Fix Your Focus

How to cut the distractions and stay focused at work.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published on April 29, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Q: I am having difficulty staying focused on my job. I can't seem to complete a task. My environment is not library quiet because I work at a high school and it has many interruptions. Is there something natural that will help me stay focused?

A: First, recognize that your environment is probably not the sole cause of your distraction; some element of distractibility arises from the way we talk to ourselves. We all know people who deliberately leave their comfy, quiet homes and head for the coffee shop with their laptops. Sometimes, the problem is within us.

There are two goals to keep in mind. First, you want to work on getting less upset when distractions occur. The second goal is to get better at returning to the task at hand.

Let's take the first goal: not getting emotionally upset when you become distracted. I recommend that you watch what you tell yourself when you get frustrated. You may well be thinking: "I need tomb-like quiet and it is impossible to work with all these interruptions." When you implicitly demand quiet you are more likely to become hyper-focused on any noise that you encounter. Ask yourself: "Why do I absolutely need total quiet?" You will come to accept noise and distractions, while also getting less generally distractible. Noise may continue to grate, but if you recognize that you can work in spite of it, however imperfectly, you will be able to work. If you don't get yourself upset about the distractions, you will spend less time and energy off task.

The second goal is to get better at refocusing after you've experienced a distraction. For example, if I've become distracted, but I refuse to let it get me too angry or upset, I can then practice returning to the task through persistent refocusing. You can remind yourself, "It's too bad that I get so easily waylaid, but I can still refocus." By allotting a five-minute block of attention, you will accomplish more than you think. Practice focusing in five-minute blocks, and eventually, you will reach a point where it gets easier to stay focused on task and to refocus without too much hassle. You may never like getting distracted, but you can get much better at refocusing. Push yourself to work for a solid five minutes. Sometimes the material takes over. If you're unable to do this, start again.

Here are additional strategies to keep in mind:

  • Recognize that external stimuli need not distract you endlessly.
  • Give yourself a five-minute block of time to focus.
  • Ask yourself questions about the material: "What is the task I want to tackle in this block of time?"
  • Distract yourself from distractions by taking deep breaths.
  • Put up a Post-It note to remind yourself to focus for five minutes.
  • Put a sign in your cubicle or office for others: Do Not Disturb.
  • In a pinch, wear noise-canceling headphones.