Finding focus in the workplace these days is harder than ever. We have distractions coming to us from technology, our work environment, and the people around us.
Fortunately, there’s a set of skills you can master that can vastly improve your ability to focus in the workplace and achieve your most important results.
Attention management skills can improve focus in the workplace. This skill set teaches you how to control the elements of focus. Learn to proactively determine where to place your attention, as well as how to control thoughts and actions in the service of your most important goals.
As a productivity trainer for the past two decades, I’ve helped thousands of leaders gain mastery over their ability to focus. Again and again, I’ve seen it:
When leaders learn to manage their attention, they significantly increase their focus skills. This leads to improved productivity at work—not only for themselves, but also for their teams.
So think of building focus like building any other muscle in your body. It requires repetition and practice.
Attention management and focus aren’t the same, but focus is an important component of attention management skills.
First, let’s look at some of the most common threats to your powers of concentration at work, as well as the benefits you can expect from doing the attention management exercises.
Then I’ll share my top 10 strategies to help you focus better at work, including some of the most effective exercises you can use to improve your ability to focus in the workplace.
Focus in the Workplace: Common Threats
You’ve probably noticed that when you go on social media, it’s hard to get off. That’s no coincidence. There are thousands of people employed by technology companies whose sole purpose is to keep you on a particular platform as long as possible.
Think about this: the job of the internet is to keep you on the internet!
When you try to focus on an important work task, you may also have notifications that pop up in the corner of your computer screen: A sale at your favorite store! Your best friend needs a call ASAP! You forgot to pay your water bill!
No wonder it’s impossible to concentrate.
Add to this the fact that many of us also have people around us, where we may have colleagues or family members who need our attention “Just for a minute” and “Right now!”
Accustomed to Distractions
Our brains have become so accustomed to distractions that when we have the opportunity to focus, we feel uncomfortable because there isn’t a distraction! In these moments, we distract ourselves.
Maybe you’re waiting for a Zoom meeting to start, but everyone hasn’t logged on yet. What do you do? Probably pull out your phone and check your email or social media feed.
The problem is that the more distracted we are, the more distracted we will be! Distraction is making us distractible. Constant distractions, interruptions, and attempts to multitask make us fractured, flustered, frustrated, and forgetful. So then we feel exhausted and overwhelmed—two key ingredients of burnout. It’s no wonder the World Health Organization declared an epidemic of burnout in the workplace.
But there’s good news, too.
You can improve your focus in the workplace simply by doing the attention management exercises I describe below. But first, to give you a bit of motivation, let’s explore what changes you can expect to enjoy once you improve your ability to focus.
Benefits of Improving Focus at Work
Once you learn to manage your attention, you’ll be back in the driver’s seat of your life.
Other people’s priorities won’t control your actions. You’ll be living proactively, instead of reactively.
Even better, your devices won’t control you. Instead, you will be in control of your technology.
And you will know how to set up your environment in a way to limit distractions and increase your productivity.
As a result of learning the elements of focus—and mastering them!—you will:
- Enjoy more leisure time.
- Expend less effort and work but be more productive.
- Feel more rested and less stressed.
- Experience increased energy, motivation, and fulfillment.
Employers who teach attention management skills to help their team members increase focus at work will find:
- Improved morale.
- Decreased turnover.
- More progress on important company goals.
The Key Element of Focus: Attention Not Time
Once you recognize that your attention is the key element of focus, you are ready to practice the attention management exercises below.
However, making this mental shift is easier said than done.
Most of us have been trained to believe that our time—not our attention—is the most valuable asset we have.
This is patently false.
We all have the same 24 hours in a day, and none of us can control time, no matter how hard we try. To really live happier, more productive lives, we need to resist distractions so that we can focus attention on what’s most important to us. This allows us to make the most of our moments!
When we learn to master our attention, we can transform our lives. We can achieve results faster and with less effort at work. And we can experience greater work-life balance.
Give that some thought—I’ve heard my clients report exactly these results over and over again—and then try the strategies below. These are strategies I’ve road-tested with thousands of CEOs, managers, and other professionals, so I know they work!
Read: The Attention Management Book!
10 Strategies to Improve Focus in the Workplace
The exercises below will help you develop your attention management skills. This set of skills will help you feel more fulfilled at work. Plus, you’ll achieve your most significant results at work more quickly and with less effort.
1. Control Your Phone
When your focus is stolen by beeps and rings all day long, you have no chance of being productive or calm. That’s why it’s key to learn to control your technology, rather than letting your technology control you. This starts with your phone, which is probably the device that’s with you all the time.
Learn to use “Do Not Disturb” mode to only allow calls and texts from specific, important numbers. Set your phone to silent instead of vibrate; using vibrate may not distract others, but it will distract you. Try keeping your phone out of your bedroom. I don’t recommend it, but if you must keep your phone by your bed because of the clock or sleep noise, put it in airplane mode so you won’t hear incoming calls or notifications.
2. Control Your Computer
Your email inbox is one of the biggest stress creators at work. Not only do our inboxes constantly refill, but it often seems impossible to get to inbox zero.
This can cause us anxiety and even panic, which isn’t conducive to thoughtfully managing and prioritizing our work (much of which comes to us via email). For my advice on whether getting to inbox zero is worth it, check out my post 8 Steps to Stop Work Email from Ruining Your Life.
In the meantime, I recommend that you set your email client to download new messages only when you open your inbox. This is called “manual fetch.” Or, better yet, work in offline mode.
Only go back into online mode when you purposely and consciously set aside time to check email. Finally, turn off notifications that aren’t critical to your productivity.
3. Recognize That Email is Real Work
You’ll probably be surprised at how much time email actually eats up.
In my experience with clients, professionals receive an average of 100 emails a day, and it takes an average of 2 minutes to deal with each message. Two minutes might not sound like much, but that amounts to 3 hours and 20 minutes of email management every single day.
You should do everything you can to minimize the number of emails you receive in a day. But for those remaining messages that are likely important work from clients and colleagues, allocate the time they deserve.
When you try to cram reading and replying to email messages in between other tasks at work, you end up fractured and frazzled, and the quality of your work suffers.
Just like you schedule meetings with other people, set daily or weekly time on your calendar to process email. For more about how I recommend you efficiently handle email, read my post about effective email strategies for work.
4. Filter Your Email
Drowning in email? Save yourself by using technology as the solution.
First, be sure your security software is active and up-to-date, which should help keep out spam and hackers. If you do get any suspicious emails, mark them as junk, and the next time the sender tries your address, their messages won’t get through to your inbox.
Second, there are some great tools that will prevent unwanted marketing emails from getting through to you. Read my article Control Your Tech for specific suggestions.
Third, there are often emails we do want to see, but we don’t need to be getting them constantly throughout the workday. Their frequent arrival distracts us from our most important work. For these, subscribe to a service like Throttle, which will compile them and send them to you in a digest once daily, at the time you choose.
5. Control Your Work Environment
Whether you work from home or in an office, chances are you’re frequently interrupted by other people who constantly ask for just a minute of your time. Or if you’re working with kids at home, they may be demanding your time—and more than just a minute!
In any case, we teach people how to treat us. You’ll need to train the people around you to respect your need to focus your attention on work and your other important activities.
One way to do this is to use a Do Not Disturb Sign. This low-tech solution can let people know you are focusing your attention on your most important tasks at this time. However, you can’t keep your sign up all the time, or people won’t take it seriously. Instead, put your sign up for a stretch of 60-90 minutes and then be sure to take it down for at least 15 minutes. (You can download some free humorous Do Not Disturb signs here.)
6. Ditch the Open-Door Policy
If you’re a leader, it may be hard to focus on your most significant tasks because your direct reports constantly seek your advice or want your support.
While you may have an open-door policy because you want to always be available, this obviously undermines your own ability to focus. But did you know an open-door policy also deprives your direct reports of maximizing their own productivity?
When your team members don’t feel empowered to make decisions without your input, they will not apply their full talents, skills, and creativity to the job.
The remedy is to clearly define each person’s role and the decisions they can make independently. Then allow them to make mistakes and make yourself unavailable, except during scheduled office hours, when you can analyze together how their decisions panned out, and what they might do differently in the future.
I call this “mentoring in hindsight.” Read more about why this is such an effective leadership strategy and how it improves focus for the whole team.
7. Practice Single Tasking
Most of us feel like we’re accomplishing more when we do several things at once. Maybe you have two computer monitors (or more!) on your desk at work–one for your tasks and one for incoming email and other communication. Or maybe you find it useful to read and reply to text messages while attending work meetings.
Researcher Gloria Mark and her team found that on average, workers switch tasks every three minutes! And it takes a person an average of 23 minutes to refocus their attention on the original task.
The problem is that multitasking doesn’t just hurt our productivity in the moment, but it harms our ability to focus on work in the long term. It makes us feel more stressed, and can even lower your IQ!
But single-tasking in our 24/7 always-on world takes practice. So set a timer at your desk. Then vow to single-task by focusing your attention on only one task.
Resist all disruptions from others, and don’t let your own thoughts hijack your focus, either. See if you can do this for 10 minutes. If you succeed, then take a break and reset the timer for 15 minutes. If you don’t succeed, then try 10 minutes again.
Over time, this critical exercise can help you become more aware of how you manage your attention, when it gets stolen, and why. Awareness is a critical element of increasing focus.
8. Use Guided Meditations
Hone your attention management skills at home by doing guided meditations. These meditations are available on many apps like Buddhify, Simple Habits, and Headspace.
Using these meditations can help you become more mindful of your thoughts and emotions. When you practice mindfulness, you are practicing attention management and strengthening your ability to focus on what you choose, not what others choose for you.
You may want to start with a very short guided meditation (2-5 minutes) and work up to a longer one (20-30 minutes). Over time, you’ll see the connection between practicing mindfulness and being able to achieve your most important goals at work with less effort.
For more on the link between mindfulness and attention management, check out the video interview above that I did with my friend Anne Grady, an internationally recognized speaker and author on the topic.
9. Do Physical Activity Before Intense Focus
While it’s important to find stillness, it’s equally important to be physically active. Counterintuitively, sometimes it’s when we’re moving around that we feel most quiet and still inside.
When we exercise our bodies, our hearts pump more blood, sending more oxygen to our brains. This infusion of oxygen helps improve our focus.
Many people reserve their exercise and movement for before and after the workday, but this is a mistake. While you might not want to work up a sweat in the office, consider your physical state when you’re about to sit down to work on a task that requires focused attention.
Before you sit down to work, walk up and down a flight of stairs for ten minutes, or better yet, go outside and take a quick bike ride, or walk briskly around the building or the block. While you may feel this time is wasted because you’re not yet working, quite the reverse is true; you’re prepping your brain and body to optimize your focus at work.
10. Use a Workflow Management System
The very best way to organize yourself at work and support your focus is to use a workflow management system. This is a collection of habits and behaviors for organizing all of your responsibilities, tasks, meetings, events, thoughts, and ideas related to your work life, and even your personal life.
Many people keep appointments in a calendar, thoughts on Post-It notes or in a notebook, and various to-do items on a list on their computer. But with an effective workflow management system, you’ll use a single set of tools to organize your responsibilities. When your tasks are scattered, making constant decisions about what you need to do and when wastes your brainpower and fractures your attention.
My workflow management system is called Empowered Productivity™. The foundational principles of my system are based in attention management.
I train individuals to use this system through my online, video-based course. In addition, I often train teams both onsite and through live, online workshops. If you’re interested in learning more about my Empowered Productivity System, click a button below.
Empowered Productivity for Individuals
Empowered Productivity for Teams
Resources to Improve Your Focus in the Workplace
Here are some additional resources that can help you improve your attention management and ability to focus in the workplace.
My Blog Posts:
Four Quadrants of Attention Management
Why Time Management Training is Holding Back Your Team
Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity—Every Day
From To-Do to Done: How to Go from Busy to Productive by Mastering Your To-Do List
Attention Management: The Key to Focusing at Work
If there’s one message you take from this article, I hope it’s this: your most important assets are your body and your mind. When those are sound and strong, then you can harness attention. This is key to focusing better in the workplace.
As you hone your attention management skills, you’re likely to experience other benefits, like increased happiness and productivity. So what are you waiting for? Get started with one of the exercises above.
Great article. It is so true the attention is something that so many have a hard time keeping on track. I love your advice to be more productive without all the distractions that can happen around us, especially the one about using “Do not disturb” on the phone. -Ryan
Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Ryan!