How to Get Focused and Stay Focused at Work

Do you have any weird obsessions?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by one-man-bands like Cigo Man Band.

Somehow he manages to play the guitar, harmonica, kazoo, two horns, various percussion instruments, and sing…seemingly all at the same time! It’s endlessly entertaining.

I used to aspire to multitask like that.

If only I could learn to do multiple things simultaneously…I’d be so productive! I’d make better progress on all of my goals!

But unfortunately, that’s not how the mind works. In reality, the key to effective work, is quite the opposite.

The Myth of Multitasking

What most people think of as “multitasking” (doing multiple things at the same time) is actually serial-tasking (doing one thing at a time, but switching between activities in quick succession.)

Like switching between tabs in an internet browser, your mind is only actually processing one thing at a time. It might feel like you’re doing multiple things at once. But you aren’t!

To make matters worse, switching between tasks is a detriment to your effectiveness. A variety of studies illustrate the costs of “task-switching” that occurs while trying to juggle multiple things at once.

Although it may feel productive to “multitask”, the negative consequences add up.

The more effective alternative is to simply stay present to the task at hand. By giving one activity your full attention, you eliminate the costs of switching between tasks.

The Challenges of Focus

Have you ever looked back at a day, only to realize that you didn’t do what you said you wanted to do? That instead of focusing on what’s most important, you were swept up in a stream of what felt urgent, fun, or convenient?

Few feelings are more frustrating! But there are clear reasons why it happens.

There are two main challenges to  your focus:

  1. Getting into focus
  2. Staying focused

If you’re a human, you’ve probably struggled with procrastination (getting started), and distractions (staying focused). 

Identifying the challenge is step one. The rest of this article outlines a variety of strategies you can use to get focused, and stay focused in your work.

To get into focus…“How might I take steps to be fully present to the activity of my work?”

To stay focused…“How might I eliminate distractions that pull me away from my work?”

Step 1: Finding Focus (How to Get Present to Your Work)

Mindfulness is all about cultivating awareness of the present moment. Doing mindful work means staying present to the task at hand. Here are a few strategies you can use to cultivate this state of presence.

Get Clear on What’s Most Important

As the management wizard Peter Drucker put it, we need to do “First things first — and second things not at all.”

When you aren’t sure what’s most important, it’s easy to get sidetracked. But when you establish your priorities, it’s easier to set a clear intention for how you want to spend your time.

At the beginning of each day/week/month, take time to review what’s most important. Put those priorities down on paper.

Make What’s Most Important the Most Interesting Option

One of the greatest challenges of an internet-connected life is that there are thousands of fun ways to spend your time at any given moment, all the tip of your fingers.

When you have these diversions in your mind as something you might do, it’s more difficult to stay focused.

But what if those other activities simply weren’t an option? And instead, just for today, your work was the most interesting thing you could do?

This is about creating boundaries for yourself internally.

You can also can create this scenario with the help of external tools that eliminate alternative ways to spend your time. For example:

  • Putting your phone on airplane mode to prevent yourself from accessing internet-connected apps. (Deleting apps can work too, but you may find yourself accessing Facebook through the browser instead.)
  • Download the Self Control app to block distracting websites for a certain period of time. (Link)
  • Get a browser extension to block your Facebook news feed. (New Feed Eradicator for Chrome is a good one.)
  • Set hard-and-fast rules to stay consistent.

I recently implemented a “No outside inputs until lunch” rule. I do creative work in the morning, it helps me stay in a proactive and creative state as long as possible (instead of filling my mind with other to-do’s, and reacting to the needs of others.)

If that sounds crazy to you, let’s slow down and investigate that thought.

If you’re really honest with yourself…What’s the worst that could happen by not responding to your emails for a couple more hours?

What if you had a doctor’s appointment during that time? Consider this to be an appointment with yourself to do great work. That’s also important!

Cultivate the Right Mindset for the Activity at Hand

Athletes warm up before every practice, game, performance, or training session. Depending on what they’re doing, the warmup will look a little different.

Most jobs entail a variety of types of activities. But how often do you “warm-up” your brain to prepare for an activity? Chances are, not that often!

Getting fully present to your work means cultivating the right mental state for the activity at hand. This involves moving on from whatever you were doing, and preparing for whatever you will be doing.

  1. Clear your mind to move on from previous activities
    Use a short meditation or a couple minutes of deep breathing to let any existing thoughts and rumination settle before starting something new.I find this to be particularly helpful right after lunch, when I’ve let my mind take a break and think about things outside of my work. A quick meditation helps me find a place of calm before moving back into work. When I don’t do this, it’s harder to get back into working.
  2. Prime yourself with a warm-up activity
    Experienced professionals in all fields have written about warmups for their craft. Whether you need to do some writing, or expand your mind for a brainstorming session, search around for some exercises to get you in the right mindset!

Give Yourself Enough Time (But not too Much Time)

Rushing prevents you from being present to the task at hand.

Even if you’re working on an important activity, feeling rushed pulls you into thinking/worrying about something in the future. It diverts your attention and energy away from the present, hampering your productivity.

Especially when working on a creative project, or something that involves deep thinking, give yourself enough time to dig into your work.

Just be careful not to let an abundance of time prevent you from taking action! Break the larger time into smaller boxes of time to stay both motivated and un-rushed.

Set Tomorrow’s Most Important Thing (MIT) at the end of Each Day

At the end of a busy day, the last thing you want to do is more work…But I promise, your future self will thank you!

Take 5 minutes at the end of each work day to establish your MIT for tomorrow. This gives you clarity and a sense of purpose to start your day.

Step 2: Staying Focused (Strategies to Stay Present to Your Work)

Now that you’ve set yourself up to get into a focused state, your goal is to stay there! Deploy these strategies to combat distraction and stay present to your work.

Practice Coming Back to Focus With Mindfulness Meditation

Distractions are inevitable. You’ll never be able to completely stop the mind from wandering. But you can learn to recover from distractions more effectively.

Mindfulness meditation can improve your ability to focus and recover from distraction.

During mindfulness meditation, you give your mind a job to do, like paying attention to the sensations of your breathing. When your mind inevitably wanders off, you notice that it has wandered, and bring it back to counting breaths.

The exercise here is coming back to the object of awareness. Each return to focus is like a “repetition” of the exercise, strengthening this mental pattern.

One study from UC Davis shows how meditation practice led to improved performance on tasks of sustained attention. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed a significant increase in my ability to come back to focus since I started meditating a few years ago.

Take Proactive Breaks to Avoid Burn-out

If you feel like you’re dying for a break, you’ve already started to “burn-out”. Avoid this by taking proactive breaks on a set rhythm throughout the day.

I’ve had success with the Pomodoro Technique. It works like this:

  1. Decide what you want to work on.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Do focused work.
  4. When the timer goes off, take a 5 minute break.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4!
  6. Every 4 or so cycles, take a slightly longer ~15 minute break.

Knowing that I have a quick break coming up helps me stay focused in moments where I might otherwise break to grab some water, or act on another impulse.

Use Your Breaks Wisely

Like with the Pomodoro Technique, taking brief breaks from work has been shown to increase productivity. The mind has a way of tuning out repeat stimulus, so taking breaks keeps things fresh.

But not all breaks are created equal! Avoid filling your mind with other inputs during breaks, as this will make it harder to get back into your work.

Instead, use the time to be in your body. Get water, make some tea, stretch, go for a walk, use the restroom, etc.

Breaks shouldn’t be about cramming in more to-do’s. Use them mindfully and set yourself up to do better work during your focused time.

Silence Your Notifications

Put your phone (and/or laptop) on Do Not Disturb mode to prevent notifications from coming through.

Research has shown that small distractions can have big consequences on focus. The vibration of your phone, or an email notification on your screen might seem unimportant, but the cost of those distractions adds up. If you’re worried about missing something important, you can let phone calls through on Do Not Disturb mode. If it’s an emergency, they’ll call!

De-Condition Your “Reach-for-the-Phone” Instinct

Almost everyone does this. You get a little bored with your work, and instinctively reach for the phone that is sitting nearby. Before you realize it, you’re 5 pictures deep into your Instagram feed!

One way to de-condition yourself from this behavior is to keep your phone in a less accessible place while you’re doing focused work.

When I write articles, I keep my phone in a drawer in a different room. I also apply this “out of sight, out of mind” method when getting together with a friend. Instead of setting my phone on the table, I’ll keep it in my pocket, jacket, or backpack.

Craft Your Environment to Eliminate Distractions

The sights and sounds of your environment can easily pull you out of a focused state. Fortunately, you can take steps to improve that.

Minimize visual noise
Find a place to work where outside stimulus (TV, lots of people, …) won’t pull you from focus. This might mean booking a conference room from some heads-down focus time. Or, it could mean cleaning your workspace to reduce clutter.

Reduce distracting sounds

If you work in a loud environment, get noise-cancelling headphones to eliminate distracting conversations.

Choose music carefully

Listening to a new album by an unfamiliar artist is more likely to distract you than help you focus. You’ll want to listen closely to the music!

Instead, pick something that’s familiar to you. The goal with this is to let the music turn into background noise.

To help with this, I often listen to the same song on repeat for multiple hours at a time. It provides a steady beat of energy in my environment, but since the music is familiar, my brain tunes it out and I can focus clearly. As an added bonus, it prevents me from losing focus by searching for what song to listen to next!

Commit to the Practice of Developing Focus

Just like patience, focus is a skill you can develop.

Although you can start using any of these strategies today, it may take some time before they feel natural. That’s okay! What matters is that you commit to the practice.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so don’t feel pressured to do all of these at once.

Experiment with different strategies, and craft the approach that works best for you!


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