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July 7, 2017

How to Focus: 5 Ways to Overcome Distractions at Work

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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 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 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? 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 -- 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, 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 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. 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 or StayFocusd 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. 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. 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. 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, where you work for 25 minutes and then rest for 5 minutes. A study by the Draugiem Group 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, 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!

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Topics: Productivity

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