What’s really distracting us at work? Tips to stay focused

Article3 mins13 August 2019By Hannah Tattersall

We often blame our lack of focus at work on email notifications, co-worker interruptions and coffee cravings. But there’s more to being distracted than meets the eye. 

You arrive at work early as you’ve got a huge day… three external meetings, a report to write and countless emails to send. You try and make a start but suddenly a colleague has come around asking if you want coffee, another colleague insists on showing you their new shoes, and a flood of emails arrive from a client demanding they be actioned immediately. You’re now well into the morning and you’ve achieved nothing!

The feeling of being swamped is all too common. It’s easy to blame coworkers and technological interruptions for our lack of focus, but experts say the key to getting on top of your workload lies within ourselves. 

It’s important for workers to get into the zone or a state of work known as ‘deep work’.

Manish Singh Sensational Intelligence
Inability to concentrate

Founder of Catalina Consultants, Merilyn Speiser believes our busy personal lives are contributing to our lack of focus. 

“Children, finances, anxiety, social media, relationships – I see all these things having a huge impact on people's ability to concentrate,” she says. 

“When we are stressed and anxious, regardless of the reason, we are likely to be distracted and unable to focus at work,” Speiser says. 

“These issues have a snowballing effect on sleep, diet and exercise, and once on this trajectory it can be difficult to break.”

Mindfulness expert and founder of Sensational Intelligence, Manish Singh, says we live and work in a culture of distraction and multi-tasking, which makes it very hard to switch back to doing one thing at a time. 

“People have very little control over their thinking and even less over their emotional reactivity and those are the two things that will wreak havoc on your productivity at work,” he says. 

“We have tens of thousands of thoughts per day and we are almost always in some form of emotional reaction. Most of these things put a strain on our productivity and performance.” Singh says. 

“Deep work, coined by professor Cal Newport, is the idea that we have to have periods of intense concentration to do our best and productive work. If you don’t give it to yourself that’s what allows stress to build up. It’s a low stress, highly productive state of mind.”

He suggests practising mindfulness (there are plenty of good apps available) and building up the concentration muscle, the way one builds muscle at the gym. 

“If you’re at the gym and you pick up a barbell and do 10 reps of the bench press, that strength will work for you across your day. If you take 10 breaths in a row, that’s like getting on your gym machine. The concentration you just built is the same. 

Tips for staying focused

On top of breathing and practising mindfulness, there are other things you can do day-to-day to boost productivity at work. Empowerment mentor and assertiveness coach, Elizabeth Mulheron offers her top four tips for staying focused: 

  1. Don a pair of headphones when you want to focus on a particular task, which is considered a sign of focus rather than rudeness these days because of the trend towards open plan offices.
    “Someone sneezes and you hear it, whereas years ago we used to have cubicles or offices so you could close the door and everyone knew you had work to do.” 

  2. Plan your day. Always allow a buffer for the unexpected. 
    “Plan that extra time in your day - little incidents where you will have to talk to someone or something unexpected pops up.” 

  3. Schedule meetings and tasks that require the most concentration earlier in the day. 
    “When we start work we’re usually at our most productive.. When you’re tired, that’s when the creative process kicks in, so leave the creative parts of your job to the times of the day when you know you get tired.”

  4. Make time for breaks. Mulheron advocates drinking water and herbal tea – rather than grabbing something caffeinated or sweet – which helps maintain blood sugar levels.

Singh offers the ultimate advice: “Practice staying focused and it will become easier. You’ll become a calmer, more centred, more productive person.” 

That’s something worth striving for.

Read on for more insights

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