Well-Being//

How to Focus at Work When You’re Going Through a Hard Time at Home

Tips to help you show up and stay present when your mind is elsewhere.

Nensuria/ Getty Images
Nensuria/ Getty Images

So many of us are still coping with the stress, anxiety, and grief that disrupted our lives last year, as well as with challenges that are unrelated to the pandemic: chronic illness, family drama, financial troubles, you name it. And yet while we manage the stressors in our personal lives, we still have an obligation to be present on Zoom calls, manage projects, and overall stay focused, excited, and productive. 

We asked our Thrive community to share the strategies that help them focus at work when they’re going through a challenging time. Which of these tips will you try?

Take time to journal

“My father passed away seven weeks ago. I took a week off work to be with my family, but during my first week back at work, I found it difficult to concentrate. On many days, I would burst into tears and lie in bed until I felt better. I lost many hours of work and felt really bad about missing deadlines. In the following weeks, one thing that helped me be present at work was journaling. Every time I felt overwhelmed, I would take out my journal and start writing about how I felt and what I needed to do to get back into the right frame of mind. At the end of each workday, I would share my journal entries with my close circle of friends. Though I still have a long way to go in this season of loss and healing, I feel more confident that I will be just fine.”

—Chiebuka Nwosu, content strategist, Lagos, Nigeria

Set boundaries with your working hours

“When I’m going through a challenging time, I enforce a ‘bo laptop after 6:30 pm rule.’ Working from home is convenient, but sometimes it makes the line between our personal and professional lives blurry.  What has helped me focus and stay productive is to say no to unreasonable asks and turn off the screen at a fixed time each evening. Instead of continuing to work, I log off and go for an evening walk to clear my mind. I also try to avoid my laptop over the weekends.”

—Bhakti Talati, resume writer, Mumbai, India

Try a 3-count breathing exercise 

“One strategy I use to feel present at work, no matter what might be going on in the background of my life, is to take regular breaks throughout the day to practice mindful breathing. I breathe in deeply through my nose, and hold for the count of three, and then slowly exhale from my mouth for the count of three, and then I hold my breath for the count of three. I repeat the process until I feel present and calm. I do this throughout the workday whenever I feel tension in my body, or when I find myself getting distracted or having repetitive thoughts and worries.” 

—Emily Madill, author and certified professional coach, Nanaimo, B.C., Canada

Carve out space for your feelings

“I am dealing with a lot of personal loss right now. To help realign and focus on my work, every evening I sit down and block off my time for the next day. I assign each block of time to tasks that give me the best return for my time and energy. I always make sure I give myself time for self-care, to either write in a journal or do yoga.  After this self-care time, I move onto the next block of time and tasks, and repeat the process. This helps to compartmentalize my life into small productive bursts, and it’s helped my productivity immensely while I grieve. It’s important to make space for your feelings.”

—Alison Fines, business consultant and writer, Vancouver, Canada

Turn off your Zoom camera

“If I’m having a terribly stressful day, I switch my camera off on Zoom. This doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to my meetings, but I find that it allows me to feel emotions without feeling the need to put on a ‘poker face’ when I’m not my happiest self. I also find that going on a walk and speaking to friends about the situation really helps.”

—Khiloni Shah, TX

Bookend your day with self-care

“In order to stay present at work while I’m going through a difficult time, I try to be intentional about starting and ending my day with self-care. Giving myself the freedom to start my day with a slow morning routine with a coffee in bed and ending it with a walk around the neighborhood without feeling guilty goes a long way.”

—Madison Anaya, CEO  and founder of The Fearless Chase, Houston, TX

Take a break to go for a walk

“If you’re going through a hard time and can’t focus on work, take a few minutes to shift your energy by moving your body and quieting your mind with a quick walk. I find that it’s important to validate that you’re going through a tough time, but also to remind yourself that you can get through it. Addressing your stress in this way can give you some immediate relief, clearing the way for you to concentrate on work. And once you do that, you may find that your challenge feels more manageable.”

—Denise Csaky, certified professional coach, Carlsbad, CA

Keep an empowering quote nearby

“This past year has been beyond challenging with both personal and professional implications, but one thing that has helped me stay inspired is to paste a quote that I can glance at throughout the work week. I like to introduce a new quote regularly, so each time I look up from my computer screen, I feel supported by the author. This week I’ve scribbled ‘Choose courage over comfort’ by Brene Brown, and next week I’ll tape up another. It’s a small tip that keeps me grounded on a difficult day.”

—Marta Rzeszowska Chavent, management and change consultant, France

Play with your pet in between calls

“I find that some days during the pandemic are harder than others. I had a difficult day recently, and a Zoom meeting was coming up, so I found my dog, buried my face in his fur, and spent a few minutes petting him before the meeting began. It worked wonders and now I do it all the time. Dogs are always in the present and they never worry. It can rub off on you. A quick pet break in between calls can help you refocus when you’re having a difficult day.”

—Dena Lefkowitz, lawyer coach, Media, PA

Ask for time off if needed

“In the past year, I have experienced multiple losses and illness cases in my family. Not being able to be physically with them brought me even more stress on top of the feelings of grief and worry. To cope with these challenging feelings, I asked for time off from work. I requested a few days a month, so it would not impact my team, and also scheduled regular breaks to check in on my family and do a meditation together. Taking care of myself has helped boost my productivity during this time.”

—Renata Gomide, strategy and consulting, Carmel, CA

Write down what’s on your mind

“When I’m going through a difficult time, I find that talking about the issue is the best medicine. Given that I can’t always talk it out with a close friend at that particular moment, I’ve taken the habit of writing letters that will never be sent, where I write down everything that is bothering me, and come up with a to-do-list to resolve the issue. Sometimes, when I don’t feel like writing, I switch on the recorder on my smartphone and talk about the issue as if I were talking to a friend. Those unsent letters and recordings always lighten the burden. I genuinely feel relieved afterward, and can carry on with my day being fully present.”

—Priscilla R.A., freelance translator and globetrotter, Paris, France

Make time for what brings you joy

“For a certain time period, I give myself ‘permission’ to focus on something other than the crisis that’s on my mind. I know that by doing something I enjoy — and that happens to be my work — it will create more positive energy for me, and this allows me to be more resilient.”

—Kristin Meekhof, author and platform consultant. Royal Oak, MI

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