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How to Focus: 5 Ways to Overcome Distractions at Work

How to Focus: 5 Ways to Overcome Distractions at Work

When I was a sophomore in college, I developed a terrible
addiction to Facebook. By the time finals week arrived, I
couldn’t go 30 minutes without a dose of dog videos.

I was officially distracted. And after a week of all-nighters,
I realized my attention span was inferior to a squirrel’s.

Checking my RescueTime[1]
dashboard confirmed that I could only concentrate on
distracting videos … and not my books. I had spent 50% of the
week on Facebook, which means I could’ve actually slept before
each exam. Why couldn’t I focus on my studies during the most
critical time of the school year?

Distractions can infest any place of work. They might seem tiny
in the grand scheme of things, but when compounded together,
they can ravage your productivity. In fact, entire
companies lose 31 hours per week
[2] to
attention-sucking activities. That’s like losing the
contributions of a whole employee.

Fortunately, I’ve researched some science-backed tips for
maintaining focus, interviewed HubSpot employees about their
concentration habits, and fleshed out the deepest insights in
this blog post. So take a look at these five productivity hacks
to effectively overcome distractions and stay laser-focused at
work.

How to Focus at Work: 5 Productivity Hacks

1) Plan the work day around one main project.

Do you “eat the
frog” first thing in the morning
[3]? Or
do you just plop it on your desk and let it fester, reminding
you that the worst part of the day is still yet to come?

Prioritizing your main project ahead of lesser tasks on
your to-do list is crucial for productivity.
Humans possess
a cognitive bias towards completing as many tasks as
possible
[4] — because
regardless of magnitude, finishing something always feels
amazing.

This is why we tend to work on a lot of easy, short tasks
first, while putting our main project on the back burner.

Crossing things off your list is addicting. But don’t give into
the temptation of completing the simple tasks first. Since
they’re short and quick, you can easily finish them at the end
of the day. Your major tasks have much more pressing deadlines
and require a lot of time and effort. So do the big tasks first
to avoid scrambling through them last minute.

Jami Oetting, who manages HubSpot’s content strategy team,
plans her week out so she can eat the frog every morning.

“I start the week listing off all my priorities prior to my
team’s weekly stand-up meeting on Monday. This is my time to
consider all the projects the team is working on, what needs to
get done by the end of the week, and how I could be most
effective,” she says. “Then, I map out the tasks that need more
focus or larger chunks of time to accomplish. After
prioritizing this list, I’ll block off time on my calendar to
accomplish one ‘big’ project each morning.”

Your brain’s peak
performance period starts two hours after you wake
up
[5], and lasts
until lunch time. So why waste these optimal morning hours on
things you could do in your sleep?

The end of the day is also the worst time for doing
meaningful work.
You’ve already exhausted your daily
energy on an assortment of trivial tasks. So when it’s time to
chip away at your main project, you’ll either drown in
complacency completing it or put if off until the next day,
repeating a vicious cycle of procrastination.

2) Block the obvious distractions for greater focus.

Your phone buzzes. A new like on Instagram! Did the picture get
as many likes on Facebook? You click to open a new tab. The
funniest Chevy ad
spoof
[6] is the
first post on your newsfeed. This is must-see content.

20 minutes later, you’re reading an article about Mark
Zuckerberg running for president when your manager walks by
your desk. Which reminds you … your blog post is due tomorrow.
And all you’ve written is the meta description.

Does this sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone because it
happens to everyone. It’s also the reason why it takes 23
minutes for people to refocus on their original task after an
interruption
[7].
Distractions breed more distractions.

So right when you walk into the office, throw your phone in
your desk drawer and keep it there all day. Lock it up if you
can. And download a site blocker like Block
Site
[8] or StayFocusd[9] to
restrict access from all the websites that veer you off the
path of productivity.

Even email, which is supposed to streamline the day, sidetracks
you. In fact, we spend 20.5
hours of our work week reading and answering emails
[10].
That’s half of our work week! So if an uptick in unread emails
always seems to lure you away from your current task, don’t
open your Gmail tab in the morning.

Remember, unless it’s an absolute emergency, you can respond to
anyone’s email within a few hours. So designate time blocks for
internal communication. This way, you can channel your
undivided attention on a major project and slash the time
wasted switching from one task to another.

Sophia Bernazzani, a staff writer for HubSpot’s Marketing Blog,
blocks off time for both email and Slack to maintain her
concentration throughout the day.

“It’s impossible to focus if I have too many incoming
notifications. So I commit to only answering emails at the
beginning and end of my day,” she says. “I also set myself as
offline on Slack and snooze my notifications to minimize
distractions when I’m working and save them for when I’m taking
a break between tasks.”

3) Take short breaks.

Do you pride yourself on lunch being your only break? Do you
believe allocating the rest of your attention on work is the
only way to achieve optimal productivity?

Well, according to researchers at the University of Illinois,
constantly
working without a break actually hampers concentration over
time
[11]. Taking
short breaks throughout the day is what sustains your focus.

“Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as
unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our
awareness,” says Alejandro Lieras, the experiment’s leader.
“And if sustained attention to a sensation makes that sensation
vanish from our awareness, sustained attention to a thought
should also lead to that thought’s disappearance from our
mind!”

Lieras describes a psychological tendency called habituation[12]. An
example of this is putting your shirt on in the morning and
noticing the feeling of smooth cloth touching your skin. But
after some time, your brain acclimates to the shirt and you
won’t sense its softness anymore.

The same thing happens with work. Applying nonstop tunnel
vision to a project actually withers your attention to it over
time.

The brain is wired to recognize and react to
change.
So take mental breaks to let your brain
distance itself from your work. When you return, you’ll
perceive your current task with a fresher lens and engage more
deeply with it.

Alicia Collins, a multimedia content strategist at HubSpot,
considers mental rest a pivotal part of the creative process.

“Taking short breaks throughout the day is a great way to sort
out your priorities and boost your focus. Whenever I’m feeling
overwhelmed or stuck on a particular issue, I take some time to
eat lunch away from my desk or go for a walk around the block,”
she says. “These simple activities help clear my head and
enable me to tackle problems from a new, creative angle.”

There are several productivity techniques that leverage short
mental breaks, like the pomodoro
technique
[13], where you
work for 25 minutes and then rest for 5 minutes. A study by the
Draugiem
Group
[14] also
discovered that the employees with the highest productivity
spent 52 minutes working, followed by 17 minutes of rest.

You can test each method and stick to the one that enhances
your focus and productivity the most.

4) Don’t stuff yourself at lunch.

I have a love-hate relationship with the food coma. By noon
everyday, I’m so starved that I gobble up the most filling meal
I can find. It tastes incredible. And after devouring my plate,
I love placing my hands on my bloated belly, admiring the fact
that I’m full and satisfied.

When it’s time to get back to work, though, you’ll find me
slumped in my chair. My brain feels like it’s in a fog. So I
just sit there and barely even attempt the easy tasks on my
to-do list.

Eating rich meals fulfills your hunger, but it also dulls your
mental acuity. Your digestive system expends so much energy
digesting all the fat and carbs that it chokes the circulation
of oxygen to your brain. This devastates your ability to focus.

One way to resist a daily indulgence is to snack on light,
healthy foods throughout the morning. This stabilizes your
blood sugar and combats growling-stomach hunger. You’ll notice
you’ll eat less and select healthier options for lunch,
allowing you to stay sharp for the rest of the day.

Karla Cook, a HubSpot Marketing Blog editor, usually eats a
salad with whole grains and vegan protein for lunch, and avoids
anything processed. Her motivation? To be productive in the
afternoon, she needs to feel good.

“When you eat bad things, you feel bad. It’s pretty much
instant retribution,” she says. “Eating a solid, healthy lunch
is a super simple way to set the course of your afternoon.”

5) Limit Auditory Distractions.

Background noise in the office — like colleague chatter or the
clacking of a keyboard — can shatter concentration. According
to several studies, ambient noise
causes stress
[15], which
triggers a release of cortisol into your body.

Cortisol is designed to ease that initial stress, so your body
can return to homeostasis. But too much cortisol disrupts your
prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that regulates your
ability to plan, reason, and remember things.

These subtle, but potent noises will fracture your focus, so
invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones or find a quiet
space to work.

Aja Frost, a staff writer for HubSpot’s Sales Blog, likes to
explore every nook and crannie of HubSpot’s Cambridge office to
find her own quiet spaces.

“I look for places that are slightly tucked away, like a booth
or a small table. These places are always really quiet — and
free from distraction,” she says. “When I’m ready for a more
social atmosphere, I’ll go back to my desk or an area of the
office that gets more people randomly walking by.”

How do you maintain your focus? Teach us your productivity
hacks in the comments below!