How to stay focused at work?

Our working environment hosts a plethora of distractions making it challenging for many of us to stay focused on a task

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High workloads, multitasking, meetings, open plan work environments (that are not suited to all personality types) and not to mention the constant flow of information via email, internet and social media all play a role, often leading us to experience a cycle of anxiety and stress about not fulfilling the daily tasks, monthly outcomes and annual appraisal targets. This then can lead to more stress and an increased lack of focus.

Is multi-tasking a myth?

Multi-tasking has long been a celebrated ‘skill’, however, consider this statement by world-renowned neuroscientist and founder of the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds Richard Davidson. Speaking in September at an event with the Dalai Lama “Creating a Happier World he said, “Multitasking is a myth. Multitasking is shifting our attention rapidly, it deteriorates the results of what we do and think.”

As creatures of habit, rapidly jumping from one thing to the next can quickly become a habitual way of being and behaving. As a result we can not only feel distracted but we can also begin to experience sustained levels of anxiety and burn out. This in turn can result in a lack of motivation, underperformance, stress, low mood and at worse depression.

How then can we respond to distractions and stay focused?

Our contemporary western culture strains and often overwhelms the brain with more information than it evolved to handle. Some things we can’t control or change directly – like the high work expectations of the job, the office work space or who we have to work with, but how we respond to external situations, events and happenings in terms of our thinking, behaviour and communication is within our control.

Further good news is that in the same way we form habits such as being unfocused and getting distracted by social media, the internet, colleagues or a dynamic work environment, we can undo them and form new ones. Research on meditation by Cortland Dahl, Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson at the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that we can change the brain by transforming the mind. That meditation produces measurable changes in the brain that reflect the brain’s inherent neuroplasticity, the idea that experience and training can alter the structure and function of the brain.

The benefits of becoming more self-aware

To change our habit of being easily distracted and unfocused to one that is focused on the task we need to become self-aware. And self-awareness requires an inner discipline, a willingness to pause and to look, to observe how we do what we do. When we become aware of our habits, we can do something about them. Becoming self-aware then also requires a willingness to make an effort to change, to make progress, to train our mind to pay attention to one thing at a time.

Try setting an intention at the start of each day

Setting an intention at the beginning of the day can greatly influence how we are and behave throughout the day. For example, when getting up, over breakfast or on our way to work, we can take a moment, breathe, and say to ourselves: “Today, I want to slow down, stay focused and pay attention to one thing at a time.” It helps raise our awareness to keep on track with how we want to be and behave moment by moment. The more we practice doing one thing at a time, the more likely we will form a new habit, one that allows us to stay focused regardless of what’s going on around us.

Top tips that support the change from being distracted to being focused at work:

  • Slow down when going from one meeting to the next
  • Catch yourself when engaging in several tasks at a time – do one thing at a time – finish one task before starting a new one.
  • Take regular short breaks to clear the mind and relax the body. Get out of the office for a short breather – step outside or walk around the block –changing scenery for just ten minutes can make a big difference to staying focused throughout the day.
  • Focus on your breath when doing daily activities. Notice your breath in your upper body, particularly in your chest and belly.
  • Connect with your colleague when making a cup of tea or in your lunch break and chit chat less at your desk.
  • Take your meeting outside. Holding a 1:1 or catch up outdoors while walking - getting out of the office into open space ignites our thinking and creativity, helps gain perspective and clear the mind.
  • Relax into a feeling of calm presence with other people, breathe and take them fully in.
  • Use routine events – such as the phone ringing, going to the toilet or drinking a glass of water or a cup of tea – as ‘temple bells’ to return to a sense of centeredness.
  • Have a regular lunch break – at least 30 minutes – away from your desk. Try going for a walk in your lunch break a few times a week – make it a weekly intention.
  • Tame your smartphone and disable needless notifications. Most of the time we don’t need to know about incoming emails and tweets.

What else supports our attention span at work?

Sleep. Struggling to pay attention to the task at hand when tired is like spurring an exhausted horse to keep running uphill. The average person is sleep-deprived, getting about an hour’s less sleep a day than the body really needs. ‘Enough’ sleep depends on each person’s nature and factors such as fatigue, illness, thyroid and levels of mood.

Posture. Rick Hanson’s Buddha’s Brain states that sitting in an erect posture provides internal feedback to the reticular formation – a mesh like network of nerves in the brain stem which is involved with wakefulness and consciousness, telling it that you need to stay vigilant and alert. A neurological reason behind school teacher’s demand to “sit up straight, class!” as well as the classic meditation instruction to sit upright in a dignified way.

Oxygen. Oxygen is to the nervous system as petrol is to a car. Our brain uses approximately 20% of our oxygen. By taking a few deep breaths several times a day between tasks, when going to the toilet, making a cup of tea or between meetings, we increase oxygen saturation in our blood and hence rev up our brain.

To train the mind, to stay focused at work is a discipline. We need to take responsibility to increase their self-awareness, to develop and self-manage more effectively. To train the mind, to practice mindfulness, is a tall task for many of us within the business of daily work life. However, each one of us can practice one or two of the above tips every day and with time change unhelpful habits into more fulfilling behaviour. Enjoy!

Karen Liebenguth

Life Coach and Mindfulness Trainer, Green Space Coaching

Karen Liebenguth is an experienced life coach, MBTI facilitator, accredited mindfulness teacher and certified Focusing practitioner. She offers coaching while walking in London’s parks and green space tapping into the benefits nature has on our psychological, emotional and physical well-being. She believes that it is in nature where reflection, insight and change can happen most naturally. Karen helps people deal better with stress and anxiety, find direction, feel more in charge of and confident about their life so that they can make long-lasting change and spend more time doing what most matters to them. Karen offers 1:1 mindfulness training as well as tailored mindfulness workshops and courses for the workplace to help staff better deal with stress and anxiety and to boost wellbeing. She uses Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Mindful Coaching, the Natural Learning Cycle, Compassionate Communication and Focusing. She is a member of the Association for Coaching, an accredited mindfulness teacher with and a qualified Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) facilitator.