What to Do When You’re Feeling Distracted at Work

We all struggle with focus. But these 8 steps can help you get back on track.

Sometimes there’s so much going on in your life and the broader world that you can’t focus. How can you get back to feeling productive?

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We must better understand the impact that distractions have on our brains.

Feeling distracted and unproductive is something most people struggle with, says Susan David, founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching. Especially because most of us are constantly bombarded by news alerts, text messages and other interruptions.

And even on days when you might feel industrious you have to contend with what’s going on with your co-workers.

To overcome this and regain your focus, take the following steps:

1. Understand the dangers of multitasking

Start by understanding the impact that distractions have on your brain. When you need to focus your mind, you tap into the direct attention network of brain structures that allows you to put aside ruminations and stay on the task in front of you.

Distractions pull you out of that mode, with a high cognitive cost.

“Some research shows it can take up to 10-18 minutes to get the same level of attention back,” says Rich Fernandez, CEO of the nonprofit Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute.

2. Allow for your emotional response, but stay in charge

Feeling overwhelmed can bring up a lot of emotions, which take a further toll on your productivity. To regain a sense of agency David suggests labeling your feelings and then asking yourself questions about them.

So you might say, “OK, I’m feeling angry, but who’s in charge? The anger or me, the person having the emotion?”

3. Gather your attention

When you do find yourself distracted, “pause, take stock, be aware that you’re triggered,” says Fernandez. “Then switch the spotlight of your attention.” To reconnect with the logical part of your brain, focus it on “something more immediate or visceral, like your breath.”

4. Rely on your values

Once you’ve gathered your attention, you can choose where to focus it. David says that concentrating on your values gives you a sense of control. Consider how your lack of focus is affecting your sense of self.

“If fairness is important to you, how is your distraction contributing to your ability to be fair?” David says.

5. Put up boundaries

Once you have more awareness about what distracts you, set rules for yourself. If you realize that checking news in the morning means that you’re upset and unfocused when you get to the office, tell yourself that you won’t catch up on world events until lunchtime.

6. Choose who you interact with wisely

Social contagion is real. If you have colleagues who are constantly distracted themselves or who tend to pull you away from work, try to spend less time with them.

7. Give and get support from your colleagues

You could also try to encourage each other to stay focused. Make a pact with your co-workers.

Set up a time during which you will work without interrupting each other or getting on social media or Slack. “Your peers are in the trenches with you and they can relate because they’re in the same culture and organization,” says Fernandez.

8. Take care of your body

If you’re tired and strung out, you’re going to be more vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed, says David. It’s important to get enough sleep and exercise.

This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

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Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review.

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