boost, and the benefits increase with more frequent physical activity.”

In the long term, try to adopt good sleeping habits. According to the National Sleep Foundation, you should aim for between seven and nine hours a night. Stop looking at screens (TVs, phones, and computers) at least half an hour before you go to bed. The light emitted by these devices restricts the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle, i.e., circadian rhythm. This makes it harder to fall and stay asleep.

If you find it hard to resist peeking at your phone, put it out of reach. Even better, buy an old-fashioned alarm clock and put your device in a different room altogether.

Reason 3: You’ve got brain drain

You’ve probably heard about the perils of multitasking — but it’s so much more than just trying to do two jobs at once. Multitasking can also be mental, where you’re trying to think about several things simultaneously — something that we do a lot of in the average working day.

Just picture it: you’re probably working on something on a computer at any one time. You’ve got several tabs open, and you’re half-thinking about an email you need to reply to. Your phone is next to you on your desk, with a stack of notifications filling your lock screen. That’s before you even account for distracting team chatter and the personal thoughts flying around your head.

A 2017 study found that the presence of your phone — even if it’s switched off — “reduces available cognitive capacity” because you’re dedicating a portion of your cognitive ability to resisting it. The study’s authors call this ‘brain drain.’ The same goes for email notifications: just seeing an email in your inbox will distract you, even if you’re successfully ignoring it.

The fix

Hide your phone. Beyond that, you can put it somewhere tricky to reach — like a drawer, locker, or the most inaccessible part of your bag.

Turn off your email notifications completely. If you’re worried about being slow to reply, set up a permanent out-of-office that says something along the lines of this:

Hi! Thanks for your message.

I’m only checking email twice a day so that I can focus on work.

This means I may take a little longer to respond, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks for your patience.

The internet itself is another considerable distraction that you probably can’t avoid. If you struggle to stay off social media, the news, or any other site that doesn’t help you work, consider using a website blocker. These harsh-but-handy apps prevent you from visiting the websites of your choice for a predefined amount of time. StayFocused is one option, but there are loads to choose from, each with its own features. And if you’re using a team chat app, set your status to tell people you’re focusing and disable notifications for a set period. That way, people will know you shouldn’t be disturbed — and the app won’t send you notifications while trying to focus.

Final thoughts

The trick here is to remove anything that doesn’t contribute to you completing your goals. Before you begin work every morning, take a few moments to plan your approach. Keep a specific task in mind, and do everything you can to stay on track throughout the day.



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