It’s incredibly difficult to stay focused at work with so many competing things vying for our attention. A Slack or email barrage can derail even the most productive day.
But, there are always new things you can try to help you focus better. While some concentration aids can be a bit of a gimmick, there are plenty of worthy tools, apps, and physical things to include in your arsenal.
So, in the interest of getting to the point (and letting you get back to work): Here are some of the strategies and tools used around the office at Palo Alto Software, makers of Outpost, for staying focused at work. Some you may be familiar with, and some may be new to you—but the important thing is to try different approaches and see what clicks.
1. Find some quiet, or some better noise
Invest in noise canceling headphones
They’re a general favorite for a good reason—it’s easier to ignore all external distractions when you can’t hear them at all. This was probably the most common recommendation from the Palo Alto Software office in general; we work in an open floor plan, so noise canceling headphones are a frequent sight for head-down, focused work.
Block out everything entirely with earplugs
Our managing editor and content marketing strategist, Kateri Kosta, recommends not just canceling noise, but blocking it out altogether when needed (and they’re a must-have for me too).
Put on ambient, non-invasive music
Kateri says Bach cello suites are her “secret weapon”; I personally swear by the never-ending lo-fi radio station on YouTube.
2. Move somewhere new (and maybe slightly noisier) to work
There are multiple reasons why getting out of your office—even a home office—can help you focus better.
For one, the change of scenery can provide a much-needed jolt that will help shift you into work mode. But sometimes, the location itself can help you focus better, depending on the level of ambient noise. If you’ve ever wondered why you work better at a buzzy coffee shop than in a quiet place, it’s because the noise level of the average coffee shop (around 70 decibels) has actually been shown to encourage better creative thinking than a quiet workspace (or, alternately, a very noisy one).
3. Be selective about notification settings
Create systems for using Slack
Slack is great, but it has its place—and even when used effectively, it can still be hugely distracting. “My worst distraction is Slack, which is still work, but it does draw me away a lot,” says Sean Serrels, our director of customer advocacy for PAS. “As Slack things are often things I need to pay attention to, I find myself using the ‘remind me about this in X minutes’ feature constantly.”
Beyond that, consider setting hours where you’ll do concentrated work and be off Slack entirely—and it should go without saying, but communicate this to your colleagues for best results. On the marketing team, we’ll often announce that we’re “going dark” when we need to carve out a chunk of head-down work time; this serves as an easy way to communicate to the team that we won’t be available on Slack for a while.
Designate time for answering emails
Similarly, if new emails are continually grabbing your attention, the easiest thing to do is turn off your notifications for a period of time, or avoid keeping your email up as a tab in your browser all day long.
That said, since you probably use email for your customer service, and since customer response time matters, it’s important to set up a system for periodically taking a break at planned intervals and catching up on your inbox—rather than ignoring your email completely. This could look like scheduling two hour-long blocks in your Google calendar at the beginning and end of your day to take care of emails and then avoiding it in between, taking 15 minutes (timed!) every couple hours to check and respond, or similar.
Consolidate your notifications in general
Maybe you’re mostly interested in muting your incoming notifications altogether. This recommendation is technically another tool—but one with the aim of eliminating the distracting notification onslaught of all your other tools.
Corey Abramson, our ecommerce and digital marketing manager, uses Franz, that pulls all your communication platforms and tools (email, Slack, texts, and so on) into one window—which you can then mute.
Consider apps like Isolator or Hocus Focus
If you need to focus on just one window, there are dozens of apps that will eliminate, blur, or otherwise hide all windows except the one you’re currently using. This can be helpful if you need to just knock out a single project without constantly task switching. And, if you’re finding it impossible to avoid switching tabs and distracting yourself, there are plenty of website-blocker apps that will lock you out of one (or several) websites for a prescribed amount of time.
4. Structure your day to minimize disruptions
Try the Pomodoro technique
You’ve likely heard of using the Pomodoro method, as it’s one of the more popular time-based focus techniques. Essentially, you work for 25 minutes (no breaks), and then take a five-minute break. After four rounds, take a 15 to 30-minute break, and then start the cycle over again.
Create your own on-off break schedule
While the Pomodoro technique has name recognition, the consensus from a variety of studies is that everyone has a different optimal work-break schedule. So, do some testing. Try working for somewhere between 30 and 90 minutes, without pause, and note when you start to feel your attention wandering or your work becoming lower quality. Then, create a “Pomodoro-esque” setup that capitalizes on what you’ve learned about your ideal schedule.
Schedule in short, deliberate breaks
I often, with the best intentions, sit down and try to write an entire article or complete an entire project in one go. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the best way to go about things. It’s been estimated that our brains need a break at least every 50 to 90 minutes—and if we try to push on past that, the quality of our work can suffer.
So, consider creating a workflow structure that integrates periods of intense focus with periods of planned, conscious rest, where you stop working completely. Even if you don’t follow a designated work-break schedule like the ones mentioned above, schedule specific breaks into your day—and stick to your schedule.
5. Evaluate your priorities daily
All the to-do list apps in the world can’t always beat writing things down—there’s something impactful about physically writing out your to-do items or goals for the day. Here are some ways that taking a moment to put pen to paper can make your day more focused.
List your to-do items on paper and display them prominently
Consider writing down a to-do list on a piece of paper, rather than in an app, and displaying it where you can see it all day long. “I’ve found that writing out my tasks/goals for the day on a piece of paper really helps,” says Joey O’Shaughnessy, our sales representative at PAS.
“The sort of slow process of writing them out makes me think of them more (versus typing them out), plus I can keep that piece of paper on my desk in front of me at all times,” says Joey. “I’ve tried various technical solutions—project management apps, list apps, etc., but always found that adding another piece of technology to my already growing list didn’t help. It just became another tab in my browser for me to ignore.”
I regularly create checklists for myself. They can take on a variety of forms—stuff I want to get done today, things I need to accomplish at some point this week, recurring activities I want to do on a daily basis, you name it.
Like any type of to-do list, a checklist helps you hone in on the essential things you need to get done. Checklists help me in the sense that they not only narrow my focus (and so allow me to focus better), but that they also encourage me to break tasks into manageable steps. It’s related to the approach of setting SMART goals; rather than one large, unwieldy project, the goal is to end up with time-based, clear, realistic action items that can be checked off.
Steve Day, our QA lead here at PAS, recommends the book “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,” which discusses how using checklists can improve efficacy in a variety of fields and use-cases.
Take time to write out your intentions
Before you start working, consider taking a moment to set your intentions for your workday. This doesn’t have to be an actual to-do list—in fact, consider thinking of the two separately.
Overall, what do you want to accomplish today? What’s your ideal outcome? What things need to get done, and what are just optional? What is the highest priority, if-only-one-thing-got-done-it-should-be-that task? “I like to write in my journal for about 30 minutes every morning while I’m eating my breakfast and try to set intentions for the day and sort out what I need to do, both work and personal,” says Flora Winters, one of our customer service advocates at Palo Alto. “It helps me focus on what’s important and strategize my time.”
Flora also recommends a strategy called “parallel play,” which has roots in creative writing but can be used in any type of focused work. “The idea is that you need to stop a task just before you reach a sense of completion so that you have momentum when you sit back down, but not to take too long of a break, making it impossible to get back into a flow state,” she explains. “The optimum is 50 minutes of work, 10-minute break.”
Experiment, and develop your own systems
As clichéd as it sounds: Staying focused at work is made a lot easier by figuring out what works best for you personally.
Adding apps and tech makes you feel like you’re being pulled in even more directions? Consider going low tech when you need to focus. Do you do your best work in 90-minute stretches, punctuated by a 20-minute break? Great—disregard the Pomodoro technique entirely and create a system around that.
Build your own systems, and when you’re feeling unfocused, you’ll know exactly what tactics to put in place.