How to Focus at Work

Updated Dec 21, 20223 min
How to Focus at Work

How to Focus at Work

Caroline BantonUpdated Dec 21, 20223 min
How to Focus at Work

While that little bottle of Five-Hour Energy might get you through the 3 pm slump at work, your body may not thank you later. Moreover, an energy drink is no use if your attention span is interrupted by a chatty coworker. 

There are ways to focus all day at work that don’t require you to load up on caffeine or turn your back on a colleague at the water cooler. This article suggests reasons why you might lose focus at work and offers practical ways to stay alert, avoid procrastination, and be as productive as possible.  

The 3 pm Slump Is a Thing

Don’t worry. You are not alone when, in the afternoons, your eyelids get heavy and your forehead finds its way to your desk. The 3 pm slump is a real phenomenon. According to The National Sleep Foundation, our energy levels crash between 3 pm and 5 pm because our circadian biological clock, which regulates the timing of our energy levels throughout the day, slows down.

According to Prevention, the ideal course of action to take when we lose focus due to a slump in energy would be a 20-minute nap. Naps can boost alertness for several hours, improve attention, concentration, accuracy, and productivity. 

Sadly, a nap is not an option for many, so here are some strategies to combat some common causes of poor concentration and a lack of focus.

Lack of Sleep

If you find yourself spilling coffee all over your desk, losing your car keys, and generally making mistakes or forgetting things, you might be sleep-deprived. Most adults should get at last seven hours of sleep a day, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over a third of American adults do not get enough sleep. Chronic lack of sleep is linked to mood swings, poor mental health, and decreased cognitive accuracy.

Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep

  • Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. This helps to set your internal biological clock and ensure that you can fall asleep and stay asleep.

  • Turn off electronic devices at least an hour before you go to bed so that your mind can settle before you try to sleep.

  • Don’t drink alcohol before bed, and limit caffeinated beverages to the early part of the day. A glass of wine before bed can make you drowsy, but it will disrupt your sleep cycle later. Caffeinated drinks may increase urine production and force you to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

  • Get some exercise during the day. Physical activity is conducive to a good night's sleep.

Wasting Time and Energy on Unnecessary Things

There is a reason that being organized and having a routine is important. It allows you to get stuff done efficiently using the least amount of energy. If you start your day hunting for clean socks, deciding whether to eat a bowl of cereal or scrambled eggs for breakfast, and wondering whether you need to put gas in the car, you will be exhausted before you step out of the door.

Tips for Better Time Management

  • Develop a morning routine to keep things running smoothly so that you have more time and energy to focus on priorities.

  • Get yourself organized the night before, or even the weekend before. For example, do your grocery shopping, your laundry, your cleaning, and make sure you have what you need for the week.

  • Create a to-do list for work and home. Having things written down means that you don’t have to carry so much in your head.

  • Keep your home and work environments organized. A cluttered environment will clutter your mind. Try to keep order around you so that you can find things and are not constantly thinking about having to tidy up your surroundings.

Digital Distractions

It’s well known that smartphones give us a dopamine fix whenever we get a phone call, an email notification, an Instagram, or a text. We are all addicted to our phones. True, we need them to manage our daily lives, but we don’t need to be checking our social media every two minutes. 

Try turning off your notifications when you need to focus on your work and set aside time every so often to check your phone. Surfing distracting websites during office hours is another temptation that is hard to overcome and causes you to lose focus.

Tips to Avoid Digital Distractions

  • When you face a difficult task, set specific times to check your phone and your emails. Commit to focusing on the task until it is time. For example, work from 8:30 am to 10 am and then check your phone. Work from 10:30 am to noon, and then check your phone again.  

  • Turn off the sound notifications on your phone and place it in a desk drawer if you have to. It’s amazing how you can forget about your phone if you can’t hear or see it.

  • Some digital distractions work for some people. Listen to podcasts and playlists if it helps you focus on a project.

Switching Tasks

Constantly switching between tasks or projects is usually counterproductive because it takes time and mental energy to refocus on a new task. Single-tasking avoids cognitive overload that can lead to bad decisions. Moreover, if you multitask,  it's likely that your performance on each task will be poor.

Tips to Avoid Having to Switch Tasks

  • Set deadlines so that you know exactly what you have to get done by when.

  • Prioritize your tasks and work on one at a time for as long as you can to increase productivity.

  • Know when you are most productive during the day, and use that time for the most important tasks.

An Unhealthy Lifestyle

Your brain requires nutrition and oxygen to function optimally. Without it, you will not be able to focus. Just like your body cannot train physically unless it receives the right nutrition, your brain and body need food, exercise, rest, and sleep.

  • Choose a healthy lifestyle to function at your best including work-life balance.

  • Eat a balanced diet. You can still look after your health if you consume fast food, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol in moderation.

  • Manage your stress with exercise.

  • Don't burn your candle at both ends.

An Uncomfortable Workspace

Your work schedule is one component of focused time, but your environment will also have a tremendous effect on your stamina. Do you have enough light? Are you constantly distracted by noisy colleagues? How comfortable is your chair? Your workspace should be conducive to focused work, so optimize your space.

Tips to Improve Your Work Environment

  • Check your chair, your armrests, and your desk height to make sure they are ergonomically correct.

  • Check the lighting. Try to get as much natural light as you can. An overhead LED lamp can take the place of natural lighting if need be.

  • Add some greenery, pictures, or other personal things to make you feel at home.

  • If you have noisy neighbors, try booking a conference room for periods of time if you need peace and quiet, or try noise-canceling earphones.

  • If you are working from home, set up a space as a home office that is separate from your living space so that you are not distracted by laundry, cleaning, or pets.

You Have ADHD

If you live a healthy lifestyle and still struggle to focus, you might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a mental disorder that, according to the  American Psychiatric Association (APA),  2.5% of adults suffer from.

Some of the ADHD symptoms adults may notice are:

  • Restless leg, squirming, and fidgeting

  • Talking too much, feeling a sense of urgency, and interrupting others while speaking

  • Having difficulty waiting, especially in lines

  • Forgetting daily tasks and chores

  • Not following instructions at work

  • Making mistakes at work

If you recognize any of these signs, reach out to a specialist for help. With the right support, ADHD is manageable.

Take It Easy and Take Breaks

On a busy day, make time for short breaks. Research shows that we can only focus on one task for about 50 minutes. So, take a walk with a coworker, have a cup of coffee (just one!), meditate, or take a nap (just be sure to set your alarm).

Many of us push ourselves too hard and become frustrated when we can’t focus. Sometimes, it pays to take a step back and take it easy for a while. Unless you are a robot, you will benefit from taking vacation time, resting, and doing something you enjoy. Nobody should strive for perfection, and as much as we need to push ourselves, we also need to be kind to ourselves.

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

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