You’re 10 minutes into a Zoom call. Some people have their video off, and you do too. It’s been a long morning already, and you’re making your second coffee to try to stay with it. Then, someone says your name. It is in that one fleeting moment of presence that you realize oh no, I have not been paying attention.
Maybe it’s the blurry line between personal life and everything else. Maybe it’s the constant stream of emails, texts, and DMs because we can’t be with each other in person. Maybe it’s the toddlers, the pets, the partners, or the absence of all the above. Maybe it’s the news, maybe it’s the lack of anything new. Or maybe it’s all of that, in a pandemic, in 2020. Whatever it is, it’s hard to be and stay focused.
Given that it’s unlikely the distractions and calls-to-attention will ease any time soon, it might be time to employ some “get your focus back” strategies.
First, let’s acknowledge that having a difficult time focusing is not a sign of laziness or a lack of respect. It’s been a rough year, and if you’re managing anxiety, depression, trauma, OCD, ADD, ADHD, or any other mental health issue, trying to focus these days is big task. When our bodies’ stress responses are constantly activated, our cortisol levels remain high. That high cortisol level can have a lasting effect in the body, interfering with sleep, digestion, our immune systems, and more. Tips for focusing are only effective when we’re taking care of ourselves. If you’re struggling with burnout or exhaustion, talk to someone, journal, and start the Feeling Better Journey in our Guided Journeys in the Tools tab. It’s there to help you make headway on your mental health journey.
In the meantime, here are our top tips for finding your focus, at least for a little while:
1) Take good breaks.
It may seem counterintuitive to take a break when you’re trying to get work done, but attempting to have uninterrupted attention for hours on end is actually not conducive to good focus. Planning mini breaks gives your brain the down time it needs to do its best work. Try to avoid using your break to scroll Twitter or check the news. If possible, use that break to get fresh air, play with a pet, do some stretching or meditation, or even just sit alone with no screens. The idea is to let your mind recover — not distract it with a different thing to focus on.
If you’re doing solitary office work, try the Pomodoro Technique. All you need for this technique is a timer. Focus for 25 minutes, take 5 minutes off, repeat, repeat, repeat. The more regular and planned you make these breaks, the easier it will be to get in a rhythm.
This technique can feel a little futile when your days are more unpredictable, or you’re required to be responsive. If that’s the case, start your day by planning when you’ll take your breaks. Schedule in at least 5 breaks of 5 minutes each. You might not succeed in taking all of them but having them on your calendar can help remind you that good focus comes from good rest, not from that third cup of coffee.
And if your breaks are planned for you, like between classes or shifts, do your best to really make them breaks. Yes, we all have texts and emails and calls to respond to, and sometimes we absolutely have to be available to take those, but when you have the opportunity to really give your brain a break, you’ll be better for taking it.
2) Rethink multitasking.
We don’t want to see people driving while answering text messages and taking a phone call all while thinking about what to get at the store. We want that person to focus on driving! It’s the same for your brain function. If you’re answering Slacks while reading Twitter in the middle of a Zoom call, your brain cannot effectively do any of those things well.
We do that every day. We switch between the laundry, the dishes, the emails, the texts, the humans, the pets, the video conference, all day long. And many of us have no choice. But if you can narrow down your focus, it will help improve that ability to focus over time.
If you’re in a long Zoom meeting, it’s deeply tempting to read emails, check social channels, read articles, or do just about anything other than stare at your own face in the corner of the screen. But if it’s a meeting you need to listen to but are struggling to be present for, try good old-fashioned paper and pencil note-taking. Even doodling, despite what your 3rd grade teacher might say, can be good for improving focus.
No matter what, multitasking fractures our ability to focus. And media multitaskers (those of us attempting to Zoom on our laptops, text on our phones, with the TV on in the background), it’s not good for our brains, even if it serves as a temporary distraction.
Giving up multitasking is difficult. We have to acknowledge that in order to even attempt it, especially after years of convincing ourselves we’re good at it. If you’re finding it hard to quit cold turkey, try single–tasking just for the first half of your day to start.
3) Make a plan.
Sometimes our lack of focus stems from not knowing where to start. Should you do the dishes, or start that assignment? Should you walk the dog, or reply to that email? And wasn’t there something else you needed to do… what was it… oh hold on, someone’s calling. Wait, where was I?
When there’s too much to do, it’s hard to do anything. Carve out a few minutes either at the start or the end of the day to write down your tasks, break each task or project into small manageable steps (keep each step to 10 minutes if you can), organize them by priority, and then plan out when you’ll do them. And if you don’t hit every task, instead of stressing, write down how long each task you did accomplish actually took. We often make mistakes planning our days because we think, “oh folding the laundry only takes like ten minutes,” only to discover it takes 30, or if you have a family, it takes forever. But tracking this information can help you for the next day. Once you know that a certain type of task or assignment almost always takes two hours, then the next time it comes around, you know what to prepare for, and what might have to wait for the next day.
I know, I know, you’re tired of hearing it. And yes, it can be difficult to establish a practice. But if you can squeeze in ten minutes of day to meditate, it will help to improve your focus. The irony, of course, is that if you’re new to meditation, you will likely find it difficult to focus on the meditation. But think of meditation as an exercise. If you start lifting weights to get strong, your first lift will always be a challenge, but lifting the same weight again and again over time will get easier and easier. Meditation flexes your focus, and the more you meditate, the easier it will be to find that focus.
The more you think of your focus as a muscle that needs to be trained, the easier it is to connect the dots between what’s good for focus and what’s not.
Most importantly though, don’t beat yourself up. It’s been a year that calls for our attention over and over and over. Remember, a breath of fresh air, a short walk, or even just a handful of minutes doing absolutely nothing can sometimes be all it takes.