9 Tips for Staying Focused on Work While the World Falls Around You

9 Tips for Staying Focused on Work While the World Falls Around You

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The coronavirus pandemic has transformed the economic and sociocultural environment, perhaps permanently.

On top of being socially isolated, most of us are also trying to create new routines, which might involve changing procedures at work, competing with household members for space, parenting around the clock, adjusting to online learning, exercising from home, adapting new baking and eating habits—the list goes on. The business world has turned upside down, on a personal level and more broadly across supply chains and industry strongholds.  

But focusing on your work during a crisis might help you feel better and even serve as a necessary reprieve. If you concentrate on the professional realm, you’ll spend less time worrying about the things you can’t change. Exert control where you can to stay as calm and productive as possible, while also reinforcing a positive, growth-oriented mindset 

As with most challenges in life, your perspective is the most significant factor that determines how you emerge on the other side of crisis.  The following guide provides actionable and specific guidance for improving your concentration and outlook at work, even during a pandemic. 

How to Concentrate on Work During a Global Pandemic

1. Avoid unproductive habits and anxiety.

The Harvard Business Review recommends a practice called attention management. Identify the types of distractions you encounter, which can be both internal (worrying) and external (phone calls, chat rooms). By recognizing what distracts you and when it occurs, you can use this information to keep interruptions from becoming habitual.  

If you find yourself ruminating on worst-case scenarios, try keeping a gratitude journal. Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, says, “gratitude enables us to savor positive experiences, cope with stressful circumstances, and be resilient in the face of challenges.”  

Meditation, mindfulness exercises, and free-association writing are examples of other techniques you can use to feel calmer. 

2. Take a break from the news.

Anxiety is unproductive, so try to limit your engagement with the news. It’s important to stay informed, but you don’t have to carry that burden all the time.  

Try to designate thirty minutes to look at the news every day and then turn off your push notifications. If you’re having trouble feeling motivated in the morning, wait until later in the afternoon to review the headlines. Similarly, try not to read the news in bed at night, as this could make it difficult to fall asleep. 

Everyone responds to stress differently. Some people might need to distance themselves further from topics that are emotionally triggering. That’s okay—create the conditions you need to do your best work. 

3. Get comfortable.

Physical discomfort is distracting, and poor posture can negatively affect your mental and physical health. From back and neck pain to indigestion, mood irregularities, and reduced lung capacity, slouching has consequences researchers are just beginning to understand. If you haven’t done so already, invest in a comfortable chair, desk, and workstation that are ergonomic. 

Here are a few quick pointers to help you work comfortably:  

  • Position your monitor about an arm’s length away. The top of the monitor should be eye-level or one or two inches lower. 
  • Keep your keyboard in front of you and at or just below level with your elbows.  
  • Use a wrist support pillow or ergonomic keyboard to keep your wrists straight while you type and use your mouse. 
  • Adjust your chair so your knees and hips are at the same height. If your feet don’t touch the floor in this position, add a footrest. 

4. Declutter your workspace.

According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, clutter correlates to procrastination, anxiety, frustration, and overall dissatisfaction. It induces physiological responses, like increased cortisol levels, which can ultimately affect your attitude and productivity. Your home (and therefore your workspace) should feel restorative and calm so you can focus on tasks. 

Here are a few warning signs you have too much clutter:  

  • You need to move things around to perform an activity.  
  • You feel overwhelmed when you step into a room. 
  • You have trouble locating items. 
  • You accidentally buy things you already own. 
  • You forget about things you keep out of sight. 

The lockdown presents a unique opportunity for you to declutter your home and organize your space. According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB) by Drs. Darby E. Saxbe and Rena Repetti, finishing projects around the house can give you a sense of accomplishment, relaxation, and empowerment. It can even help to stave off depressive thinking.  

All these benefits can improve your concentration and help you feel prepared to take on new assignments. 

Read more about prioritizing your mental health during the pandemic.  

5. Close your email tab.

Email is one of the most pervasive distractions in any work setting. Don’t waste time keeping your inbox at zero—instead, try to only check your email two or four times a day. Respond to messages in batches rather than addressing them one by one as they come in.  

If you plan to scale back your email correspondence, let your colleagues know how to reach you in an emergency—for example, by calling your cellphone. Set up email filters that automatically flag messages with keywords that should take priority.  

6. Graze throughout the day.

Did you know your brain uses about 20% of your total caloric intake? To stay sharp and regulate your sugar levels, eat throughout the day and start with a healthy breakfast. Cooking takes time away from your desk and could become a distraction if you try to squeeze it in between conference calls. Prepare light snacks you can grab and eat on the go without spending hours in the kitchen.  

Here are a few quick snacks to help you feel energized:  

  • Cut fruit and vegetables 
  • Nuts and seeds 
  • Berries 
  • Dark chocolate 
  • Cheese and whole-grain crackers 
  • Hummus 
  • Eggs 
  • Popcorn 
  • Yogurt 
  • Edamame  
  • Avocado and whole-grain toast 

Try to avoid carb-heavy meals during the day—these can make you feel drowsy—and eat protein, fat, and fiber to support your overall metabolic function. More than 21 separate studies over the last decade have also shown a slight but statistically significant correlation between chewing gum and improved concentration, memory, and attention duration, according to a review published in Physiology & Behavior (2019). Drinking water or tea might produce a similar effect. 

7. Make a to-do list or bullet journal.

Andrew J. Mason, author of Getting Things Done, recommends a daily “mind sweep” to “externalize what’s on your mind” in the form of a short list. By visually laying out plans in front of you, Mason explains, you can empty your “psychic ram” or short-term memory and focus on other things. According to his methodology, just putting your thoughts to paper will make it easier to organize your ideas and prioritize. 

Here are a few other tips for creating an effective to-do list:  

  • Make each point actionable and specific.  
  • Don’t attach a date to every task. Only attach dates to the points that are time-sensitive—otherwise, you could confuse your deadlines or end up with an unsurmountable daily agenda.  
  • Announce your deadlines to colleagues to create accountability.  
  • Assign no more than 10 tasks to yourself every day. 
  • Motivate yourself by describing tasks positively. For example, instead of saying “Meet with the board to discuss digital strategy,” try “Collaborate with board members to develop a digital strategy that encourages customers to sign up for our rewarding loyalty programs.” 

Tech Tip: Microsoft “To Do” and Google “Tasks” are available for free and work well for managing independent projects, or you can try paid software like Monday.com or Basecamp that allow you to coordinate among team members. Asana has limited functionality for free basic users and makes it easy to differentiate between various assignment verticals and departments.   

8. Work on one thing at a time.

According to a study from UC Irvine, the average worker changes tasks about once every three minutes. The same study also demonstrates it usually takes about 23 minutes to recover after an interruption. 

It’s a well-known fact that multi-tasking wastes time and produces sub-par results. But it might not be realistic to spend the whole day singularly focused on one task or activity. Deep concentration takes substantial effort to sustain, and you’ll be most productive if you perform just one or two hours at a time of mentally demanding work. Outside these scheduled “power hours,” make sure your colleagues know that you’re available for meetings and collaboration. 

9. Set reasonable expectations for yourself and others.

Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University, conducted a two-year study among 16,000 workers that demonstrated a 13% performance increase for employees who worked remotely. This study is often cited as proof that working from home can make businesses more productive—but there are a few key differences between the conditions Bloom tested and what workers must face today. 

In an interview with Vox, Bloom explains his study focused on a call center where most employees worked independently. He also points out everyone who worked from home in this experiment did so voluntarily and had resources available to set up a home office. In contrast, today’s workforce has been forced to work from home and might not be technically equipped to handle the new demand. Because the pandemic affects every industry and position, most employees today are also learning for the first time how to communicate and work together from a distance. 

Even though you might save time by telecommuting, don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself about what you can accomplish while working from home during a crisis. Recognize your limitations and treat yourself and your colleagues with compassion. This pandemic is unprecedented, and everyone can benefit from a little extra time and patience.  

Want more productivity hacks? Check out these six tips for overcoming a performance plateau


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