Can’t focus at work? Constantly checking your phone when you should be preparing for meetings? Stuck in a Pavlovian loop of diminishing returns desperate for that next dopamine hit from your favorite social media platform? Well, you’re not alone—and in a world of digital distraction, concentrating at work is fast becoming among the most important skills on your CV. It’s no longer just a matter of a little harmless procrastination, but potentially a very real issue that can make or break your career.
Even back in 2005, long before the ever-present “ping” of a smartphone notification, people noticed a considerable drop in focus at work, with emails and calls alone accounting for a 10-point fall in their IQ—with a similar impact to the loss of a night’s sleep.
Even the most dedicated people can lose focus because as humans, we don’t always act in our own best interest and there are simply too many distractions these days. Research in 2017 found that simply blocking distractions (webpages, mainly social media) resulted in participants assessing their productivity as being higher and their focus significantly longer.
However, beyond basic blocking, there are plenty of other techniques to help those who have trouble focusing at work. We’re going to look at the best things you can do to keep focus and find your flow, whether in the office or working at home.
Effortless Concentration at Work and Beyond
In a TED talk from 2004, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described his discoveries relating to something he called “flow”. Flow is forgetting yourself. Flow is feeling part of something larger. Flow is being able to cut off all those annoying distractions and become totally immersed in whatever it is that you’re doing. Most importantly though, flow is a way to make every aspect of your life, every task or chore, worth doing for its own sake.
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a trance-like state of absorption in the task at hand, a state that leads to effortless concentration and a sense of clarity–encouraging greater focus at work and beyond. He noticed that it was most prevalent in artists, musicians, athletes and even monks and shepherds, but he also thought it could be reached by anyone.
Attaining this state may be challenging, and its elusive nature often means it can be difficult to hold on to. However, there are a few ways you can encourage your own flow:
- Be present — Mindfulness has heavily linked to the flow state, and focussing on the here-and-now is key.
- Get feedback — Try to figure out what’s working and what’s not. This will help you be an active learner and aid the next step.
- Be a skills practitioner, not a goal seeker — See the bigger picture and see skill development as a journey rather than focussing exclusively on the final product.
- Challenge yourself — Repetition is part of practice, but boring tasks will allow your mind to wander. Find a way to challenge yourself in everything you do.
Flow states are encouraged by quiet environments and reduced distractions—something that’s easier said than done in our hyperconnected world. However, refining your working practices and employing tools to keep you focused at work is one way to increase your chances of finding your flow.
So with that in mind, let’s look at some ways to get focused and in the state of flow at work, in the office, and at home.
Sort Your Priorities and Goals
Setting goals to help you focus at work can be as simple as a daily to-do list or as complex as a multi-month objective—most often, you’ll be juggling both. It’s important to prioritize these goals so you can focus on what you need to do right now and push the rest to the background.
Daily goals on a to-do list should be short, actionable, and to the point. For example, your list might look like this:
- Send a meeting request to all team members for 3 pm
- Phone Janet to ask about getting a new voice recorder
- Send weekly report
Longer-term goals might be less direct (and hence over a longer timeframe) but should still conform to a system that will help you tackle them—such as SMART goals. These get your goals to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. For example:
“Write and submit two articles to the web editor by next Friday.”
That said, you can use these same principles in your daily goals as well!
Set Focus Intervals
As we work through the day and the week, our focus can wane. To combat this, you can set focus intervals—blocks of work that last 30, 60, or 90 minutes with a short break in between. We aren’t really made to focus on a single task (or screen) for hours on end, and breaking your work down into blocks gives you time to renew, physically and mentally.
The right focus interval for you will depend on a number of factors, so try out a couple of different work/break ratios. In the same way, if you work on a team or manage multiple reports, always remember that team members might have a different rhythm to you.
Disconnect from The World
For focused, deep work, it’s necessary to disconnect from the world. From social media that can gobble up hours to numerous notifications that break your flow, it can be hard to focus in the digital world.
Some simple ways to do this are:
- Turn of mobile and desktop notifications
- No social media on work devices
- Reject instant messaging
If you’re looking to implement this in your team or business, check out some of the advantages of asynchronous communication, which can help combat the always-on mentality and get you in your flow.
Schedule Your Weekly Work Plan
Creating a weekly work plan helps organize tasks so you can focus on what’s important and work free of distractions. It can also help to prioritize tasks, as we talked about earlier. It’s best to make this weekly schedule according to the type of work you’re planning on doing so as to create the best opportunity for flow. For example:
|Monday Morning||meeting with reports|
|Monday Afternoon||Deep work, writing report|
|Tuesday Morning||Depp work, writing report|
|Tuesday Afternoon||Presentation to management|
Each individual task should follow the structure you decided on when you sorted your “Priorities and Goals.” A great way to stay on top of a weekly plan is to use a platform like Spike for online Notes, which can be edited wherever you are and include powerful formatting to keep you organized.
What’s more, Spike Notes can be shared with colleagues for collaborative work when you need everyone on the same page.
Create an Organized To-Do List
If you try to keep track of everything in your head, there is little mental energy left for actual focus or flow. A well-organized to-do list puts plans to paper and frees you up to focus on what’s important. Literal paper lists are a bit out of date, but there are plenty of tools out there to help you.
Spike has built To-Do Lists and Tasks directly into your Inbox, so you’ll have everything you need without opening up yet another app. You can create trackable Tasks with real-time progress updates or detailed To-Do Lists that you can check off as you go. All of which can be shared with team members for live collaboration.
Make Sure You Hit Your Deadlines
Procrastination is a problem for us all, and if you have no pressure to get a task done, you’ll likely twiddle your thumbs and put it off for “later.” But later never comes.
Setting deadlines gives you a clear point to work towards and actually hitting them lets you know that you’re on track. These can be longer deadlines such as:
“Finish the monthly report by July 5th.”
Or shorter-term, more focussed deadlines:
“Submit the new logo at 3 pm today.”
Another critical aspect of deadlines is setting them for yourself (and letting others do the same). When given this opportunity, most people will work harder and be far more proactive in order to hit those self-given targets.
Sometimes the best way to focus on work is to stop working. That is, stepping back and taking a break from the task at hand. Breaks can help you make better decisions, restore motivation for short- and long-term tasks, and replenish mental resources to improve productivity and creativity.
Breaks shouldn’t just be checking the news or your social streams, however. You need to get up, get away from your computer, and move around. Movement Breaks are an essential part of maintaining physical and mental health.
The only time that you should consider not taking a break is if you are in a state of flow and don’t want to interrupt it. In this case, keep going until you do feel a little fatigued, then take your break-even if you have a timed break slot, never just give it up for the day.
Isolate Yourself from Noise
Relative quiet is essential for focus and flow, with any sound over about 80 decibels causing near-immediate distraction. To put this in perspective, gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers tend to come in around 80-85 decibels, and a motorcycle will be around 95, and normal conversation in the 60-decibel range.
In an office, complete silence is nearly impossible to achieve, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing since it has been found that a little background noise can actually improve focus. So, instead of running out and soundproofing your space, look into noise-blocking headphones and a playlist to keep you motivated.
Do Not Check on Your Facebook/Twitter/Instagram
Nothing pulls focus and kills productivity quite like social media – easy to “just check for a moment” and incredibly hard to put down. Instagram, Facebook, and numerous other platforms have become part of many people’s daily lives, but if you’re looking to focus and get into your flow, do not check them while you’re working!
On average, it takes more than 23 minutes to refocus on a task once it has been interrupted, and if you’re pulling out your phone to check your feed every half hour… well, that doesn’t leave much time to get your tasks done. Of course, you don’t have to abandon social media altogether; just turn off notifications and keep it clear of your work.
Check Out Our Recommended Productivity Tools
Tech can hinder through distraction but can also be a massive help to your workflow and focus when used correctly. There are countless productivity apps now out there – from simple Chrome plugins to stand-alone suites, and finding the right one for you can help boost your work.
It can be tricky to know where to start, however, which is why we’ve put together a list of the best productivity apps in 2021 for individuals and businesses. Check it out now to find the perfect productivity program for you.
Coffee Consumption – The Goldilocks Conundrum
Coffee is delicious and can offer a small bit of pleasure on cold afternoons. What’s more, the caffeine it contains acts as a mild stimulant that can improve mental performance, attention, concentration, and alertness. To be fair, this probably isn’t news to you.
However, what might come as a surprise is that too much caffeine can actually have a serious negative impact on performance. It can cause anxiety, nervousness, and physical jitters as well as digestive discomfort, insomnia, and irritability. What’s more, overconsumption can actually cause an inability to focus.
What counts as “too much” depends on the individual, so it’s hard to give a general cup limit. Additionally, different blends and processing methods mean different caffeine levels, so your cup isn’t necessarily the same as your colleagues.
Also, remember that coffee isn’t the only thing that contains caffeine. Tea, soda, energy drinks, and even chocolates can all contribute to your daily caffeine levels.
Find Your Motivation
One of the biggest hurdles to focus is motivation. Getting and staying motivated can be really hard, but if you want to find your flow you need to have the drive to do it. Some simple tricks that can help boost motivation are:
- Setting simple, achievable goals at the start
- Break bigger goals into smaller, manageable chunks
- Make goals part of your routine through the use of reminders
- Regularly review your goals and the “why” behind them
- Take a break, breath, and start again!
Many of the tips that improve your motivation will also improve your focus and vice versa. This isn’t a coincidence, these things are heavily intertwined, and you can’t do one without the other.
How to Stay Focused at Work – Summary
Staying focused or in a state of flow at work can be extremely challenging, especially in an age with so many digital distractions. That said, apps can help as well as hinder when used correctly, and paired with other simple solutions can be the difference between success and failure.
The basic elements to remember are staying organized, keeping out distractions, having clear achievable goals, and giving yourself the space you need to get things done. Pair this up with the right productivity app, and you’re sorted.
Yes and no. The caffeine in coffee can help you stay alert and focused when drunk in moderation but have too much, and the opposite is true. What more, while caffeine can help keep you focused, it can’t improve creativity, so know its limitations!
Breaks are essential to keeping focused at work and should always be taken. A break means actually getting up and moving around, not just opening Facebook. The only time you should maybe work through a break is if you’re in a state of flow, but still, make sure to take one as soon as you feel even a little fatigued.
In short, no. While loud noises can distract you from your work, some background noise has actually been shown to improve focus overall. Not to mention that trying to eliminate sound from most homes will take more time than it will ever save!