Feature photo by Kim Schuldt.
What makes focusing at work most difficult? Is it the in-your-face guy in the cubicle next to yours? … the office chair with a loose arm that threatens to snap every time you lean on it? … slow internet? … the smell of coffee? … your growling stomach an hour before lunch?
All these elements and others in our surroundings can make focus difficult. Even though we complain and blame our surroundings and co-workers, the most common distraction comes from within.
1. Distracted at Work and Unhappy at Work
Harvard University psychologists, Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert (2010) looked at “mind wandering,” or “stimulus independent thought,” as it relates to happiness. Using an iPhone app, called, “Track Your Happiness,” they found that during 46.9% of the sample events, participants reported that their minds were wandering. The greatest frequency of mind wandering (51.3% of the reported events) occurred while individuals were working. At the opposite end of the scale, where focus and mindfulness ruled, were love-making, praying, worshipping, and meditating.
“Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and to ‘be here now.’ These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” (Killingsworth and Gilbert 2010)
David Rock, the author of the book, Your Brain At Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, wrote,
“One study found that office distractions eat an average 2.1 hours a day. Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all. People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.”
We all know the consequences of an unfocused mind in the workplace. Many of our activities, like organizing files, cleaning up the shelves in the office, taking out the garbage, washing dishes, adding metadata to images, sending out tweets linking to content, shopping for tools for the field crew, or running paperwork from one office to another require little focus. However, many critical tasks … those that keep our business moving or result in eventual promotion within a company … require focus. Examples include report writing, budgeting, conflict resolution, troubleshooting, code development, problem-solving, and data analysis.
2. Get Focused at Work
We can improve focus by manipulating both our external and internal environments. The latter often presents the greatest challenge.
2.1. Manage your external environment for better focus
Although we tend to blame our external environment (annoying coworkers, distracting activities, cluttered surroundings, frequent interruptions, excessive workloads, etc.) most of these distractions have relatively easy solutions, if we allow ourselves to facilitate them.
2.1.1. Clean up and simplify your work area
Organizational design expert, Peter Walsh wrote, “Maybe it’s possible that the stuff we own and obsess over is the physical manifestation of the mental health issues that challenge our minds.” I’ve noticed, myself, that co-workers with messy offices also tend to have messy work habits. Clean up your work area, and let external order influence your internal order.
2.1.2. Shut the door
Even well-meaning co-workers can distract us from our work. For many years, as a professor, I struggled with this. I worked with students from my classes and service learning, and I liked to have an open-door-policy to encourage them to communicate and participate regularly. However, once I became a full-time Project Director, with a compliance focus, rather than a research focus, I found that distancing myself, or shutting the door, helped me focus on the work and communicate, once I reopened it, more objectively and succinctly.
Shutting the door might not always involve a physical door and includes filtering irrelevant emails, staying out of affairs outside your work responsibilities, and avoiding people who vent, gossip, or otherwise use work time inefficiently. Keep it respectful, and most people return that respect.
2.2. Manage your internal environment for better focus
Because most of our distractions come from inside ourselves, as our mind wanders, most of the changes we need to make to focus on our work are internal. We can manage our inner self by reducing stress and practicing mindfulness.
2.2.1. Identify, Learn, and Practice Appropriate Skills
Shortly after closing my office door, I soon found that the people that I most needed to stay out, like the guy who would tell me about his dog or garden projects at home, rather than shared work goals and tasks, would visit even more frequently and tell me even more irrelevant stories. After all, the door was closed, now he could really let loose without worrying who heard about his dirty laundry!
The physical solution, closing the office door, only kept out the respectful co-workers, just like a screen door only keeps out the people who don’t plan on robbing your home. The effective solution came from learning and practicing new social skills.
Books, like, Coping with Difficult People, by Robert M. Bramson, can provide some ideas and guidance on developing emotional tools to deal with challenging co-workers. Studying and practicing social skills will help both your professional and personal life. Try searching online, for phrases like, “coping with narcissists,” “working with difficult people,” and “supervising procrastinators,” to find out how to deal with specific personality types.
Likewise, if you’re dealing with a great deal of internal stress, procrastination, or similar internal distractions, read about dealing with these conditions, and practice managing them internally. For example, I’ve often used the free resources on MindTools‘ page to help me learn about skills, such as leadership skills, team management, stress management, and time management, that I felt I needed to improve.
2.2.2. Practice Mindfulness Early in the Day
For many of our distractions, Dr. Rock, in Psychology Today (2009b) suggests that you, …
“manage what you focus on. Pay attention to your attention, and stop yourself from getting on the wrong train of thought early, before it takes over. This is the opposite of being mindless: it’s being mindful.
The best way to do that is to practice being aware of your own thoughts, by activating your observer function. How do you do that, when you have a ton of information pouring through your head as you process a hundred emails in the morning? The answer is clear: you can’t. If you want to do deeper thinking work, don’t start your day overwhelming and exhausting your brain. Start with the tougher work that requires a more focused, quiet mind. Many people have this back to front. If your job is to think, tackle thinking tasks early, and tasks that are relatively ‘interesting’ such as checking your emails (which means your brain will go there easily) later when you are tired.
So in summary, how do you beat back distractions? Turn everything off. And do your deeper thinking work in the morning while you still have the ability to control your attention. Sounds easy enough. In practice it’s tough, but it works.”
I’m fortunate because my office lies in the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains, where I can easily get out and go for a hike or walk up the hill just a bit to meditate or observe nature to facilitate mindfulness and focus. You probably have somewhere near your workplace where you can just get away. Find that place and take advantage of it.
2.2.3. Learn to close the inner door
Above, I mentioned closing the door, literally, but you can also close the door symbolically, and, as you practice mindfulness in the workplace, you’ll find that closing the inner door will actually do much more for your focus and concentration than shutting the physical door to your office. I can usually work in noisy or busy places, and a long life of mindfulness practice has helped me to do so. A little practice will help you focus also.
If your mind wanders at your workplace and keeps you from reaching your full work potential, you’re pretty much like everyone else in the modern work world. Carry out your most mindful tasks early in the day. Also, practice mindfulness before you get started on intensive tasks, by taking a break. You’ll set the course for overall greater presence at your tasks, and you’ll probably enjoy them more. Learn to manipulate your external environment, and practice honing your own emotional and mindfulness skills for a better work day.
Thanks to Kim Schuldt for reviewing the text.
Bramson, R. M. Coping with Difficult People. Dell.
Killingsworth, M. A., and D. T. Gilbert. 2010. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science 330: 932. Viewed at the Harvard Gazette (http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/), Reviewed, 6 August 2016.
Rock, D. 2009. Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. HarperBusiness.
Rock, D. 2009a. Your Brain at Work – Easily distracted: why it’s hard to focus, and what to do about it: Beat back distractions. On the Psychology Today website (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-brain-work/200910/easily-distracted-why-its-hard-focus-and-what-do-about-it), Reviewed 7 August 2016.