It’s a familiar scene: A deadline is looming and you want to finish up within normal hours so you don’t have to work late and rearrange the delicate sequence of your family’s evening. But it’s not looking good. You just can’t concentrate. Your mind wanders every time your phone buzzes or the slightest distraction pops up. By the time you do find your zone, it’s almost the end of the work day and you’re not nearly as far along as you need to be.
Staying focused is hard. But when you’re a working parent with distractions coming at you from all sides, it’s all the more so. While you can’t account for what may draw your attention away, there are some tactics you can use to help provide the optimal environment for concentration.
Now, before we begin: Ask yourself, Are my essential needs being met? That is, are you drinking enough water? Getting decent sleep? Eating right? Exercising? It’s much harder to find focus when you’re not taking care of yourself.
“Keep in mind that showing up for work starts with showing up for yourself,” says California-based therapist Kayti McDaniel, who specializes in supporting working parents. “Don’t underestimate the importance of meeting your basic needs on your ability to be present and contribute meaningfully at work.”
In addition, making some small changes to your routines can make a big impact on your ability to get stuff done. Here are seven ways to improve your focus at work, according to experts.
Check Your Environment
It may seem obvious, but your work environment plays a huge role in your ability to concentrate and, ultimately, get work done. So if you’re finding yourself distracted more than normal, therapist Timothy Kelly suggests taking stock of your workspace. Take a quick survey of your environment: Is there anything obvious contributing to your distraction level?
You may not be able to change where your desk is, do your best to make simple changes that help you regain focus. For example, if your office or workspace is loud, you could buy a pair of noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs. If clutter’s getting to you, clean up your desk and implement a simple organization system that keeps everything corralled and easy to access. If your desk just isn’t comfortable, it may be time to invest in a more ergonomic chair or a laptop riser.
Start with Easy Tasks
Ever notice how as you check things off the list, the more motivated you are? We’re fueled by reward, so one accomplishment — even if it’s super easy — can boost your desire and ability to get more done. That’s why therapist Lesley Smith recommends starting your day (or your project) with easy, mindless stuff, like answering emails to kickstart your workflow. If you need to, create easy-to-accomplish decoys, like cleaning something or deleting old emails. Once you get those done, you’ll likely have more energy and motivation to do the real work.
Enlist a Work Buddy
If you normally work alone, try enlisting a work buddy for the day. Maybe it’s the added sense of accountability, or maybe motivation is contagious. Either way, Smith suggests asking someone else to join you whether you’re hunkered down in your home office, at a coffee shop, or in a common space at work. If you’re struggling to concentrate, take a break to chat about something else, then go back to work. Nobody nearby? Smith recommends a website called Body Doubling, which sets you up with a virtual work buddy.
Match Your Energy to Your Work
There’s nothing worse than being forced to work on a creative task when you’re mentally strained. To make sure you’re able to focus when it matters most, Smith suggests making a habit of matching your energy levels to your work demands. For example, if you’re typically more motivated in the morning after breakfast, plan your more demanding tasks then, and reserve the mindless stuff for your afternoon slump. If you find yourself with a second burst of mental energy later in the day, then flip it around. The key is to pay attention to your mental and physical energy, and plan accordingly.
Take Better Breaks
It seems counterintuitive, but working for a set period of time with small breaks can actually improve your focus, because your brain can get fatigued from ongoing demands. If you’ve got a big project ahead of you, break it up into smaller chunks and take regular pauses to refuel with a glass of water or a jaunt around the block. Billy Roberts, a therapist who works exclusively with ADHD patients, suggests taking a five-minute break for every 45 minutes of work. “The key is not starting another task for the next five minutes, and doing something physical or restorative,” he says. If you won’t remember to stop, set a timer and force yourself to take that time.
When you’re overwhelmed with things to do, it can be hard to focus on anything. “One place to start is boundaries, which all boils down to when to say yes and when to say no,” says Roberts. If you have any control over it, be intentional about the work you take on, or the deadlines you agree to. If you don’t get to decide which work falls onto your plate, make sure you plan enough restoration time between tasks or projects, and that you maintain a healthy work schedule. For example, as tempting as it is to fit work in during the evenings, you’ll probably grow resentful of how much you work, which will drain your productivity levels.
Go Easy on Yourself
Distraction happens to everyone, and it’s not always possible to control it — you’re not wired to always be “on.” So if you’re struggling to maintain focus, don’t be too hard on yourself. According to Smith, that’ll only make things worse.
If distraction is continuously interfering with your ability to work or do other things, there could be another issue at play, like ADHD, depression, and anxiety. “If this is becoming more frequent at work and at home, or something you have had difficulty with your entire life, it would be worth talking to your doctor or mental health provider,” Kelly says.