Ever since the country shut down, many leaders I know are finding it increasingly hard to focus on work. I’m thankful that I’ve been practicing attention management for the last decade—a practice that helps me shift my mind to a state best suited to accomplish a particular task.
These days, my attention management skills are tested, as I strive to stay focused on my work, whether that means preparing for a virtual training session or writing an article.
Practicing attention management during a global pandemic requires more effort than usual, because of the unsettling news of the world plus this constant, looming distraction of the pandemic: Is it safe to reopen our state? I really miss traveling. I hope Alfred’s case isn’t too serious. When will there be a vaccine? It’s so tempting to switch from work to an internet search for “covid vaccine progress.”
Despite all there is to worry about, attention management has proven to be an especially valuable skill to keep my productivity on track and calm my mind.
Is It Even Possible to Focus on Work Right Now?
Last time I told you that I’ve started writing for Forbes. If you’re new to my work, you may not know that I’ve also been writing for Harvard Business Review since 2015.
One of my latest articles there is called Is It Even Possible to Focus on Anything Right Now? In it, I provided some tips for using attention management during especially distracting times.
Even if you are new to attention management, there are ways you can start training your brain today to manage your thoughts for optimal productivity but also for a balanced, relaxed state of mind.
Three Common Distractions and Strategies to Help
In the HBR post, I give some tips for how professionals working from home can decrease distractions from your kids, your home activities and chores, and your thoughts. They’re practical strategies that will help you to control your environment rather than letting your environment control you.
If you have young children who are home from school or camp, and you’re trying to work, here’s one strategy from the article that might help: Divide your tasks into those that require high attention, like analyzing data or writing an article, and those that use low attention, like filling out a timesheet or posting something you’ve already written onto a social media platform.
When your kids are occupied with another activity, focus on the high-attention tasks. But when they need intermittent supervision or attention, work through your low-attention tasks.
Attention management is all about knowing what type of work requires which type of attention, and then matching the task to your mind state. To learn more about this, see my post Four Quadrants of Attention Management: A Model to Maximize Productivity.
One of the hardest things about working from home is maintaining focus on the job while the dog is staring up at you longingly, the TV in the corner tempts you to the video game or latest Netflix binge, or even when you’re faced with dusty surfaces and loads of dirty laundry.
When all of these home activities beckon, you might find it harder to get started on work, especially if the work task you need to finish requires high attention and deep focus. However, in trying hard to avoid them, you’ll expend an inordinate amount of energy and you’ll rarely be successful.
Instead, use your home activities as breaks for finishing work projects. Break high-attention work tasks into smaller pieces, and when you complete one section of the larger task, reward yourself with a physical break. Get up from your chair and walk the dog or do the dishes. Set a timer on your break so it doesn’t get out of hand.
These days nothing is as we expected, and if remote work is new to you, you may find that these home-based distractions can actually come as a welcome change to our routine.
For more helpful strategies about focusing on work while home, see my post 5 Tips to Avoid Distractions When Working from Home.
It’s easy to let negative thoughts hijack your mind during this trifecta of political, social, and economic unrest. Without even being conscious of it, you can fall down a rabbit hole of worry into a pool of anxiety. Before you know it, you’ve allowed that to drag you into a funk or a new binge for hours at a time.
The practice of attention management can help prevent that downward spiral. It will afford you the opportunity to course correct and return to a focus on work and even a more positive outlook.
Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
The next time you find yourself thinking negatively or worrying excessively, try this: Write down three good things about your day. Just shifting your thoughts to positivity and gratitude can change your perspective.
And the more you shift your attention to positive thoughts, the more peaceful you will feel and the easier it will be to focus on work.
Another strategy you can use to relax your mind is meditation. Check out my interview with Tom Evans, a meditation expert who helps business leaders stay calm in the face of uncertainty and increase their positivity.
Use Attention Management to Increase Your Focus on Work
If you’re new to attention management and think it might be a helpful practice during this time, you may want to check out my book Attention Management: How to Gain Success and Create Productivity Every Day. I intentionally wrote this book so that you could read it in only about an hour. In it, you’ll find exercises and tools that will help you regain control of your life and focus on work during trying times.