Many things can derail our focus and stop us from accomplishing our work and what’s important to us. Technology, of course, is a big one. “Modern distractions like social media are designed to play on our psychology,” said Melody Wilding, LMSW, a therapist who works with female entrepreneurs.
“As humans, we’re cognitive misers, meaning that we will do anything to avoid mentally intensive tasks and conserve our brain energy.” Technology, with its rapid-fire updates and rewards, makes avoiding complex work that much easier.
There’s also a sense of urgency to consistently check your phone or email and reply right away, said Christine M. Valentin, LCSW, a licensed bilingual (Spanish-speaking) psychotherapist with offices in New Jersey and New York City. “It creates a sense of ‘I need to be on’ and ‘I need to respond.’”
Another distraction is unprocessed or unexplored emotions, Wilding said. She gave the example of last night’s unresolved fight disrupting today’s ability to concentrate.
Similarly, ruminating and worrying cloud our attention and stall action, she said. Even rushing can foil our focus. “When we rush, it’s similar to multitasking: We overload our minds and give ourselves no mental space to thoughtfully process, which kills our ability to problem solve.”
But even though distractions are aplenty, we can employ different strategies to refocus and actually get things done. Here are five to try.
1. Prioritize attentiveness.
Think of attentiveness as “something that’s meaningful and important to you,” and set a goal to hone it, Wilding said. For instance, you might notice the little things on your commute, such as “the noises on the subway [and] birds on your walk into the building.” You might notice the eye color of the person you’re talking to, she said. “These are small, but easy ways to train your brain to focus better and build that habit.”
2. Explore your mindset.
You can try all sorts of strategies, but if your underlying mindset or habits are sabotaging your focus, those tools won’t be very helpful. For instance, you have a black-and-white, all-or-nothing mindset. You’re trying out a few focusing techniques, but then something unexpected occurs. And you just can’t recover, because you keep telling yourself that your whole day is ruined due to this one thing.
In other words, “it isn’t just an issue of you focusing but your overall mindset seeping into different areas of your life,” Valentin said.
To address your mindset, she suggested keeping track of what you’re feeling and experiencing. This way you can identify patterns. For instance, you’re constantly upset that others interrupt you. After keeping a log, you identify that you’re making yourself too accessible. “You’re the ‘yes’ person and everyone comes to you,” which never gives you time to focus, she said.
“From there, identifying the pattern allows the person to take ownership over what they’re bringing.” Then you can set up specific boundaries to reduce your people-pleasing ways. You might close your door, not answer your phone and learn to say no, Valentin said. (And remember that you have the right to say no.)
What also can help you identify unhelpful mindsets, habits or tendencies is feedback. Feedback from loved ones and supervisors can help you become more self-aware and connect the dots, she said. For instance, you might’ve heard “you know, you worry too much” or “you’re thinking too negatively about things.”
3. Build in “buffer time.”
According to Wilding, your “buffer time” might be leaving 15 to 20 minutes between meetings or carving out an hour each day. “[It] can act as a mini emotional and mental sanctuary in an otherwise busy day.”
For instance, you might practice deep breathing or stretch to help you process some frustration. You might use that time to call a family member to resolve a conflict. You might set up a session with your therapist. Or you might “be proactive about another matter related to your personal crisis that would otherwise be distracting you throughout the day.”
Taking this kind of break also reminds you that you can gain control of your day at any time, Wilding said. “You can consciously make a choice to turn a bad day around where you may be feeling unfocused.”
4. Release racing thoughts.
When you’re bombarded with racing thoughts, a brain dump can help. Wilding suggested setting a timer for a minimum of five minutes or writing as long as you can about everything that’s on your mind. This might be everything from your thoughts and judgments to tasks and to-dos, she said. Next walk away for several hours or the whole day. “After you gain some space from it, you can come back to your list with fresh eyes and begin to prioritize your projects and next steps.”
Valentin suggested a similar strategy. First identify the recurring thought and what you’re feeling. Then assess if there’s something you can do about it in the moment. For instance, you keep thinking, “I have to take Mom to the doctor to get a CAT scan. What if the results are bad? Really bad?”
If your mom doesn’t have an appointment, you could pick up the phone and make one, she said. But if the appointment is already set and isn’t until later, “your energy doesn’t need to be focused on the results of a test that Mom hasn’t even had yet.”
To help you get through this, Valentin suggested self-talk, such as: “There is nothing I can do right now. I’m not going to focus my energy on this. I’ll deal with it when I’m at the appointment.” If self-talk doesn’t work for you, try meditating, praying or walking to release the negative energy of your racing thoughts, she said.
5. Connect tasks with energy levels.
“It’s helpful to think through typical tasks or commitments you have and assign energy levels to them,” Wilding said. For instance, if you’re having an unfocused day, pick from the “lower energy” tasks on your list, she said. These might include everything from cleaning out your files to running errands. These “are still concrete things you can accomplish and feel like you are gaining momentum, which can turn your mood and focus around.”
If you’re unable to focus, don’t beat yourself up. As Wilding said, distractions like social media and television “are engineered to hijack your focus.” It’s understandable that our attention sways to shiny things.
But thankfully, we can use different strategies to refocus and get to work. And remember that you can change your day at any moment. Because every moment is a new moment to refocus on what really matters.
Work stress photo available from Shutterstock