Can't Focus at Work? 6 Productivity Tips to Get You Back on Track

Churchill Leonard
November 10, 2023
min read
January 2, 2024
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Can't focus at work? Discover 6 actionable tips to boost your productivity and regain focus. Say goodbye to distractions and hello to success.
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In the modern age of work, focus is an increasingly rare commodity.

This article will walk you through six different tactics that will help you cut back on distractions, free up your time and remove environmental blockers that might be hurting your focus at work.

TL;DR: Can't focus at work?

  • Lack of focus at work can be caused by multitasking, distractions, stress, fatigue, and medical conditions.
  • To improve focus, plan your workday in advance, manage digital distractions, design a productive workspace, prioritize physical and mental health, and practice effective time and task management.
  • Use productivity tools like project management software, the Pomodoro technique, Kanban, and the Eisenhower matrix.
  • Documenting processes and workflows can save time and improve productivity.

Wh‎at causes a lack of focus?

A lack of focus can be caused by many factors. Multitasking is one common cause, which has been shown to reduce cognitive capacity and hinder productivity.

We’re all dealing with a constant barrage of notifications (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, LinkedIn, and Twitter) that you have to reply now, work-related apps are chiming away with notifications for every task, comment and mention, and on Monday, you start the new week with email notifications filled with sales pitches, meeting reminders, teammate requests, and the occasional odd announcement from HR.

No wonder we now have a short attention span.

If you’re still in doubt, you might need to consider that:

  • Email users receive 121 emails and send out 40 per day.
  • The average worker is actively connected to Slack for at least 9 hours per day, and spends 90 minutes daily sending or replying to messages on the platform.
  • The average American checks their phone 352 times per day, or once every four minutes; we also unlock our smartphones 150 times, touch them up to 2,617 times per day, and spend anywhere between four to five hours using them daily.

Other factors contributing to trouble focusing include stress, fatigue and distractions in the work environment. And when you factor in the rising prevalence of medical conditions such as ADHD, depression, and insomnia, which can sap your physical energy and keep you unable to focus, it’s easy to see why we struggle to focus.

Wh‎y you can't focus at work

Many factors can make it hard to focus at work. Some of the most common include:

  • Distractions. This could include anything from your phone to your coworkers to the noise outside your window.
  • Lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation can make you tired—and when you're too tired, it's hard to concentrate on anything.
  • Stress. Workplace stress can make it difficult to think clearly and make decisions.
  • Personal worries: When you're worried about something, it's hard to keep your mind on other things. Distracting thoughts can affect your productivity.
  • Poor diet. Eating a diet that is high in processed foods and sugar can lead to energy crashes and difficulty focusing.
  • Lack of exercise. Exercise is important for both physical and mental health. Not getting enough exercise can lead to fatigue and difficulty concentrating.
  • Medical conditions. Some medical conditions, such as thyroid problems, ADHD and depression, can make it difficult to focus.
  • Mental health conditions. Mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can also make it difficult to focus.

Read on for six tactics to help you prioritize tasks, combat distractions and improve your performance and focus.

6 ‎productivity tips when you can't focus at work

1. Pl‎an your workday at least 12 hours prior

For most office workers, the average workday is chaotic by default. You walk in, log into your workstation, and are hit with a barrage of emails, notifications and upcoming meetings. If you work remotely, your day might even be more unpredictable: you wake up, grab your smartphone, and realize there are several conversations you need to reply to right now!

Before you know it, you’ve jumped into concurrent email and Slack threads, firing off terse emails to the engineering team to understand why your landing page is serving visitors an error on Black Friday and asking your manager on Slack to escalate it up the chain of command. After a day spent putting out fires, you realize you didn’t touch any of your OKRs.

Instead of approaching every day reactively, it’s easier to focus better when you set clear goals you intend to achieve and tackle them one after the other.

1. Create a rough sketch of your to-do list for the following day.

2. Park your mental car uphill at each day’s end; that is, start some preliminary research, reading, drafting, or framing if you’re writing a story tomorrow; set up your development environment if you’re working with a different tech stack—kick off some crossover task that will make it easy for you to dive into your objective right away.

3. Block time on your calendar for deep work.

4. If possible, don’t reply to emails and messages first thing in the morning; slot them into your afternoon schedule or later in your less productive hours.

2.‎ Manage digital distractions

Research consultancy Wonder estimates that the average American smartphone user receives 43 push notifications per day, although another study suggests that “some users receive as many as 200 notifications on some days.”

Another study by the University of California, Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get yourself back on track after a single interruption—and that doesn’t factor in how much time you spent engaging with your device, which can range from a few seconds till the end of the workday.

That means just one interruption per hour is enough to leave your brain frazzled and keep you in catch-up mode, trying to stay focused to get any meaningful amount of deep work done and spending increasing amounts of time glued to your screen.

For the most part, you may not be willing or even able to donate or fling your phone into a lake and enjoy a smartphone-free life. But you can reduce your dependence on your device, control how often you receive notifications, and use built-in usage controls to make that lifestyle change easier.

Here are some methods to help you concentrate:

1. Remove your smartphone from your workspace completely—studies have shown that the mere presence of a smartphone can impair your cognitive capabilities and prevent you from focusing.

2. Use anti-distraction software like Freedom, RescueTime, and AppBlock to block non-work applications on your smartphone.

3. Turn off notifications, alerts, and pop-ups during working hours—iPhones and iPads have an in-built Focus mode that can be set to Do Not Disturb, Personal, Sleep, or Work, all of which you can further customize to set which applications can get alerts across during specific hours.

4. Use focus assist (Windows) or Focus (Mac) to reduce notifications and interruptions during active hours.

3.‎ Design your workspace for productivity

Just like having your smartphone in the same room can hurt your focus by keeping your brain guessing what’s happening out there (on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, etc.) without you, the right visual cues and environmental aids can help get you into work mode faster, keep your mind focused, and help you avoid distractions.

Here are some tips that’ll help you design a focus-first work environment:

1. Set up your desk near a window where you can get unfiltered natural light.

2. Keep your workspace ventilated and use a monitor to track CO2 levels—research has shown that high indoor CO2 concentrations can affect cognitive capacity and “dilate blood vessels in the brain, reduce neuronal activity, and decrease the amount of communication between brain regions.

3. Consider using a standing or a treadmill desk setup to help your posture.

4. Use an ergonomic-friendly keyboard, mouse, desk, and chair to reduce strain and repetitive stress injury.

5. Keep a potted plant(s) nearby—research suggests that houseplants can lead to benefits like sharper attention, higher productivity and lower stress levels.

6. Declutter your workspace of anything but your most essential tools.

7. Opt for a noise-insulated office or use noise-canceling headphones. 

4.‎ Double down on your physical and mental health

Most of the tips and tactics we’ve shared here are aimed at helping you reduce external distraction cues so you can create an environment where your brain can focus on deep work. But, if you suspect your distractibility might be due to medical conditions such as ADHD, PTSD, depression, chronic fatigue, or Cushing’s syndrome, you might need to get expert medical advice.

1. Take time off work to deal with breakups, bereavement, personal tragedies, and emotional friction. As an employer, you can make it easier for employees to access the help they need by offering workplace benefits and encouraging staff to take time off when they’re going through a rough patch.

2. Services like Kintsugi, Talkspace, Cerebral, and Doctor on Demand can help you book therapy sessions virtually and get tested for ADHD, anxiety, depression, and insomnia—if you’re an employer, you might want to consider covering the cost for your employees.

3. Exercise regularly—research shows that a daily exercise habit increases the quality and volume of creative ideas. Even adding in light exercise like stretching can help prevent physical discomfort and improve overall well-being.

4. Practice better sleep hygiene. Build better sleep habits, including:

  • Sleeping six to eight hours daily.
  • Not eating or using your smartphone at least two hours before bedtime.
  • Making sure your bedroom is well-ventilated.
  • Reducing the use of stimulants that might affect your sleepiness later in the day.

5. Taking short breaks during the workday can help you maintain focus and productivity. Research shows that attention and retention start to diminish after just 25 minutes of concentrated work. Take a walk, hydrate or engage in a brief conversation with coworkers.

5.‎ Practice better time and task management

It’s easier to eliminate distractions and organize your tasks when you have a reusable framework instead of having to plot out your goals mentally. Whatever framework or task management software you opt for needs to be simple, scalable, and free to focus on actual work vs. ironing out rough edges and designing tasks and sub-tasks to look neat.

1. Use tools like Todoist and Notion for project management to organize and track your tasks—as long as you don’t get distracted by editing and organizing your tasks and projects for optimal aesthetics.

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2. Use the Pomodoro technique to do work in short, focused intervals: work in recurring 25-minute intervals and rest for five minutes between sessions.

3. Use Kanban to group tasks into to-do, doing, and done so you can focus on one item per time.

4. Prioritize, delegate or delete tasks using the Eisenhower matrix.

5. Break large tasks into smaller chunks. By breaking down the work, it becomes less daunting and easier to concentrate on one task at a time.

6. Seek support and collaboration. Collaborating with others not only makes progress easier but also creates a more empathic work environment. Whether it's a partner, assistant, colleague, or boss, having someone invested in your success creates a sense of reciprocity and accountability.

6.‎ Document your processes and workflows

A 2021 study by Zapier found that 90 percent of American knowledge workers spend five hours checking messenger applications, toggling workplace tools, and tracking down the information they need to do their work. In such an environment where there’s no centralized store of knowledge, you’ll always need to guide employees and co-workers one-on-one to complete basic tasks and processes. If you can't focus at work, you'll always need to guide employees and co-workers one-on-one to complete basic tasks and processes.

If you're the go-to person who spends a huge chunk of the working day answering questions and coaching co-workers, it leaves limited time for any type of creative work.

Process documentation tools like Scribe help you auto-generate step-by-step guides in just seconds. Simply install Scribe, click "Start Capture" and work as you usually do. Scribe will capture every step and convert it into a guided walkthrough you can share with your teammates, clients and partners.

Use Scribe to document processes and answer questions - can

‎Best of all, it’s free to get started.

Sign up for Scribe today and transform your specialized knowledge into clear, step-by-step guides so you can minimize interruptions and focus at work.

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