C’mon, we’ve all been there. The day seems to drag on and your mind wanders in a million different directions. You might like your job for the most part, but there are those days where you’re pulling out your phone and aimlessly checking out what’s going on instead of focusing on what’s in front of you. We know it’s a time-waster and we should be working, so why do we do it, and how do we counter it? Well, there are a number of reasons why we lose our focus, but luckily there are concrete steps you can take to get your productive self back.
1. You’re Super Tired and in Preservation Mode
Those few drinks after work that lead to a late night out can obviously affect us the next day. Before you know it, you’re drinking coffee like it’s going out of fashion and looking at the clock way too often, hoping it will reach 5:30 sooner rather than later.
But here’s the thing: being tired at work doesn’t just make you feel lousy and unfocused, it actually has a detrimental physical affect on you. Being tired directly impacts your working memory and cognitive speed in a negative way. And if you stay tired for enough days, the neurons responsible for alertness can actually die off.
What can you do? Make sure you’re drinking enough water and go for a quick walk outside for short-term fixes, and rework your schedule and sleeping habits for long-term solutions.
2. Inject Some Novelty Into Your Work
Thousands of years ago, our lives were a lot more uncluttered than they are now. In fact, we were basically in survival mode continually—trying to stay away from big things eating us and focusing on getting enough food to keep us alive.
For the most part, we don’t have to worry about that anymore, so our lives are a little duller. And how that translates to not being focused at work is that we’re hardwired to notice novel things, but novelty in work life isn’t on the same level as it used to be. I mean, typing up an email or filling out a spreadsheet just doesn’t amp up our sympathetic nervous system the same way an impending storm or a lion rustling in the bushes does.
What you can do is add novelty in your own way to liven up your day, whether that’s changing up the order of your to-do list on a daily or weekly basis, or taking on new projects and self-training yourself to kickstart your brain into interest and focus.
3. The Myth of Multitasking
I hate the word ‘multitasking’. Companies love it because it means they get employees who can achieve more in less time, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as multitasking. It’s just a cute buzzword for switching back and forth between tasks under the illusion that you’re doing several things at once. And before you tell me that people can do several things at once, no, no they can’t. Sure, they can talk on their phones, chew gum and walk from Point A to Point B, but none of those tasks requires a heavy load of cognition.
What I’m talking about is stuff like actively taking part in a teleconference meeting, checking your report for contextual and grammatical accuracy, and updating your boss on an important email. You might think you’re doing everything simultaneously, but your brain is actually jumping around really, really fast. And if you’re stressed by trying to get everything done by the deadline, the news gets even worse: your focus and performance goes down even more because your adrenal glands (by receiving a signal from your amygdala by way of the hypothalamus) releases adrenaline, which can trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response. Not exactly the best environment for intense focus.
Instead of trying to channel your inner Superman or Superwoman, go with your brain’s natural state and stop overloading it so much. Focus on one task at a time instead of three tasks at less than part-time. Whether that’s putting on noise-cancelling headphones or breaking up a big job into smaller tasks, your brain will thank you for it.
4. You Hate Your Job
Sometimes the reason for a lack of focus boils down to a simple reason: you don’t like your work. One of my earliest jobs was a telemarketing one in which I had to sell newspaper subscriptions. I was desperate for money, but I absolutely hated being there. I dreaded every time I had to press the ‘call’ button on my computer because it meant another few soul-sucking minutes doing something I hated and didn’t believe in.
The easy answer is ‘get a new job’, but the current economic climate says that’s a lot easier said than done. We don’t all have the luxury to just pick up at a new place where the work will be enjoying and stimulating. Sometimes we’re just stuck with things to get by.
If that’s the case, here’s what can help. Make a list of all the things you need to get done that day/week, and even throw in some easy or fun things to break things up. Whatever is the toughest or biggest thing on your list, break that down into a few simpler steps. Then, tackle that toughy first so you set the tone for the day. It won’t miraculously change your situation, but it’ll help make the best of a lousy one.
Whether you’re a pro at managing your team, just starting out, or on the lower rung of the ladder, being able to focus at work is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Sometimes it’s as clear-cut as getting a better and longer night’s sleep, and sometimes it’s a little more complex, like taking on new tasks to keep yourself interested.
Whatever the root of the issue is, figure out is the first step to solving it. I know these things don’t change overnight, but if you start small and keep at it, you’ll start to see big changes soon.
Related: 9 Ways You Can Improve Focus at Work