Are you finding yourself falling down frivolous holes of the internet? Are your deadlines whizzing past your ears like a stiff, angry breeze? Then you may need to read this.
Distraction is a very normal part of the working day. You’re not a machine. No reasonable manager would expect you to be operating at maximum capacity at all times and the brain is not designed for long, uninterrupted spells of concentration.
Yet if you feel like it’s beginning to negatively impact your performance, you may find yourself worrying that you’re developing bad habits. What’s worse, often the slow descent into procrastination makes you feel like the fabled boiling frog. You go from staying on course to suddenly finding yourself down a totally unproductive well.
The mind and all its workings – including why it wanders – is pretty complex. It’s seldom just one thing that can make you interminably distracted at work. Still, some of the following factors could very well be to blame.
You’re not getting enough sleep
This isn’t the first time we’ve explored the topic of sleep in the Careers section. Insomnia is, unfortunately, a pervasive issue that can have a number of less than desirable side effects.
A study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has shown a direct link between sleep deprivation and impaired cognitive function. This includes your attention span. So if you’re mindless scrolling through social media is accompanied by stinging eyes and frequent bouts of yawning, tiredness is probably to blame.
So what can you do? Sleep troubles can be difficult to conquer. There’s no point oversimplifying the issue. However, there are a few tips you can implement to help you get a good night’s rest.
Try cutting off your caffeine consumption after 2pm. Ensure that you have a decent night-time ritual and plenty of time to unwind before you get between the covers. Limit screen time, big meals and alcohol in the two-hour window before bed. Read a book or try some herbal tea before you head to sleep. You could even try meditation before you hit the hay.
These are simple changes that can improve your sleep hygiene massively, making it easier to nod off, easier to wake up and easier to concentrate
Your office is too distracting
As much as many may praise the open-plan office, there are certainly a few drawbacks to it. For one, it means that you’re constantly absorbing a cacophony of ambient office noises. The trill of computer notifications, phones ringing, doors opening and closing, the hurried clacking of fingers over keyboards and more could be making it impossible to get stuck into the tasks at hand.
The solution? Headphones are your friend, lest your office have a no headphones policy. Research from University College London has found that, ironically, adding distractibility can make you less prone to distraction. So feel free to drown out the sound of a loudly chewing co-worker with your favourite playlist.
You should also consider whether your more immediate environment is conducive to focus. Is your desk a total mess? If so, have you considered that the physical clutter corresponds with mental busyness?
If your desk isn’t clean, you could be subconsciously derailing your own efforts. Take a break from your work to wipe surfaces, clear clutter and stack books neatly. To avoid having this task become yet another distraction, ensure the break is timed.
You are not taking breaks
As we said, the human brain is not designed for extended and sustained focus. While you may feel like you’re not being especially productive, taking more breaks could ironically be the solution.
The Pomodoro technique was founded by time management expert Francesco Cirillo. It advocates structuring your day around scheduled blocks timed with a kitchen timer. In this method, you work in 25-minute increments and then take a quick five-minute break.
You could either go analogue with an actual timer or check out the number of different Pomodoro technique apps available.
You’re not eating properly
The connection between the mind and the stomach is one with which researchers are becoming increasingly fascinated. It has even given rise to a whole new field of study, nutritional psychiatry.
Your brain requires a constant supply of glucose, which is its main source of energy. The brain is so greedy with energy – it requires up to 20pc of your body’s resting metabolic rate – because it is so rich in nerve cells. So if your diet isn’t well-balanced, you can kiss your productivity goodbye.
The solution to this is to keep some healthy snacks nearby to munch on and ensure you’re taking time to eat lunch. Go for fibre and nutrient-rich foods such as fruit and nuts. The sugar from the fruit will provide energy while the fibre will stabilise your blood sugar. Nuts are also jam-packed with healthy fats. Both of these are ideal desk choices.
Procrastination can devolve into a vicious cycle if left unchecked. You get distracted from the task at hand. You find you have less time. You get anxious about how little time you have, and then the whole cycle begins again.
Essentially you’re trapped in a horrible push-pull of anxiety and avoidance here, so the solution is to tackle the anxiety leading you to procrastinate.
Anxiety exists at varying degrees. At a lower level, something as simple as asking your boss to help outline strict, actionable details about your role could help. Having a more delineated description of the expectations upon you could help you feel a little more secure in your performance and, in turn, help you focus.
Of course, if this anxiety is beginning to seriously debilitate you or impact your ability to function, professionally or otherwise, you need to consider a more serious strategy and possibly enlist professional help.
Furthermore, if you’re suffering from anxiety, you should be a little easier on yourself. Remind yourself that while you may not be at peak performance at now, that’s OK. Your health is the priority.