How to Focus When You Can't Focus

A desk with a computer, a lamp, and a messy stack of books.

You’re trying to get work done but you just can’t. Maybe it’s a loud neighbor. Construction noise. An annoying task. Or, it’s just one of those days.

All of these variables can lead to distraction and make you lose focus. 

If you’re having one of those hard-to-focus days, we hear you. But try not to beat yourself up about it or write off the day as a lost cause. Even monks lose their ability to focus now and then!

While we can’t always control the noise levels of our coworkers or neighbors, and we can’t always guarantee that we’ll stay focused and energized throughout the day, we can set ourselves up for success with the right tools and systems. 

From managing your time, to doing productivity sprints, and setting up your workspace, here are some tips to help you focus and get back into the groove. 

Think like a project manager 

Project managers have to take care of a million different things. They have to stay on top of details, deadlines, and budgets, while also regularly checking-in with team members and keeping them apprised of developments. Here’s how you can channel your inner project manager to stay focused on big tasks. 

Use a project management tool. So how do project managers keep so many balls in the air? They don’t rely on their internal will power and focus alone. They use external systems and tools to help them stay focused and productive. Maybe it’s a digital tool like Asana or Trello. Or an analog tool like a dashboard pad.

Breakdown big projects into small components. Project managers break down big projects into smaller, doable parts. So if you’re dreading doing a home organization task, think of it as a project and break it down into smaller pieces. For example, instead of setting out to clean and organize your entire house, organize the project by room. Maybe one week you’ll tackle your bedroom, the next week your bathroom, the next your living room, so forth and so on.

Take inventory

What if you're having trouble focusing because you’re not sure what to focus on? In this case, break out your notebook and start taking stock of the things that you need to do.

Now, if you find that your list is miles long, then it’s time to start narrowing in on what’s truly important and urgent

Ask yourself: 

  • What needs to be done today? And what can wait until tomorrow or even next week?
  • Is this task serving someone else? Or is this serving my goals and priorities?

It may seem like it at the time, but not everything can be regarded as a priority. And what’s important and urgent for someone else, may not necessarily be important and urgent for you. So take some time upfront to determine what is truly a priority. You can use the Eisenhower Matrix to help you assess. 

Next, go through your list and put a star next to the top 3 items that you want to focus on today. These 3 tasks will be your main focus areas and will deserve your attention and energy. If you end up having free time leftover, then, gauging your energy levels, attend to the remaining items on your list.

Establish a focus ritual 

Freelancers and work-from-homers know just how hard it can be trying to focus in the same space as where you live. Whether it’s using your bed as a work desk or your dining table for your zoom meetings, the work-from-home environment doesn’t exactly conjure calm and productive vibes. 

But one thing you can do to get yourself into the right headspace is establish a focus ritual.

In this podcast interview, writer Ruth Ware says that doing something as simple as lighting a candle before you write, can help set up your space for work. 

This ritual is a small, but effective way to help us transition from personal mode to business mode. It signals to our brain: it’s time to clock in and get down to work.

If you don’t have a separate office space or desk, try creating a focus nook for yourself. Maybe it’s a small rug or a cozy blanket or a framed inspirational quote. It’s a little object that helps demarcate your workspace and serve as a visual reminder that this is a place to focus and work.

Set aside time for recess 

Adults should take a cue from elementary school kids and schedule recess into their work days. 

There’s a reason that recess is such an essential part of the school day. Kids can play around, have fun, and release their bottled-up energy. And most importantly, recess gives their bodies and minds a much-needed break. 

This also applies to grown-ups. We can’t be in focus-mode all the time. You need to give yourself breaks throughout the day and let your mind wander. 

Give yourself a recess break to…

  • Walk around the neighborhood
  • Color in your coloring book
  • Play with legos
  • Sit outside in the sun 

You could also use this time to indulge in your distraction of choice. Let yourself watch some TikTok videos, go through boards on Pinterest, read the news.

Instead of trying to ban every single distraction from your life, it’s about being realistic about your needs. And by giving yourself structured time for breaks or distractions, you can let off some steam and then get back into work-mode. 

Have a productivity sprint

If you can’t seem to get any words on the page or declutter your closet or get anything done, then add some urgency to your task by setting a timer.

Writing sprint: For 15 minutes, try to write as much as you can without worrying about typos or word choice or even grammar. The point is just to get as much done in that limited amount of time.

Cleaning sprint: Set a timer for thirty minutes and clean an area in your house. So if it’s the bathroom, then clean as much as you can in that timeframe. Wipe the mirror. Clean the floors. Scrub the toilet. Empty the trash bin. Or, choose an overwhelming task and put a dent in it for 30 minutes only. For example, decluttering your closet or shredding paper clutter. The mountain of work will reduce over time. 

These productivity sprints are a great way to rein in your focus. When you know that you’re being timed, you’ll be less likely to succumb to procrastination or strive for perfectionism. And you’ll be surprised by just how much you can get done in a short amount of time.

Written by JiJi Lee.

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