Anne Niederkorn

By Anne Niederkorn, October 24, 2014

Workdays can be unpredictable. Some days effortlessly fly by, while others seem to drag on and on.

The same can be said of your focus. While some days you are laser-focused on your tasks, others you’ll find yourself, well, a bit distracted. Let’s face it: Not everything we do at work is fun, and sometimes it’s just easier to tune out (or tune into that YouTube video).

So, how do you reel yourself back in—especially when you know you need to get down to business?

For one thing, it’s always a good idea to clear your plate of any small nagging tasks. This way, your mind won’t be bothered by anything you should have already done. I also know that my noon workout helps raise my focus level for the rest of the afternoon.

But what else can you do, especially when faced with the most challenging days? Not to worry: I looked at four common work scenarios and came up with some tips on how to get yourself back on track.

When You’re in a Meeting

Shorter meetings equal better attention spans, but unfortunately, not all meetings are short and sweet. If you know a meeting might take a while, try to think of some proactive ways to end it a little sooner while still accomplishing everything. Does the meeting have an agenda and a designated timekeeper? If not, consider volunteering to draft one up or be the person who keeps everyone on track.

If there’s no way to shorten things up, ask to help the meeting facilitator take notes, which is bound to keep you actively listening. You might also want to sit up front or near the presenter—if more eyes are on you, the less likely you will be to drift off.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to speak up if you think the group needs a break. If it’s been 90 minutes straight without a breather and you find yourself getting restless, chances are everyone else will appreciate the chance to regroup as well.

When You Need to Complete a Difficult Task

Difficult tasks often require concentration and quiet. Unfortunately, you likely dwell in a cubicle farm full of loud co-workers and constant activity. Plus, there’s always the internet, primed and ready to lure you into news stories, funny videos, and social media.

If you know you’re easily distracted by all these things, it’s time to take action. Can you book a small conference room? Are you able to work at the local library? If you can’t change your environment, try earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. Can’t work in complete silence? Create a playlist of relaxing music or sounds that help you concentrate. Apps such as Noisli or Coffitivity can provide different white noise sounds, like falling rain or even a busy coffee shop.

While you’re at it, close your browser (or use an app like Self-Control or Freedom, which kicks you out for a set period of time), change your instant messenger settings to “Do Not Disturb,” and alert your neighbors you are working onsomething that requires focus. If they are decent folks, they’ll respect your time and leave you alone (and hopefully keep the volume down on their conversations).

When You’re Working on a Routine Task

While some tasks require a lot of attention to detail, there are others that are sometimes so routine that we instantly grow bored—and then we either start getting sloppy or get distracted by our smartphone, our neighbors, or our manicure.

These are the times when my iPod is my best friend. Just as a few great songs help me get through a grueling run, the right tunes also help perk me up and keep me (somewhat) happy as I finish that tedious task. If the work is also time-consuming, be sure to set small goals for yourself, along with rewards. If that doesn’t motivate you to buckle down, then get tougher with yourself: Tell a buddy about your goal and place a bet. For example, if you don’t meet your goal, then you owe your colleague lunch—or maybe even a donation to her favorite charity.

When You’re in Training

Training can really test your focus and concentration, especially if it lasts all day or even over several. And nowadays, many trainings are delivered virtually, making it even more difficult to focus. It’s hard to stay excited about learning when you’re cooped up in a room all day, starting at a computer screen.

The best advice I ever got regarding training was this: After you’re finished, send an email to your boss, telling her what you’ve learned and how you’re specifically going to use these things. The first time I did this, my boss loved it. This in itself is a great reason to pay attention and take good notes. Besides writing down what the instructor says, keep your brain active by asking yourself how you could apply the knowledge in your job. Challenge yourself to make a list of at least two good questions for the instructor. And, of course, keep your caffeinated beverage of choice close by at all times.

Tell us! What do you do to focus?

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