You don’t need us to tell you that you work hard, but you may be surprised to learn you’re probably not working as efficiently putting in those long hours. In fact, a recent study found we’re working longer blocks of time but we may not be getting any further ahead.
DeskTime’s researchers compared data from their 2014 study when respondents stated they spent an average of 52 minutes working with a 17-minute break to the time spent working in 2021. Respondents in their 2021 survey said they spend an average of 112 minutes of work and just 26 minutes on break.
According to the report, shifting to a work from home model during the pandemic could be to blame for the longer periods spent working. But experts challenge whether we’re actually able to focus at work long enough during these ‘productive’ periods. The reality is that attention can’t be defined by a singular linear equation. The ability to focus varies from person to person and can fluctuate on any given day.
The trick is, getting to know your own capability to maintain focus and work efficiently without burning out. Here are a few tips to take control of your productivity:
Get to know your focus patterns
Focus fatigue impacts everyone from time to time. But you have periods of the day when you focus more efficiently and, naturally, times when you need to work harder to stay on task.
Harvard Business Review was curious about how focus (or a lack of) impacts productivity in the workplace so they surveyed more than 35,000 leaders from thousands of companies globally. They found that nearly three-quarters of leaders feel distracted from their current task “some” or “most” of the time.
Unfortunately, not feeling alone in your distractibility doesn’t improve your productivity. Getting to know when you function best allows you to align your tasks with times of the day when you’re in peak focus mode. This varies a little from person to person.
You can start by simply taking note of when you feel your mind tends to wander or you’re restless at your desk. Keep track of when you feel productive and what motivates you as well. It shouldn’t take long to pick up on a pattern.
If you notice you are highly productive before 10 am and hit another surge right after lunch, use those times to complete tasks that require the most focus at work. Similarly, if it’s apparent you are unproductive just as your morning coffee wears off, make it a point to use that time each day to get a drink of water and stretch or take a brisk walk to reset and get your gears going again.
Learn what dials you in
The key to taking control of your productivity is creating optimal conditions for success. This means looking for triggers that derail you and incentives that keep you on task.
In the same way we’re distracted by different things, we require unique stimuli to stay focused. You have to be careful not to confuse stimulation with performance enhancement. For example, while caffeine may prevent you from becoming drowsy on the job, it may also be the culprit behind your racing thoughts and restless legs.
Your environment can make or break your productivity as well. If you’re easily distracted, you may benefit from keeping a clutter-free workspace. Developing an organization system for your ‘stuff’ is just as important to your focus as sorting through the clutter in your mind. Try clearing your desk — or even just your desktop — into neatly labeled folders to see how much your productivity increases.
It’s helpful to identify whether music or soothing sounds promote or hinder your focus. Your 90s alternative playlist may keep your morale high while tuning out office sounds. However, if you catch yourself singing along when you should be recording Zoom meeting notes, it’s time to switch up your background music.
Practice self-care that refreshes your mind
Generally speaking, if you trace a habit back to your root problem you can work toward better solutions that may improve your focus. For example, if you regularly feel like you need to pace off the third cup of coffee, it’s time to trace and determine the source of your restlessness.
You have jitters because you drank too much coffee; you drank more coffee because you were drowsy; you were drowsy because you didn’t sleep well; you didn’t sleep well because you skipped dinner; you skipped dinner because you worked late; you worked late because you couldn’t focus at work; you couldn’t focus at work because you were too ramped up on caffeine; you had more coffee because you didn’t sleep well. STOP!
Self-care is often the step you’re missing when you catch yourself in these cycles. If you eat and sleep well, you refresh your mind and body so you can focus at work better and find balance.
Set a hard stopping time for work no matter how productive you were on a given day. Those tasks will still be there tomorrow and you’ll produce higher quality results if you’re well-rested. Eat a healthy meal, exercise or meditate, and get to bed on time regularly. Make an effort to create healthy habits that naturally lead to improved focus.
Recognize the signs of burnout
If you’re in tune with your needs and creating healthy habits, you are already taking a proactive stance against burnout. But that doesn’t mean burnout is always avoidable. You need to recognize when your inability to focus at work is a red flag that you’re burning the candle at both ends.
A few telltale signs of burnout include:
- – Lack of motivation – especially for doing things that usually bring you joy
- – Sense of failure or feelings of self doubt
- – Decreased satisfaction in your accomplishments
- – Feeling helpless or trapped in your job
- – Desiring or seeking isolation from others
- – Procrastinating on tasks
- – Turning to food, drugs, or alcohol to destress
One way to prevent burnout is to lean into your support system. If you notice you’re still struggling in to stay focused on anything and everything, there are a few apps that can help you manage your productivity and easy your mental burden:
Todoist, for example, reduces some of the stress of having to remember all of the tasks you need to complete. Clear some headspace by setting tasks in your app, which you can access from practically any device. Get organized, prioritize, and track progress all in one place.
Evernote is a great way to clear your head of the little distractions that creep in during your work day. You can clip ‘notes’ from the web, jot down ideas, scribble notes, and keep your thoughts organized for later.
Headspace is an app specially designed to help you stress less and take better care of your, well, headspace. Meditate, practice mindfulness, and rest better so you’re refreshed and ready to focus at work each day.
Talkspace is a safe place to turn when you need to talk about your feelings. Your feelings are legitimate. You deserve to feel seen and heard. You don’t have to cope with stress alone.