Productivity

How to Stay Focused at Work and Avoid Interruptions

Illustration of a man watering a garden, on top of another man's head

If you find it hard to stay focused at work and can’t concentrate, you’re not alone. Dr. Gloria Mark, who studies interruption science as an associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, found that the average office worker is interrupted every three minutes — that’s 160 interruptions per eight-hour day!

There are steps that you can take, however, to stay focused and maintain your workflow. We’ll talk about the benefits of focus and six tips to increase concentration and decrease disruption costs. 

The Benefits of Focus

Focus-schmocus, what’s the big hullabaloo? You get along just fine the way you are, right?

Maybe, but each of those interruptions throughout the day forces you to change gears mentally. The negative impacts of context-switching have been getting a lot of attention lately (spoiler: multi-tasking is a myth).

The good news is that you can take steps to reduce external interruptions, for example by closing your email when you’re doing focused work or snoozing your chat notifications. Additionally, it turns out that we actually interrupt ourselves 44% of the time! When we lose focus on one task we reassign ourselves to a different task that we are more motivated to complete, for whatever reason. Practicing some basic focus techniques can help you stay oriented on the task at hand.

When you learn how to stay focused at work, you’ll have more self-discipline. Improved focus is a learned skill. By practicing it, you CAN improve your ability to concentrate. It will take effort, but so does just about every other skill out there.

If you want to become an accomplished athlete, a qualified musician, or experienced chef; you must practice. Sure, some folks are born with incredible abilities. But even these lucky few must develop their raw talent before they use it to shock and awe the world.

As you practice focus, you’ll improve your personal self-discipline in two ways: First, you’ll be able to concentrate your mind much more effectively. This, in and of itself, is a strong display of willpower.

Second, the simple act of consistently practicing focus will set a precedent, making other tasks — tasks that require self-discipline — easier to accomplish. Because you’ve set your mind to something else and seen success. Make sense?

Not to mention, increased concentration will allow you to focus on your goals and see them to completion, rather than jumping from one idea to the next on a whim, a condition known as “shiny object syndrome“. And yes, SOS is a real thing.

Insidious Interruptions

While interruptions of all sizes occur 20 times each hour, major interruptions happen four times per hour and on average it takes you 23 minutes to get back to what you were working on before each of these larger task interruptions. If you do the math, that means that you are dealing with over an hour of interruptions for each hour of planned work!

Another study by Dr. Mark found that “After only 20 minutes of interrupted performance people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.” This is due in large part to the fact that, in an attempt to still complete all of their work on time, people compensate for interruptions by working faster.

This faster, more intense work represents a change to work rhythms, strategies, and mental states and can lead to decreased job satisfaction and quality of work. Use the tips below to beat the odds and divert interruptions, or avoid them altogether!

6 Tips to Stay Focused at Work

1. Commit to Daily Meditation

Meditation has been gaining in popularity lately. Many of the world’s biggest ballers — from Arianna Huffington (founder of Huffpost), to Ray Dalio (founder of the world’s largest hedge fund), to Jerry Seinfeld (famed comedian and actor) — regularly practice it.

Yet it still remains a mystery to most people. Many think its some mystical art full of “woo woos” and “weird spirituality”. Their loss! Meditation has numerous benefits, one of which is a more focused mind.

Think of it like this: if you want to improve your physical fitness, you go to the gym. You exercise your muscles to make them bigger and stronger. The same principles apply to your mind. To improve focus you need to exercise your brain. Specific kinds of meditation will help you do this.

Additionally, a consistent commitment to meditation can also reduce stress levels and symptoms of burnout, improve sleep habits, and increase your capacity to be compassionate. So those are great benefits too!

If meditating seems a bit intimidating to you, use an app to guide you through the process. Headspace and Calm are our two favorites.

2. Physically Remove Distractions

Here’s a super applicable tip: to improve your focus, physically remove distractions from your environment. The majority of external interruptions Dr. Mark identified in her study came from electronic devices — email, phone calls, and chat or text messages.

So, when working on your next big company project, turn your phone off and log out of your email.

Calm down and breathe — we can hear you hyperventilating through your computer screen. Every text and Instagram update will be waiting for you when you’re done working. Promise.

If your devices keep sending you notifications throughout the day… Well, let’s just say you won’t be nearly as productive as you could be.

3. Give Your Mind a Break

Researchers have honed in on another concentration secret: brief diversions, or time away from a specific, monotonous task. At the onset, this seems counter-intuitive.

Learn how to stay focused at work by focusing less? Exactly!

But upon deeper analysis, it makes sense. Our brains are hardwired to respond to change and tend to treat constant stimulation as unimportant.

Think of the clothes you’re wearing right now. You probably weren’t actively aware that the fabric was touching your skin until we brought your attention to the fact. It’s not that you can’t feel, it’s that your brain has become so used to the sensation, it doesn’t focus on it anymore.

The same thing happens inside that pretty little head of yours. After a while, your mind registers your task as unimportant. The fix? Simply take a break. Studies show that brief diversions allow the mind to regain focus on the objective at hand.

Breaks are different from interruptions in that they are planned. You can set a reasonable goal and reward yourself for completing it by taking a break. By planning your breaks in this way, you avoid the negative consequences of interruptions while gaining the benefits of a mental change of pace.

4. Prioritize Like a Champ

When you’re interrupted, you don’t immediately go back to the task you were doing before the interruption took place. On average, you’re likely to pick up two new tasks after the interruption but before getting back to what you were working on, which you were likely doing because it was important! The more complex or in-depth the task, the longer it takes you to regain your focus and get back in gear.

When a new task intrudes on our focus, we have a tendency to deal with it immediately in order to get it out of the way. According to a report by CubeSmart, Social Interruption and the Loss of Productivity, 73% of interruptions are handled immediately, regardless of their priority level.

Often interruptions have an impact on your workspace. Maybe you’ve launched or closed software on your computer, taken notes from a phone call, or have a new pile of files that are now looming on the corner of your desk. These concrete reminders of the interruption make it difficult to return to your earlier task. You can anticipate this by creating a personal inbox, whether a physical location (out of your direct line of sight) where papers and other things related to new tasks can live until you actively choose to deal with them, or a digital file or desktop note that can be minimized when needed.

When you are inevitably interrupted during your workday, use that self-discipline you’ve been cultivating to get right back to what you were doing. Don’t let those 23 minutes slip by (during which you will be interrupted seven or eight more times). Like a stone in the river, let the disruption wash over and around you while maintaining as much focus as possible on the priority you were already working on.

5. Get Organized

The CubeSmart report found that roughly 26% of interruptions were classified as “organizational” issues, as compared to interacting with another person (either digitally or in-person). The good news is that organization — of your time, of your workspace, of your tasks — is something that you have quite a lot of control over.

You could set aside 30 minutes at the beginning or end of your day to get organized and clarify your work plan. Knowing what you need to do and having your space clear and free from distractions can set the right tone to help you have a productive day; not to mention the benefits that come from cultivating a regular routine.

You can also use tools, like apps, to help you stay organized. For example, tracking your work time with a time-tracker like Toggl can help you visualize just how much those interruptions are eating into your day. Spend a day tracking your time and you might be surprised to find out how much time you waste responding to daily distractions!

6. Regularly Practice Focus

Lastly, if you really want to learn how to stay focused at work, you have to commit to practicing concentration regularly.

As we mentioned earlier, this is a skill that can be learned and developed — just like a virtuoso musician or star athlete. Sure, for some people, the act of concentration comes much more naturally. But there is hope for the rest of us! It just takes a bit more effort.

So remind yourself regularly to focus. Use the tactics outlined in this blog to keep you on track.

With practice, we have no doubt that you can learn how to stay focused at work and be a concentration master.

Focus Like You Mean It

You made it all the way to the end of this blog post. Congrats, it seems your focus is already improving! Now take this momentum and ride it as far as it will go. When the road to improved concentration seems daunting, remember what you’ve learned.

Kiss those distractions goodbye, friend. They won’t hold you back for much longer!

By On November 13, 2018