We’ve all struggled to focus at work at one point or another—we’re only human, after all. But, sometimes having trouble concentrating might be because of something bigger than just our incessant phone notifications or a poor night's sleep.
If you’re struggling with longer periods of brain-fog, it’s important to understand the why. Why are you having trouble focusing?
Let’s explore some of the top reasons that cause difficulty concentrating at work, and the ways you can reduce stress and improve your work productivity.
Reason #1: You’re trying to do the impossible—multitasking
Many of us have claimed to be masters of juggling multiple tasks at once. Well, what if we told you that what you’re actually doing is called “task switching”, and it is having major effects on your attention span.
Task switching is the act of shifting focus from one task to another, quickly and often. And, every time you do it, you’re actually falling victim to the “switch cost effect”. This effect suggests that every time you switch tasks, you're losing a lot of mental energy (and time) shifting and re-shifting your focus back and forth.
Further research shows that the time it takes to refocus on your primary work due to small, temporary task shifts, can cause you to lose up to 40% of your day’s productive work time.
So, what can you do to minimise it and improve concentration?
Set specific time blocks to check your emails
Email inbox management is tough. But, it’s possible that continuous email-checking is doing more harm than good.
Research shows that the average worker can spend up to 28% of their work week checking emails alone. That’s a lot of task switching and lost focus. To combat this, try and set aside dedicated blocks of time to check your emails, and focus on this single task completely.
Put “do not disturb” times into your calendar
Although they seem harmless, quick “pop-in” chats can become productivity hurdles if not managed correctly.
If you’re finding a lot of your day is broken up by “quick” questions or last minute meetings, it may be worth incorporating “do not disturb” times into your work day.
Some ways to do this include:
- Changing your active status on your organisation’s communication platform (e.g. Teams, Slack, etc.)
- Blocking out your availability on your calendar
- Displaying some form of ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign or symbol on your desk or door.
Reason #2: You're avoiding the monster in the office closet
No job is 100% perfect 100% of the time. We all have at least one difficult task that we don’t like to do. For some, however, this dislike can grow into dread, and lead to severe procrastination.
According to the Cognitive Load Theory, when we avoid tough situations at work, it’s often because we have a fear of failure or inadequacy tied to that task. This is because we can’t draw from our long term memory and easily “autopilot” through the work. Instead, we have to rely on our much smaller, short-term working memory, which requires more cognitive effort and can cause discomfort and frustration.
This frustration often leads to ‘procrastinatory cognitions’— thoughts that lead us to try and minimise our experience of these negative feelings by avoiding the task that’s triggering them (AKA procrastination). The temporary relief we receive from procrastinating, however, usually grows into anxiety over the unfinished task, leading to more overall workplace stress.
So, how can you break this negative feedback loop?
Tackle the tasks you hate most, first
Don’t let the dread of doing certain tasks fester throughout your work-week and lead to poor time management. Draw on your time management skills and tackle these tasks first to cross them off your to-do list. This way, you'll have the ability to concentrate on the more enjoyable tasks of your job, guilt-free.
Although procrastinating offers you some relief, this reward is short-lived and can quickly morph into anxiety. Be mindful of the shortfalls of this temporary sense of reward, and instead, aim to create longer-term positive associations to these tasks.
A great way to do this is to give yourself a more substantial reward after accomplishing tasks you dislike. This way, you can condition yourself to prioritise finishing these tasks, to “earn” these more satisfying rewards.
Reason #3: You feel like you're lacking purpose
According to a study conducted by BetterUp, 9 in 10 workers would take a pay cut in exchange for participating in more purposeful work. Across the board, job satisfaction research shows that having a sense of meaning at work translates into higher levels of engagement.
So, if you don’t understand why your role is important within the larger context of the business, you may be experiencing a sense of detachment to your work, resulting in a lack of focus.
To help you navigate this, you could:
Speak to your manager and understand the context of your role
Sometimes, all you need is a little bit of clarity about your role. To get the ball rolling, book an informal chat with your manager to discuss your role and its position within the wider team.
Some questions you can ask include:
- What’s the primary goal of my role?
- Who’s above me, below me and lateral to me within the organisation’s ecosystem?
- Who should I be collaborating with to thrive in my role?
Ask for a role review
Sometimes we outgrow our roles, or our interests within the business shift. If you think this might be the case for you, it may be time to have a more in-depth discussion with your manager/s about your position within the company.
Some questions you can ask yourself prior to a role review meeting include:
- What is it about my current role that I like/dislike?
- Is there another role or aspect within the business that has caught my interest?
- Where are my current skills and where would I like them to grow?
Having the answers to these questions will help you understand what you want out of your role review, and will help structure your discussion with your boss.
Reason #4: You’re more than "just tired"
We’ve all had days where we feel tired and disengaged from our work. For some of us, this can be remedied by a few nights of more sleep. For others, this feeling of exhaustion runs a lot deeper, and it’s called burnout.
Burnout is the consequence of long-term, unmanaged workplace stress. It takes a significant toll on your workplace performance, along with your mental health and physical wellbeing too. If you’re feeling constantly disengaged, and have low energy levels, your work-life balance could be the issue. Some ways you can begin to address this, include:
Prioritise quality sleep (emphasis on the quality)
Sleep deprivation goes hand-in-hand with burnout. Long-term lack of sleep can lead to a drop in brain cells and a “thinning out” of our brain’s grey matter—the stuff in our brain that allows us to critically think and make decisions.
If work anxiety is making it hard to “switch off”, you may be having low quality sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, we should be aiming for 7-9 quality hours of sleep per night. To help make this possible, you can:
- Avoid all stimulants (energy drinks, coffee, alcohol, etc.) 4-6 hours before bed
- Put an end to screen time 2 hours before bed
- Establish a night-time routine that helps you wind down and signal to your body it’s time to rest
- Go to bed and wake up at similar times every day
Talk with your manager and delegate
If you’re suffering from burnout, something at work needs to change. Talking to your manager and making them aware is the first step in putting boundaries in place that should help you feel more supported.
One such boundary might be your workload. Discuss your delegation options with your manager and wider team to try and come to a more reasonable compromise of work output expectations.
Make time to strictly “do you”
When experiencing burnout, work can feel like a constant pressure at the back of your mind. If you’re finding your daily life revolves completely around work, it’s time to start prioritising “you” time.
Having dedicated time to switch off from your job is imperative to reducing stress and recharging your energy. Without this time, you’ll always feel like you're working with only half a tank of motivation.
Depending on whether you’re a morning or evening person, try and do one small thing each day that allows you to invest your attention into something completely unrelated to your job. From cooking your favourite meal to going for a walk with your friend, nothing is “too” insignificant to make a difference.
Sometimes, to improve focus all we need is the discipline to turn the phone over. However, occasionally, it’s something more. In these cases, it’s important to lean on your support network or explore mental health services to help identify and work through the issue, before it becomes a bigger beast.
Developing your ability to internally reflect and mentally reset is a huge part of being able to recognise and combat the reasons behind work-focus difficulty. So, are you ready to be at the top of your focus-game at work?
Learn more about incorporating mindfulness into your daily work life.