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How to Quickly Regain Focus At Work

There it is. That persistent distracting thought. You have serious work to do. You have a deadline. You don’t have time to be distracted.

But you are distracted. Maybe you and your girlfriend had a fight before work and you’re worried about it. Or maybe your little boy was just coming down with ‘flu symptoms last night, but because of work you had to let your babysitter take him to his doctor. Or maybe the rumor mill was churning at lunchtime today and the word is that five employees are losing their jobs.

It isn’t easy to concentrate with problems hanging over your head. If you’re lucky, you can find comfort with a phone call that lets you know everything turned out fine. You can stop worrying. But, more often than not, you are left for hours in a state of uncertainty. You can’t help playing all sorts of negative scenarios in your head. And the work isn’t getting done. So, more fodder for the negative scenarios, because you’re going to be in trouble for not meeting the deadline.

Relax. There’s a technique that works at least ninety percent of the time. The major reason it doesn’t always work is that sometimes the distraction is just too large for any normal person to handle.

Simply do this: write a to-do list for the immediate project, breaking it down into the smallest possible chunks. Do this even if you already have a general to-do list. Almost no one has an extremely detailed to-do list. It is seldom necessary to get that picky.

Make the chunks of work time-related. That is, assign the tasks 5 minute, 10 minute, and 15 minute intervals. Don’t try to do anything that requires you to focus for more than 15 minutes.

As an example, imagine that you have to write a five-page report. You might break it down first into pages, then into estimated paragraphs per page — maybe four. Allot no more than 10 minutes per paragraph. For each paragraph, write one sentence, the topic sentence. Do that for each paragraph for all five pages. Go back to page one. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write a paragraph. Try playing a game with it wherein you see if you can do it in 5 minutes, rather than the allotted 10. Then go on to the next paragraph and the next until done.

Breaking tasks down into small pieces with a time limit on each piece provides a very keenly structured focus that is hard to breach. ( It often helps to take at least a few seconds break between each chunk, during which time you might stand up and stretch, or take a sip of water or do something else to break any tension you might feel. Relaxed focus works better than tense focus and is easier to maintain against distracting thoughts.)

No matter how structured the focus, your distracting thoughts may wear away at it. So there is an associated technique that goes along with the focus method. I call it the “I’m-doing-this-now” mantra. Every time a distraction shows up, you train yourself to say (mentally) “Not now. Right now, I’m doing this.” Then go right back to work. Do it as often as you need to. Distracting thoughts can be persistent, but you have a structure to help you ignore them now. If the distraction shows up in between two task chunks, you think: “Not now. I’m doing this next.” And go on to the next timed task.

You might get off to a rocky start with the method. Some people do. But as you hang in there and practice the technique, it starts to seem rather natural.