How to Stay Focused at Work

by Ashley Watson on 21 March 2012 3 comments
Photo: juhansonin

In November, I was hired as the full-time web content writer for a marketing company. The company was already growing fast by the time I started, and it continues to expand. As the first and only in-house writer, my workload was much heavier than the one I was used to as a freelancer who had worked from home the previous year. In addition to adjusting to a full-time job again, I wasn't used to working in an open space with other people (think The Office), which could be noisy. Then there was the distraction of responding to Skype chat, which we often use to communicate with each other to help cut down on the noise levels.

Despite the heavy workload, I loved my new job, from the supportive co-workers to the free coffee and dog-friendly office. I wanted to do everything I could to keep it. I quickly found myself meeting the demands of my new role by taking work home with me most nights, as well as over the weekends. I worked on Christmas and New Year's, and by mid-January, I knew that I was going to burn out if something didn't change. While my project manager and the company president continue to be very reasonable about expectations, I knew that there had to be ways to stay focused and be more productive at work.

I started doing some research, both online and through asking friends and co-workers how they manage to balance their work life with their personal lives. Here are the five changes to my daily routine that have helped me stay focused, get more done, and maintain balance and sanity in my life. (See also: The Fallacy of Multitasking)

1. Know When You Are Most Productive

This may seem obvious, but it is extremely helpful to remember what hours of the day you are most productive, especially if you find yourself all over the place during the workday. I'm a morning person, for instance, so as soon as I get to work and get settled, I take care of the less onerous tasks, such as responding to work emails and checking in with my project manager about the day's priorities. I then look at what I have to do for the day and try to get started by 9 a.m. at the latest.

Between 9 a.m. and noon, I work on larger projects that will take more time or tasks that have shorter deadlines. I also try to focus on work that requires more mental exertion. If you are someone who stares at a computer screen all day at work, you know that by 2 p.m., your eyes begin to glaze over and trying to stay focused becomes increasingly more difficult. You may be someone who is more productive in the afternoon, so you might want to try getting smaller tasks done in the morning, or making sure you schedule meetings during that time if possible.

By the way, if you've been at work since eight, and it's two in the afternoon and you haven't had a break from the computer screen, stop whatever you are doing. My biggest challenge as a full-time writer has been breaking the habit of working on one piece for too long, but it has helped me tremendously in terms of productivity. This applies to any high-demand computer work. Take regular screen breaks, and stretch as often as you can. However, with any job, managing your time according your most productive window during the day is a great place to start getting more centered at work.

2. "Just Say No" to Multitasking

One of the questions in my interview was about how I handle conflicting priorities and what I thought about multitasking. I gave an honest, straightforward answer, "I don't think humans were designed to multitask." I went on to explain that while it is a common practice most people believe to increase productivity, it in fact makes us less productive. I know I'm not the first to make this assertion, but in my experience, focusing on one task at a time is far more effective than trying to do six things at once.

Think of it in terms of texting while driving. Many states have now made texting and driving illegal due to the high percentage of car accidents caused by one of the most dangerous forms of multitasking. Our brains are not designed to handle operating a vehicle and communicating through messages written on a handheld mobile device at the same time. Although less deadly, multitasking at work relies on the same premise.

For instance, checking your email while talking to a co-worker is simply a bad idea for several reasons. Most likely, you'll miss half of what the co-worker is telling you, and, therefore, will have to have another conversation later to get the details you missed in the initial exchange. Plus, your email will take twice as long to compose since you are trying to focus on what your co-worker is saying at the same time. Same idea with Facebook, Twitter, and all those other little distractions from the task at hand. I don't get on Facebook at all during the workday, nor do I check my personal email or phone messages until I get home. Even work emails and phone messages can be distracting, so be sure to designate a time (preferably not during your most productive window) to check those once or twice a day, and then move on to the next task.

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3. Leave Work at Work

While this may not be possible for everyone, keeping your work life separate from your life at home is one way to stay more focused during the workday. If you think, "I'll just do it when I get home," you are less likely to concentrate on what you need to finish for the day and more likely to get distracted with your ex's new relationship status on Facebook, or catching up on the latest blog post from the WordPress humor stream.

Even if you don't work on a computer all day, it's easy to talk about work with your partner or friends once you leave the office or workplace. Not only can this be annoying for your friends who aren't co-workers, it also doesn't give you any room to simply exist outside the workplace; therefore, work and home become one continuous thread of tasks that can always wait until later. Leave work at work whenever possible, and you'll find that you will get a lot more accomplished while you are actually there.

4. Drink More Water

Every doctor I've ever seen has told me that the human brain functions better when the body is well-hydrated. Most people get through the work day on caffeine and sugar, and in small doses, these stimulants can actually increase your focus. Coffee can help you pay attention and be more constructive with your time. It can also dehydrate you very quickly if you don't replenish your system with water.

One of my tricks, in fact, is two-fold — I drink more water so that I maintain hydration levels while making sure that I get away from the computer screen often, even if it's only to use the restroom. While this works most of the time, I often find myself sitting there and suddenly realizing that my bladder feels as if it's about to explode, and that I've had to use the bathroom probably for the last hour or so (perhaps my next article will be about the dangers of being too focused). Whatever your method, try to drink at least 32 ounces of water a day. I have found that it helps with an overall sense of well-being and mental clarity.

5. Get More Sleep

I know that my final two points sound more like a mother giving advice on how to avoid the flu, but this last point I cannot emphasize enough. In fact, this weekend, not only did I leave work at work, but I also came home on Friday evening instead of going out with friends and forced myself to go to bed before midnight. Both on Friday night and Saturday night, I got at least eight hours of sleep, and I've been more productive around the house this weekend than I've been in weeks.

Additionally, I was in a better mood and felt more energized the entire weekend. I don't know why I forget how important it is to get an adequate amount of sleep — perhaps because I'm more interested in finishing that season of Breaking Bad or The IT Crowd on Netflix. In any case, after this weekend, I am making the pledge to go to bed early as often as I can.

While these are the five major adjustments to my life that have helped the most in terms of being more focused and productive at work, I recognize that everyone functions differently. I'd love to hear more tips on concentration skills from our readers. Please feel free to share some of the ways that you stay more focused and accomplish your daily chores, whether at the office or at home.

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Guest's picture

I definitely agree with all points, especially with drinking more water and getting lots of sleep. Getting up every so often to go to the bathroom keeps you from sitting in a tired slump all day, plus getting your 6-8 hours of sleep is just way better way for your brain.

Guest's picture

I couldn't have read this article at a more perfect time. With the start of spring it seems like staying focus at work is my greatest struggle. All I want to do is stair outside my window at the gorgeous weather and it daydream. These tips were extremely helpful and I'm going to start using them today! Beginning with saying no to multitasking...as soon as I try and do multiple things its like my brain goes blank! Also, I've started drinking more water through my day and I have to say its helped. Dehydration is the most common reason behind fatigue, and we all know you can't focus when you're tired!

Guest's picture

I find when I get home from a long day at the office that I get more done if I do them as soon as I set my stuff down (and fend my cat off from chewing my purse straps) If I sit down to watch an episode of "ER", then that quickly turns to two episodes, and the dishes are still not put away, the laundry is not folded, etc.