5 Ways to Improve Your Focus at Work

Design Your Day to Improve Your Focus

Have you ever had one of those days where 5 p.m. hits and you’ve been busy all day, but have little to show for it? Where you’ve spent an entire day split between meetings, your laptop, and your phone, putting out fires you didn’t anticipate and responding to urgent requests for information instead of working on what matters to you? It’s a common situation that can cause a lot of frustration, and it’s related to our work habits, our attachments to our devices, and expectations around our availability. Many people are looking for ways to improve their focus in many areas of their lives.

It’s easy to say that we should take a break from our email and carve out more time for ourselves, but it’s difficult to put that advice into practice. Response time expectations have skyrocketed in recent years. You’re not just imagining it: Your clients and co-workers do want you to respond to their emails immediately whenever possible.

In 2014[1], 80% of people believed that a four-hour response time was good. But within just one year, the majority of people believed that they should receive a response within one hour. A study from the University of South Carolina found that the most common email response time is just two minutes[2]! Attempting to meet this expectation gives us no choice but to be constantly multitasking all day.

Did you know? Multitasking is actually a myth!

What we call “multitasking” is actually just continuous partial attention. The part of our brain that we use to think and focus is called the neocortex[3], and while it can switch rapidly between tasks, it can’t do two things at once.

Habits for Healthier Focus

To win at the race that is today’s fast-paced world, we need to develop strategies to help focus our attention. At SIGMA, we excel at helping individuals learn and adopt more mindful behaviors that make an impact on daily well-being and productivity, especially at work. Today, we’d like to share our top 5 suggestions to quit multitasking and hone your focus.

1. Plan Your Day

When you wake up, set a goal for your day. Not a rigid list, but an intention regarding what you would like to accomplish and how you would like to feel. Where possible, use the word “if” in crafting your intention. For example, “if I finish X, I will start Y”.

2. Find Your Sweet Spot

Take a few days to casually observe how you work and determine the time of day during which you are the most productive. When are you most creative? When do you find it easiest to focus? Often, we’re at our best first thing in the morning. Armed with this information, build your schedule to take advantage of timing. If you’re most productive in the morning, consider trying to complete your most important task first thing when you arrive at the office, before you check your email. You may need to shift other habits to accommodate your sweet spot.

By addressing your most important work during your most productive time, you’ll direct the bulk of your cognitive resources to reaching your goals, rather than draining attention for less complex tasks, work that is urgent but not important, or projects that are important to someone else. You may not be able to give your full attention to complex tasks all day, but you’ll be able to improve your focus where it really matters.

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” – William Penn

3. Overcome Distractions

Observe your work habits for one week, noting times you get distracted or thrown off your plan for getting your work done. At the end of each day, take 5 minutes to ask yourself some questions: Did you accomplish what you set out to? If not, why? Apps like Engross can assist in this step if necessary.

Once you have an understanding of the types of distractions you’re facing, develop strategies to overcome them:

  • Struggling with an open concept office? Consider wearing headphones or using a light system to signal to others when you are engaged in work.
  • Inundated with emails? Turn off desktop notifications, and instead turn on a reminder to check emails every 45 minutes.
  • Too many meetings? Block off time in your schedule for your own work to ensure you’re not overbooked.
  • Sidetracked by distractions? Avoid losing hours of productive time with a digital media fast, as popularized by Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism.

4. Give Yourself a Break

Focused or directed attention is a finite resource; the more we use it, the more we deplete our stores. As such, it’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to fully concentrate for 8 hours a day. Planning when to take breaks so that these periods sync up with your natural slumps in energy is an easy way to replenish your attention resources, improve your focus on what matters, and not waste time trying to force a breakthrough.

Depending on your schedule, you could take a break by:

  • Going for a walk, paying attention to the sights and sounds around you.
  • Eating a nutritious snack or enjoying a cup of coffee or tea.
  • Switching to a less cognitively demanding task.
  • Talking to a colleague.
  • Watching a funny video or reading a light article.
  • Doing a short guided meditation.

“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it.” – Sydney Harris

5. Create a Shutdown Ritual

Many of us work straight until the very last minute of the day, only pulling away when another task makes it absolutely necessary (i.e. time to pick up the kids). But when we rush away from an unfinished task, we burden ourselves with ongoing tension. Known as the Zeigarnik Effect, when we cease action on an incomplete task, our focused attention continues to be directed at the task. This explains why many of us find ourselves driving home, still engrossed in thought about what we didn’t finish before the end of the day.

To combat the Zeigarnik Effect, use the power of ritual. Each day, before you leave the office, set aside 5 to 10 minutes reviewing the intention you set earlier. Did you reach your goal? What was finished? What wasn’t? For unfinished tasks, where did you leave off? Write down a brief summary of your current status, and an intention for the next steps. Use this ritual to formally close the task for the day, and give your mind a chance to rest at night. This also helps to set you up for success when you get back to work.

Improve Focus Through Mindfulness

In working with organizations across North America, SIGMA’s team has witnessed the ways in which our programs positively influence productivity, happiness, and collaboration in the workplace. We understand the key role that present moment awareness plays in developing a leader’s focused attention capabilities, and our science-based assessments and leadership coaching services have helped millions of individuals and professionals uncover their true potential. To learn more about our programs, contact us today.

[1] Fast Company, “What is an Appropriate Response Time to Email?”, https://www.fastcompany.com/3058066/what-is-an-appropriate-response-time-to-email

[2] USC Viterbi, “Why Haven’t They Replied Yet?”, https://viterbi.usc.edu/news/news/2015/why-hasn-t.htm

[3] HDI, “This is Your Brain on Technology: The Distraction Epidemic”, https://www.thinkhdi.com/library/supportworld/2014/distraction-epidemic.aspx

About the Author

Brittney Anderson, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant & Executive Coach

Brittney is a member of our coaching and consulting team. She brings her expertise in evidence-based practice to provide companies with leadership solutions that meet their needs. Primarily, Brittney helps her clients prepare for their future with succession planning and comprehensive leadership development programs. As an executive coach, she helps leaders hone their skills using a process-based approach to development.