It always seems so unfair that people tend to get sick in the springtime. Just as the weeks of perfect temperatures and sunshine get underway and you want to be outside all the time just soaking in the gorgeous weather along come allergies, and sinus infections, colds and flu, etc. This year I was lucky enough to get sick twice in rapid succession so for the last week or so I have had a hard time focusing on anything more complicated than what time of day to take my next dose of decongestant and how many packages of tissues I need for any given event. And of course remembering to never forget to take hand sanitizer everywhere so as to avoid infecting others. I’m finally starting to feel human again which means now I’m realizing how quickly my task list grows when I’m not functioning at normal capacity. Basically, if you can’t focus you can’t get much done.
I did an informal poll of my coworkers to find out what helps them focus and learned that what works for one person might not be helpful for another. For example, headphones were mentioned by several people but there was disagreement as to whether they foster concentration or create distraction. One of my colleagues mentioned that she gets distracted by new music but familiar tunes become a sort of background noise that help her focus on tasks. When she said that, I realized that I have the opposite experience. When I listen to music I know well, I start humming along and even dancing around (obviously it’s an understated nerdy seated dance only performed when nobody is looking). For me it’s often better to listen to music without lyrics.
Another colleague mentioned the value of white noise, which I have not yet tried but is an excellent idea. It’s the workplace equivalent of sleeping with a fan running to drown out noisy neighbors. I downloaded an app called White Noise Lite. It not only offers lots of sound choices, from box fan to rain forest, but also says users can “record and loop additional new sounds with total ease”. That is a really cool idea if there is something specific that you enjoy hearing. I’m thinking that the fountain and wind chimes on my patio would be perfect for relaxation; every time I hear these sounds I will picture myself lounging in the hammock (note: this may or may not be ideal for workplace productivity).
Another tip offered by several of my coworkers was to remove distractions. Put away your cell phone, turn off email notifications, log out of social media, etc.. You can employ a plug in like LeechBlock (for FireFox) or StayFocusd (for Chrome) that will limit the amount of time you can spend on distracting websites if that is an issue for you. Know the best time to perform certain tasks and organize your workday accordingly. Is the office noisy between 11am and 1pm? Schedule menial tasks that only require short attention span or get caught up on your emails during that time. If certain distractions are too much, you might even change the location of your desk. I recently moved to a new cubicle for reasons unrelated to concentration and was surprised to learn how much easier it was to focus in my new location – even though my former desk had been fine, this one was an improvement.
Another suggestion involved switching from a regular desk chair to a stability ball. Giving your body the ability to be positioned in a comfortable way makes it easier to keep your mind on task. A similar strategy is used successfully with students who have ADHD. I, too, find my stability ball conducive to getting things done efficiently. Something about staying physically engaged instead of slouching into my chair keeps my mind active as well. A stability ball might not be the best solution for everyone; finding a more comfortable chair that improves your posture could be just as beneficial. The key is finding what works for you, not settling for whatever dusty old seat was assigned when you got hired.
The most valuable and interesting advice came from one of our student assistants, Jessica. I was especially interested to hear from our students because their desks are in the most highly travelled area of our department, right out in the open without even cubicle walls to keep distractions at bay. Surprisingly, her first tip was not to avoid distractions but to “get comfortable with the distractions”. In other words, don’t get frustrated with them or try to pretend like they don’t exist – accept them and get over it. This fits in generally with the concept of mindfulness that has been proven in countless studies to boost productivity. Be present; focus on the here-and-now; be totally aware of where you are, what you are doing and what is going on around you. Mindfulness is a key aspect of many meditation practices but can also be as simple as taking a few seconds during a stressful time to focus on your breathing, notice your posture and get centered in your surroundings.
So, to summarize: the best tip to stay focused is to not get sick, ever. If that proves impossible, try some of these tips to get back and stay on track — especially practicing mindfulness.
Schilling, D. L., K. Washington, F. F. Billingsley, and J. Deitz. “Classroom Seating for Children With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Therapy Balls Versus Chairs.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy 57.5 (2003): 534-41. Web.
Shao, Ruodan, and Daniel P. Skarlicki. “The Role of Mindfulness in Predicting Individual Performance.” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science 41.4 (2009): 195-201. ProQuest. Web. 10 Apr. 2015.