Mental Health: How to Stay Focused and Manage Distractions at Work

Millions of people around the globe recently transitioned to working from home to do their part in slowing the spread of COVID-19. For many, this is their first time working from home, and several unique challenges come with this abrupt change. One of the main difficulties includes no longer being in your designated workspace. When we telework, we no longer have that separation between our home and work environment, and this can be incredibly distracting. 

Before jumping into the specific strategies on how to manage distractions at home, let’s think about how to prepare for a productive workday because being in the mindset to work can reduce the power of distractions. You may find yourself struggling to get into the work mindset now that your commute likely consists of going from one room to another. As you can see from the list below, several habits are still doable to get yourself into work mode. Also, if you liked to plan your workday during your commute, consider going for a walk before working to be able to do the same.  

Recommended Morning Routine When Working from Home 

Wake up around the same time each day 

Morning hygiene (e.g., brush teeth, shower) 

Dress for work (or more casual if appropriate) 

Eat breakfast 

Commute to a designated workspace 

Other potential pre-workday habits (e.g., drinking a coffee or tea, listening to the radio, exercisinggoing for a walk) can be fit in wherever appropriate.  

Understanding Attention and Distractions 

Now that we established our pre-work routine, let’s think about what is helping or hindering our attention. Attention, broadly, serves as a spotlight. When something is distracting us, it is stealing the spotlight. Constant shifts between a distractor and a task can increase our chances of making a mistake as well as decrease efficiency (as in, the amount of time it takes us to complete the task)

A great way to optimize productivity is to figure out what is grabbing our attention when we are trying to work. Step one of managing distractions includes listing all the influences that positively and negatively impact your attention. 

These factors can be internal (e.g., emotions, thoughts) or external (i.e., affecting any of the five senses). Listed below are some examples of positive and negative influences on attention.  

Positive Factors 
Clean workspace
Ambient background noise
Comfortable clothing
Exercising prior to work
Pleasant smells (e.g., essential oils)
Ergonomic and comfortable desk chair
Being with others that are working
Time to take breaks
Completing routine work

Negative Factors (Distractions) 
Cluttered environment
Too hot or too cold
Interruptions by others
Hunger or thirst or being too full
Acute or chronic pain
Electronic notifications
Fatigue
Tinnitus (i.e., ear ringing)

Strategies to Manage Distractions at Home 

Some distractions listed above may impact you more than others, and it will be vital to find ways to overcome the most distracting influences. You may need to be creative in how to manage these distractions and try another strategy if the first strategy does not work. Here are some strategies that are known to be effective in managing internal and external distractions.

Negative Factors (Distractions) and Solutions
Cluttered environment: Maintain a designated workspace that is kept organized.

Noisy Household: Plan to work when household noise is minimal; Wear earplugs or noise-canceling headphones; Play ambient noise (e.g., white noise machine, fan).

Interruptions by others: Post work schedule so that others are aware of when you are working; Post a Do Not Disturb sign during working hours.

Negative Thoughts or Emotions: Engage in a mindfulness activity before work or during breaks (e.g., deep breathing, grounding exercise); Schedule a virtual teletherapy session; Do aerobic exercises; Reach out to a friend or family member during breaks; Journal concerns and address them later in the day (i.e., scheduled worry time).

Chronic or Acute Pain/Tinnitus: Plan your work schedule around your symptoms; Complete the most important tasks when symptoms are typically less bothersome; Set reminders to stretch throughout the workday.

Household Chores: Hold yourself accountable not to do household chores during working hours.

Managing Electronic Distractions While Working Virtually  

Electronicget their own section because we rely on computers and cellphones to telework; however, these devices can be a significant distraction. It can be difficult to stay on-task when there is a constant flow of emails and application notifications. Here are some strategies for managing electronic distractions while working virtually.  

Cellphone 
Place cellphone face down or across the room to limit the chance of being distracted whenever your phone lights up.

Place phones on Do Not Disturb or Vibrate during working hours.

Set time limits on apps that you find to be the most distracting (e.g., setting a timer that restricts access to Facebook after you used it for 15 minutes).

Remove notifications icons on social media apps, so you check that application when you think about it rather than opening it when you see a notification.

Computer 
Exit out of email applications and check it hourly or every other hour, rather than getting distracted mid-task by an email that you just received.

Use your work computer for work-related tasks only and your cellphone or other personal electronics for personal activities.

Only surf the web or browse social media during a scheduled break or after typical work hours.

Summary

We hope this post was helpful when it comes to navigating telework and managing distractions while working from home. The COVID-19 pandemic is universally stress-inducing, and that stress alone can be a major distraction. All you can do is try your best and be proactive in figuring out ways to navigate this situation – accepting that there are going to be productive days and not-so-productive days, is okay.

Empathy and help are available. If you are struggling and need help, ask for it, and leverage all the resources available to you via work and your local community.


About the Author: Dr. Eric Connors is a neuropsychology postdoctoral fellow at Home Base. He is a Boston native and he obtained his Bachelor of Science at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Shortly after graduation, he moved to San Diego to complete his graduate studies at the APA-accredited Alliant International University. His first clinical experience involved conducting neuropsychological evaluations with those in the acute stages of recovery following an acquired brain injury. Witnessing firsthand the benefits of neurorehabilitation and the role of neuropsychology solidified Dr. Connors’ goal of becoming a neuropsychologist. In addition to his clinical experiences, he produced research in the fields of neuroscience and neuropsychology. His scholarly work was published in several peer-reviewed journals and was presented at both national and international conferences.