Wisdom//

How to Get Back On Track When You’re Struggling to Focus

In-the-moment strategies that help us stay productive on the days where we feel distracted.

Vichie81/ Shutterstock
Vichie81/ Shutterstock

We’ve all had days where we try to focus on our work, but our brain is in a million other places. Luckily, there are steps we can take to get back on track — no matter how desperately we seek distractions. We talk all about this topic in our new book, Your Time to Thrive, and provide actionable tips and takeaways that can help you course-correct in the moment.

We asked our Thrive community to share their own Microsteps that help them get back on track when they struggle to focus. Which of these tips will you try?

Put your phone on Airplane Mode

“If I am ever struggling to focus and need to meet a deadline, I switch my cell phone to Airplane Mode for one hour. It is amazing how productive we can be without getting distracted by all of the incoming social media pings and Whatsapp messages flashing on our screens.”

—Marcio Delgado, producer and influencer marketing campaign manager, London, U.K.

Try deep breathing

“When I can’t focus, I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Simply listening to the breath going in and out is generally enough to bring my focus back to what I am doing.”

—Amanda Renwick, HR and change specialist, Johannesburg, South Africa

Snooze your Slack notifications

“Many days, I have multiple projects I’m working on. In order to avoid feeling overwhelmed and focus my attention on the priority, I will write down a master list of items in my notebook and snooze my Slack notifications for a period of time to complete the most important tasks on the list without distractions.”

—Kate MacLean, PR manager, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Set a 20-minute timer

“When I am tired or procrastinating, I ask myself to identify the task that would have the biggest impact. Then, I get myself a cup of coffee, play some music, and set a timer for 20 minutes. I find that when I struggle to focus, it’s the process of getting started that is the most difficult, so most times I’ll keep working even after the 20 minutes is over. But if I don’t, that’s OK too, because I have always made more progress than I expected.”

—Marie Ferris, executive coach, Belfast, Northern Ireland

Give yourself compassion

“One Microstep that helps me to get back on track when I can’t focus is telling myself that it’s OK. It’s OK to be tired, sleepy, not in the mood, or have low energy. Quite soon after accepting that it’s OK, I seem to find some focus again. I tend to go for achieving only one little thing on days when I feel this way. If I feel like doing more after that, that’s great. If not, it’s simply OK. When I inevitably forget that it’s OK not to be super productive all of the time, I ask my partner to remind me, and he always does! Being kinder is way more productive than being hard on ourselves.”

—Ria Gor, content creator and productive designer, Warwick, U.K.

Take a movement break

“My favorite thing to do when I need to refocus is to get moving. I start by going on a short walk. Simply being in motion makes my body feel better and my mind seems to clear up. By the time I get back to work, I usually have great new ideas and solutions.”

—Isabelle Bart, social entrepreneur, Orange County, CA

Write a realistic to-do list

“I write a to-do list of everything I want to do, then rip out a new page and write a list of everything I actually have to do that day. I get really anxious and overzealous about getting from point A to point B. It sometimes takes me writing down to see that I’m putting too much on my plate. Writing this realistic list helps me regain my focus and stay on track, which allows time for the tasks I actually want to spend time on at a later date.”

—Courtney Dercqu, writer and social media manager, Marlton, N.J.

Take a shower to clear your mind

“I generally turn to deep breathing or taking a walk when I can’t focus, but if these strategies fail, I pause what I am doing, and take a shower. I shower away the stress and mind fog, and come back to my desk refreshed and more focused.”

—Amanda Renwick, HR and change specialist, Johannesburg, South Africa

Pause to help someone else 

“I always keep a full plate of projects and easily get distracted with shiny new opportunities. I implement several Microsteps each day to stay focused, but my favorite is implying stopping and doing something for someone else. A mitzvah! I intentionally think about who I can connect with to help further their vision. It brings such joy to that person and to myself. It makes me feel empowered, and then helps me focus on moving my own vision forward.”

—Catherine Gray, founder of She Angel Investors and podcast host, Los Angeles, CA

Divide your tasks into a “call/ do/ see” format

“I maintain focus by waking up early and writing out my daily agenda with the basic format of ‘call/ do/ see.’  I date the page and add the routine activities of daily living, including hygiene, nutrition, fitness, and a daily affirmation, before settling my mind on the calls and emails I need to attend to. This list establishes the important things that matter, and if I don’t get to all of them with a check-off, I roll the item over into the next day. This strategy saves me from the wasteful practices of worry, doing only what I want to do or de-railing important plans with distractions and interruptions from myself or others.”

—Dr. Sharon M. Cadiz, Long Island City, Queens, N.Y.

Revisit your goal list

“When I am feeling overwhelmed or out of focus, I re-read the goal list that I have written out and pinned to my office wall. It reminds me of my daily priorities and allows me to get centered on the small steps needed to accomplish them. Plus, it gives me permission to move aside or say ‘no’ to other tasks and projects that are not helping me to achieve my goals.”

—Dayna Lapkovsky, founder of the frank-talk.com, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Take a mindful break and immerse yourself in a “Meditative Story” here.

Follow us here and subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

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