What to Do When Feeling Distracted at Work

Sometimes there’s so much going on in our life, and the world, that one just can’t focus. Feeling distracted and unproductive is something most people struggle with, says Susan David, author of Emotional Agility. Even on days when one feels industrious, one may contend with what’s going on with his/her co-workers. So, what can one do if every time sitting down at the work desk one feels distracted? Below mentioned are some steps that would help to overcome this and regain focus:

 
Understand the dangers of multitasking
Start by understanding the impact that distractions, like a constantly pinging phone or quick Twitter break, have on our brain. Research shows that it can take up to 18 minutes to reach to the same level of attention. Rich Fernandez, CEO of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a global mindfulness and emotional intelligence training organization, explains that we have a network of brain structures related to focus. The default mode network is responsible for analyzing the past, forecasting or planning the future, and reflecting on oneself as well as others. And the direct attention network allows us to focus our mind, while putting aside ruminations and staying on task. Distractions, in whatever form they emerge, pull us into default mode, and the cognitive cost of regaining focus is high. That’s why it’s critical to reduce interruptions.

Allow for your emotional response, but stay in charge
Feeling overwhelmed can bring up a lot of emotions — frustration, anger, anxiety — that further take a toll on one’s productivity. One needs to “break the cycle,” so one doesn’t remain at the mercy of the events going on in the world or in the office. For example, one could self-question and analyse, “OK, I’m feeling angry, but who’s in charge — the anger or me? Though, it is important to acknowledge the feelings that are there — they’re legitimate and significant — but at the same time one should not get swept away by them.

Gather your attention
When one does find themselves distracted, it is important to pause, take stock, and be aware that one is getting triggered. Most of the things we worry about or get distracted by aren’t immediate threats. It is essential to be bring focus to something more immediate things like breathing, by telling oneself, “I’m becoming consumed by social media posts, I’m going to pay attention to my breathing”. This is not the same as stifling, suppressing or ignoring the distraction, but instead acknowledging it, and putting it away to think about later.

Rely on your values
Once we’ve gathered our attention, we can choose where to focus it and concentrating on our values will give us a sense of control. When overwhelmed, it feels like a lot of power and choices are being taken away from us. But one still gets to choose who he/she wants to be. So, it is important to focus on the core values and consider how the lack of focus is affecting one’s sense of self. This will greatly help in getting back on track, and gaining control.

Put up boundaries
Once we are more aware about what distracts us, we need to set ourselves rules. For example, if one realizes that they are spending too much time on Facebook, they can control how much time they spend on it, and decide that they are going to get a certain amount of work done before going to Facebook. One has to work towards deliberate focus by spending time in training the brain to stay on task.

Choose whom you interact with wisely
Social contagion is real. This is true for productivity too. If one has colleagues who are themselves constantly distracted, or who tend to pull others away from work, try to spend less time with them. One doesn’t have to be rude, but can say something simple like, “Can we continue this conversation later? I want to get this report done and then take a break.”

Give and get support from your colleagues
Instead of avoiding colleagues who are distracted, one can even try to encourage each other to stay focused. Make a pact with co-workers, set up a time where one will work without interrupting each other or without getting on social media. Make a commitment to one another that you’re going to change a habit and check in regularly on your progress. When you tell someone else that you want to reform your ways, you’re more likely to follow through.

Take care of your body
If you’re tired and worn out, you’re going to be more vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed. It’s important to get enough sleep and exercise. Making tiny tweaks in your environment can improve your well-being – Taking breaks, eating a healthy lunch, putting the phone on silent.

The team at Actuate Business Consulting, a knowledge-based management consulting firm in India, believes, that by utilizing the aforementioned steps, one can identify what distracts them at work, and train the brain to work towards changing it for regaining focus. To summarize, let’s remember multitasking doesn’t work and has high cognitive costs. When one feels distracted, use a simple breathing exercise to break the immediate cycle of anxiety and frustration. Acknowledge those feelings, but don’t get swept up in them. Think about how you want to act as a colleague or as a leader and let that self-image guide your behavior. Be sure to set clear boundaries, about when you will go on social media or check emails. Be mindful of whom you spend time with – because of social contagion, colleagues who are overwhelmed and distracted are likely to make you feel the same way. Try to make your relationships supportive – ask co-workers for advice and commit to keeping each other on task. Finally, don’t neglect self-care.

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