Can’t Focus at Work? Here’s What to Do.

can't focus at work

You’ve got a million tabs open, you’re constantly refreshing Twitter, and you can’t stop texting your friends about the annual weekend ski trip. The problem? You’re at work. When you’ve got a lengthy to-do list but can’t focus at work, it isn’t just annoying — it’s detrimental to your job. 

According to a study by polling agency Maru/Blue, the average office worker loses up to two hours per day in productivity due to distractions. Meanwhile, the cost of distractions from email, instant messaging, and other interruptions is reported at $588-billion USD each year

While some studies suggest that humans now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, other indicators show we’re becoming more selective in what we choose to focus on in response to the firehose of content and stimuli we face each day. 

Here’s why so many of us can’t focus at work — and exactly what you can do about it. 

Why you can’t focus at work and how to deal with it

Reason #1: You don’t know where to start 

Staring at your evergrowing to-do list and then deciding to just watch American Idol auditions on YouTube makes sense from an evolutionary point of view: it’s easier. Trying to decide which task to work on when there are countless options can paralyze even the most organized project manager. 

There’s a big reason for why we’re so distracted in this day and age. “What’s important for modern humans and society has changed, and it’s now instinctively hard to recognize and prioritize,” Psychology Today explains. ”Our attention problem is due to both a lack of focus and focus on the wrong things.”

A key part of a project manager’s day-to-day job is prioritizing projects, tasks, and their teams’ time. If you can’t focus because you don’t know where to start, you may need to build your prioritization skills.

How to focus: 

There are several proven methods that can help you prioritize and, in doing so, recalibrate your focus. 

  1. Centralize and analyze your work: How often do you look at all of your ongoing tasks as a whole? Lay them all out, leaving nothing behind, so you can get a comprehensive overview of everything on your plate. Doing so can give you fresh perspective on what’s actually important right now and what can wait. Are your tasks scattered across different apps? Unito can help you out, by syncing all of your tasks and projects into the tool of your choice. 
  2. Do the easiest task first: See that low-hanging fruit? Go to town on it. By starting with the easiest task, you give yourself a quick win that can provide momentum and boost motivation for your more challenging tasks. 
  3. Consider the ROI: It’s hard to focus when you don’t understand why you should be focusing. Recognizing the return on investment of tasks and projects can help prioritize those most important to the business, and give you something tangible to focus on. 

For a more detailed look at these steps, check out our post How to Prioritize: A Complete Guide to Getting Your Most Important Work Done.

Knowing what you should be working on is a huge step towards regaining your focus. A second step should probably be closing all the tabs that aren’t related to that singular task…  

Reason #2: Multitasking is backfiring  

From those countless open tabs (Yeah, we see you tab hoarders!) to the multiple ‘urgent’ projects that get thrown your way each day, multi-tasking always seems like a good idea until it’s 5pm and you’ve accomplished nothing. 

While you might think that you’re being clever by chipping away at everything simultaneously, this constant switching of gears is actually decreasing your focus and efficiency. A Carnegie Mellon University study found that most people average only three minutes on a task before switching to another, dubbed “context switching.” 

According to computer scientist and author Gerald Weinberg, when you juggle up to 5 different tasks at the same time, you’re losing 80% of your productivity. Yikes.

How to focus: 

Instead of trying to work on everything at once, dedicate all of your attention to a single task at a time. To do so, consider using the one task method or the Pomodoro technique. 

The one task method

The one task method asks you to “take one task from your to-do list and make that the only thing you plan to accomplish that day. The goal of the one task method is not to do less work; it’s about doing the same amount of work — and maybe more — with less stress.” 

Instead of trying to write a project brief, assign a task to your design team, and answer a pressing email, choose a single task to work on. 

To implement the one task method, all you have to do is: 

  1. Open your to-do list.
  2. Prioritize urgent tasks.
  3. Pick one task.
  4. Break off a smaller, more manageable chunk of that task to work on.

The Pomodoro technique

Like the one task method, the Pomodoro technique has users focus on a single task rather than multitasking. The main difference is the set time limit. With the Pomodoro technique, you set a timer for 25 minutes and work nonstop on one task, followed by a five-minute break. No looking at your phone, getting a fresh cup of coffee, or chatting with your coworkers for that dedicated 25-minute period. 

This helps with focus, as we explain in our blog post, because “you’re giving yourself a defined beginning and endpoint for each task.” It’s much easier to pay attention to a task when you know there’s a set time limit and built-in breaks. Distractions are limited during your moments of focus because you know you’ve got designated time to check Slack or do a few quick stretches after your work sprint. 

Reason #3: Your space is a distraction 

The modern open office at your new job initially seemed like a benefit, but when you’re dodging side-of-desk requests, lengthy kitchen conversations, and trying not to eavesdrop on the two department managers arguing behind you, it’s hard to really focus on your work. Open offices represent 70% of all U.S offices, yet research suggests open office distractions reduce employee focus anywhere from 15% to 28%

Not only that, but people working in open offices are twice as likely to get sick. It’s hard to focus on your work when your nose is leaking onto your keyboard. 

Environmental distractions don’t just happen in an open office, though. If you’re a freelancer or remote worker who magically feels the need to clean your house every day, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s all too easy to lose focus on your work when you can see a pile of laundry that needs to get done, your pet wants to snuggle, or your cutlery drawer can’t go another minute without being reorganized. 

Thankfully, a distracting environment is one of the easiest challenges to fix when it comes to regaining your focus. 

How to focus: 

Although it might be hard to say goodbye to that mid-morning, desk-side gossip session, it’s time to set some boundaries with your coworkers. 

There are the verbal boundaries, such as a discussion where you specifically outline why you need quiet, uninterrupted, head-down productivity time. You can also share this in an email if you believe that will resonate better with your recipients, or if you have a larger group you need to communicate your request to. 

If you’d rather not have to outline your boundaries so specifically, you can always turn to your reliable headphones. Even if you have nothing at all playing (guilty as charged), wearing your earbuds signals to the world that you are not currently accepting distractions. When it comes to a generally noisy office, turn those headphones on and play music that allows you to concentrate. As a writer, I personally find that instrumental or foreign-language songs work best as I’m not distracted by trying to sing along in my head. Use whatever drowns out the noise while allowing you to maintain focus. 

Boundaries are also important when your workplace is your home 

  • Ensure you have a dedicated workspace. Whether it’s a dedicated desk or the kitchen table, be extra clear with yourself and others that when you sit there you are “in the office.” 
  • Get dressed. It sounds simple, but getting out of your pajamas and into ‘normal’ clothes can help put you in a focused working mindset. Pajamas and sweatpants usually signal relaxation and down-time. Consider changing into clothes that you wouldn’t mind wearing in a work meeting or on a surprise video conference call. 
  • Set designated working hours. Just like in any other office, it’s important to have dedicated working hours. This really helps to separate your work and personal lives. If that pile of laundry waiting to be folded is bugging you at 10am, just remind yourself that these are work hours. Your clothes can wait until 5pm. 
  • Sort out childcare. Just because you are home, doesn’t mean you’re able (or should be expected) to be a full-time parent while there. Imagine trying to get any work done while Baby Shark is blasting from the room next door. For parents, this step is crucial when it comes to focus and productivity. 

When you can’t focus at work, every little task can feel like a gigantic undertaking. Take the time to prioritize your work, eliminate multitasking, and create a comfortable working environment. Regain your focus, and watch your to-do list shrink.