December 8, 2023

Career Couch: To Avoid Distractions at Work, Hit the Reset Button

A. People often lose their concentration when they are bored, of course, but also when they are engaged in challenging tasks, says Peter Bregman, author of “18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done” and chief executive of a management consultancy in New York. “We have a momentary feeling of wanting to escape what’s difficult or boring, so we jump out,” he says — hence the appeal of e-mail and shopping Web sites.

The brain’s wiring also lends itself to being distracted. The part of the brain devoted to attention is connected to the brain’s emotional center, says Srini Pillay, author of “Your Brain and Business” and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Any strong emotion — frustration with a colleague, problems at home — can disrupt your attention, he says.

Add to that the necessity, and perceived virtue, of multitasking at work. Studies over the last decade have shown that multitasking can reduce our capacity to sustain attention, says Michael Komie, a psychologist who teaches at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and consults with executives. “Although there are always exceptions to the rule,” he says, “the research shows that for the average worker in the workplace, multitasking while trying to solve a complex problem is a very bad strategy.”

Q. What strategies can you use to refocus at work?

A. Refocusing is hard for many people because they have trained their brains to work on a variety of things at the same time, Dr. Pillay says. He suggests visualizing a reset device in your brain and saying: “I need to press the reset button and get back on track.” This takes the spotlight off the distraction and puts it on the redirection. “You are rewiring your brain,” he says.

Robert Epstein, a research psychologist in San Diego and founder of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, suggests the following: “Stop and listen to music for a few minutes, go for a short walk or take a cleansing breath, where you breath in deeply, count to five slowly, hold it and breathe out very slowly.” This can “blow out all the tension and clutter in your mind, and that can restore your focus.”

But if you are having severe problems maintaining focus at work, you should consult a psychologist or physician, Dr. Komie says, as severe symptoms could be a sign of anxiety, depression or adult forms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

Q. How can you set up your day so you aren’t easily distracted and can complete your tasks?

A. Take more control by structuring your time and becoming more aware of your behavior, Mr. Bregman says. For example, he often sets his phone alarm to go off every hour, as a reminder to stay on task.

“It’s a way of creating awareness,” he says. “You have to notice you’ve lost focus in order to do something about it.”

You are more vulnerable to distraction when you’re uncomfortable, hungry or tired, so it’s important to plan “self-management activities,” says Dr. Epstein, such as when to eat, go to the gym or take a walk.

Starting the day with a to-do list is important, but if it’s overly ambitious you will put yourself in a state of anticipatory anxiety, Dr. Pillay says. That makes it hard for the brain — which doesn’t like uncertainty — to concentrate. “Choosing three or four things as your priority for the day allows your brain to settle down and focus,” he says. Look at what is realistically possible and be specific with yourself about what you can and cannot do that day.

Q. Can distractions ever have a positive effect?

A. Scheduling distractions as a reward for productivity can motivate your brain to stay focused, Dr. Pillay says. Ideally, those distractions should also be good for you — like a massage, a yoga class or just putting on headphones and listening to music. “The brain benefits significantly from breaks,” he says. “You may even come back and feel more creative if you take your mind off its primary focus for a little while.”

If your distraction of choice is Facebook, Twitter or other social media, schedule time for that, says Dr. Epstein, so that you’re proactive, not reactive.

“You control it,” he says, “rather than it controlling you.”


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