If you feel like your brain is constantly ping-ponging between different tasks and reminders, this guide will show you how to increase your attention span at work.
You’re working on putting together your slides for an upcoming presentation. It’s a fairly large project, and it’s already taking you far longer than you thought it would.
Why? Well, you can’t seem to focus on it for longer than a couple of minutes at a time.
You format one slide before hopping back to your inbox to reply to an email. You add a graph and then get up to refill your water bottle. You write a few blurbs of text and then are immediately inspired to scroll through Instagram.
At this point, you’ve been “working on” that presentation for hours—yet your lack of focus means you barely have anything to show for it. You’re convinced a goldfish’s attention span would be an improvement over yours at this point.
Seriously…Why Are We So Darn Distractible?
You can take some comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone in your struggle to stay zoned in on the task at hand—we’re all pretty easily distracted.
Blame biology, as our brains are quite literally wired to ignore things that remain constant and instead actively look for changes. Plenty of psychological research backs up the fact that we seek out novel experiences—something that likely ties back to our very early history as a species.
“One of our brain’s functions is to attend to changes in our environment,” explains Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., a workplace productivity coach and speaker.
Distractions are our changes, and that’s why they pull us away from the task we’re focused on.
Understanding the Different Types of Distractions: Self-Imposed vs. Environmentally-Imposed
When it comes to sabotaging your own attention span, distractions are the undeniable culprits. But, it’s important to understand that there are two different types of distractions you deal with on a daily basis.
The first are self-imposed distractions. “These are the things that we have that are within our control,” says Dr. Gratias. Some classic examples include multi-tasking (which the human brain is actually incapable of) and the notifications from our various devices and computer programs.
“We can turn those notifications off,” Dr. Gratias adds. “When we are distracted by those, it’s not anyone else’s fault.”
Of course, not every interruption is your own doing, and that’s where environmentally-imposed distractions come into play. “The initiation of these is outside of your control,” says Dr. Gratias. For example, a colleague stopping by your desk is a classic example of an environmentally-imposed distraction.
How to Increase Your Attention Span at Work: 10 Helpful Strategies for Dealing With Distractions
Much like your morning cup of coffee or your overflowing inbox, distractions are essentially a staple of your working life—they’re always going to be there.
So, if you’re not going to eliminate them altogether, you need to know how to deal with them appropriately and keep yourself on track.
I picked Dr. Gratias’ brain and also connected with numerous working professionals to uncover their best tips for giving their own attention spans a boost.
Dealing With Self-Imposed Distractions
Let’s start with self-imposed distractions first. Let’s face it—when it comes to focus and productivity, we can all be our own worst enemies.
It’s tough to keep yourself zoned in on your work, but fortunately there are a few different strategies you can use to stop sabotaging yourself and knock out that lengthy to-do list of yours.
1. Understand that you’ll still have pauses.
First, Dr. Gratias says that it’s important to recognize that being focused doesn’t mean that you’ll never take a pause. That brief break is called an intra-task or inter-action interval.
“Let’s say that I’m writing a blog post, for example,” says Dr. Gratias. “There are times—even while focused on writing that post—when I will sit back and just take a moment to think. That is an intra-task interval.”
Dr. Gratias warns that those are key times when it’s easy to become distracted—particularly if we think of those breaks as ideal times to grab our phones or check our email. Instead, you need to recognize those pauses as a chance to recharge (rather than switch gears), and then immediately return to the task in front of you.
“We need to respect that even while we’re focused on something, we’re going to lean back in our chair and take a breath or a moment,” says Dr. Gratias. “Recognize those pauses for the temptation that they are and stay on the primary task anyway.”
2. Focus on one big task per day.
If you’re somebody who starts each workday with a to-do list as long as your arm, you might notice an uptick in your own attention span if you pare down that list and choose one thing (yes, only one!) that you absolutely must check off.
“I focus on getting one big task done each day,” says writer, Elise Dopson. “That could be ‘finish this blog post,’ ‘edit these three articles,’ or ‘record podcast interview.’ But whatever it is, I’ve found focusing on a single thing helps me focus because it’s the one thing that matters for that day.”
“I’m not sure whether that works because I’m not multi-tasking or I’m less overwhelmed (or both), but it does the trick for me,” she adds.
3. Try the Pomodoro Technique (or a different time management method).
Somedays, our workdays feel endless—and that leads us to operate with the false assumption that we have tons of time to get our work accomplished.
If you frequently find yourself falling into that trap, a time management technique like the Pomodoro Technique can be helpful for breaking your day into smaller, more manageable chunks.
“I do 20-minute sprints paired with a five to 10 minute break,” says freelance writer, Kaleigh Moore.
Not only does the Pomodoro Technique instill a greater sense of urgency in getting your work accomplished, but it also gives you an opportunity to take frequent breaks—and science has proven those breaks boost your productivity and focus, as well as lower stress.
“It breaks up the idea that I’m chained to my desk for hours,” adds Moore.
4. Find your “golden hours.”
“For me, I’m much more focused certain times of the day/days of the week,” shares freelance writer and PR consultant, Michelle Garrett. “I try to plan the work that requires the most focus for those days/times.”
If you’ve ever paid attention to how you’re feeling at certain times of day, then you also know that not all hours are created equal. You’ll have some time periods when you feel intensely focused, and others when you’re convinced you need a gallon of coffee just to answer one email.
Finding your own productivity “golden hours” will require some trial and error. Try keeping a simple journal on your desk so you can jot a quick note about how you feel at certain times of day. Or, use a time tracker like Toggl to log your working time.
Doing so will help you identify any trends in your level of energy and focus—so you can schedule your more challenging work for those times.
5. Keep your eyes off your inbox.
In many ways, emails are an environmentally-imposed distraction—you don’t have much control over who sends you a message and when.
However, you can control how often you pop into your inbox for a quick peek. And, limiting the amount of times you’re allowed to check in on those messages can help to amplify your level of focus.
“Only checking emails a certain number of times a day,” says digital marketer, Holly Landis, of her favorite trick to increase her own focus. “It’s so easy to get distracted when something comes into your inbox, but it’s better to finish the thing you’re doing before diving into that!”
Perhaps you want to limit yourself to only checking your emails once per hour. Or, maybe you want to set times each day when you’ll sort through your inbox. Figure out what works for you—as long as you aren’t constantly clicking over to your emails.
6. Use some strange (but effective) mental tricks.
The brain is a complex thing, which means there are a couple of odd-sounding (yet highly effective) tricks you can play to keep yourself focused.
“For me, it’s as simple as pouring a fresh drink (coffee, tea, beer, what have you) and using a full cup as a time management tool,” shares creative consultant and talent casting professional, Katy Palmer. “I enjoy savoring the drink and I can’t switch tasks until my cup is empty. It sounds ridiculous, but it works for me!”
“When you’re about to break your focus for something dopamine-inducing, say out loud what you’re about to do and what you expect the outcome to be. That’s usually enough to stop yourself,” explains Hansen.
Dealing With Environmentally-Imposed Distractions
Alright, so you’re ready to keep yourself buckled down and focused. But, what can you possibly do about everybody else?
When it comes to environmentally-imposed distractions, it’s tempting to think that you’re totally powerless. You don’t have any say over how many urgent phone calls come in or who swings by your office with a last-minute request.
Unfortunately, that’s true. However, there are a couple of things you can do to mitigate the impact of these inevitable interruptions.
7. Control what you can.
Dr. Gratias suggests that the best place to start is to understand the anatomy of a single distraction, and she uses this resource (specifically the image on the second page) to educate her clients.
A standard distraction looks like this:
During the primary task performance stage, you’re working on whatever you’re focused on—such as planning the agenda for an upcoming meeting. The alert is the actual interruption, like someone knocking on your door.
“There’s an interruption lag, which is the short period of time in between that knock and when you start engaging with the interrupting task,” says Dr. Gratias.
From there, you move onto the secondary task performance—which is addressing whatever that person is asking of you. When you’re finished with that, you’re dealing with a resumption lag before getting back to what you were working on.
“What I teach my clients is that they need to exert control in two places,” explains Dr. Gratias.
The first place is the interruption lag—that time right after someone knocks. “They need to take 10 seconds at that point to make a note of what they were doing,” Dr. Gratias advises.
You’re doing this with the objective of taking control and reducing your resumption lag, or put simply, the amount of time it takes you to get back into productively working on your initial task. This lag is a critical time, especially when research has shown that it takes a little over 23 minutes to refocus after an interruption.
“I advise people to take 10 and give five,” says Dr. Gratias. “Take 10 seconds to note where you were, and then give no more than five minutes to the interruption.”
The goal of doing that is so your resumption lag is just a few seconds, rather than many minutes.
8. Use your body language.
While you won’t stop all distractions, there are some nonverbal cues you can use to send the message that you’re intently working and would prefer not to be bothered.
For example, you can put earbuds in, as they make you look a little less interruptible. Dr. Gratias also suggests keeping your hands on your keyboard when people enter your office or workspace, instead of turning around and completely disengaging from what you’re doing.
“There are lots of things you can do that are nonverbal cues that indicate to people that this is not a great time to interrupt,” Dr. Gratias adds.
9. Build your productivity playlist.
Those earbuds in your ears don’t just need to be a visual trick to fool other people—you can actually listen to something to improve your focus and tune out any other noise around you.
“I put in earbuds playing soft, classical music. I don’t really ‘listen’ to it, more like having it in the background,” says author and blogger, Brian Armstrong. “It helps me block outside distractions and get my creativity flowing. It’s not foolproof, but it helps me get out of a productivity funk and get back on track.”
Maybe you’d rather opt for soft jazz or show tunes or the sounds of ocean waves crashing. Find what works for you, and then have that softly playing to drone out your gum-smacking colleague or any outside conversations.
10. Block off time for high-priority projects.
Life gets busy, and it doesn’t take long to feel like meetings and obligations have taken over your calendar—leaving you almost no time for focused work. This is why it can be helpful to physically block off time for your important tasks.
“For high-priority and/or time-sensitive projects, I set up meetings in my Outlook calendar,” explains Alison Hau, PR professional by day for www.creativegroup.com and blogger by night for www.twoofakindcooks.com.
“This helps ensure I meet deadlines and avoid procrastinating. And colleagues will avoid scheduling other meetings that will take you away from your work.”
Getting Back to Work (With Your Focus Intact)
There’s no denying that distractions and interruptions can destroy your attention span and quickly throw you off track. But, here’s the thing: You’ll never get rid of them entirely.
“You’re not going to eliminate interruptions, especially when we work with other humans,” concludes Dr. Gratias.
Instead, you need to know how to appropriately deal with them in order to stop them from completely sabotaging your productivity.
Fortunately, the above tips can help you do just that. Put them to work, and prepare to impress yourself with your own level of focus.