what to do when you can’t focus at work

Ever have a day where you just can’t seem to focus on your work? Maybe it’s your coworker’s distracting phone calls, or the lure of social media, or thoughts about an upcoming vacation, but for whatever reason, we all have days where our concentration is shot.

Ever have a day where you just can’t seem to focus on your work? Maybe it’s your coworker’s distracting phone calls, or the lure of social media, or thoughts about an upcoming vacation, but for whatever reason, we all have days where our concentration is shot. Here’s what to do when it happens to you.

1. Change your location. If your environment itself is posing an obvious distraction (like a meeting happening on the other side of your cubicle or an annoying rattle coming through the vent), changing locations will obviously help. But even if your environment isn’t at fault, sometimes simply changing venues can help reset your brain and bring back your focus. Try temporarily moving to a conference room or a coffee shop and see if your focus returns.

2. Make your work area and computer distraction-free. If changing locations isn’t an option or isn’t helping, try eliminating distractions from your immediate work area and your computer itself. For instance, shut down your email program, turn off notifications, file away those papers that are littering your desk, change your IM status to “busy,” and see if your mind feels clearer.

3. Tell yourself that you’re going to work on a project for 10 minutes and then will take a break. Committing for only 10 minutes is pretty easy, and often you’ll find that once you’ve started, you’re able to keep going. And if you need that break 10 minutes in, you’ve still made some headway that you wouldn’t have otherwise done.

4. Stop fighting it, and turn to activities that require less focus. If you try both of the above without success, your brain might just need a break right now. Rather than fighting it, see if you can use the time to do activities that don’t require intense focus, like filing, cleaning out your desk, dealing with expense reimbursements, or anything else that needs to be done at some point but which doesn’t tax you mentally.

As part of doing that, you should also…

5. Prioritize ruthlessly. It’s all well and good to spend the day on low-focus activities if nothing is pressing, but that might not be realistic for the whole day. Ask yourself what the absolute most important things are you for you to accomplish today. Are there tasks where you’d feel terrible if they were undone at the end of the day? Tell yourself that you’re going to do those now so that they’re not hanging over you, but that you won’t pressure yourself to go beyond that if your brain is rebelling.

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. Stephanie*

    My last two jobs required sort of constant intense focus (I was a glorified technical Googler, kind of). #3 was a lifesaver for the days I just couldn’t concentrate.

    1. Ama*

      I use #3 all the time, along with a variation of “just get this one task done” which really helps on days when my to do list feels like it is spiraling out of control (my lack of focus tends to get worse when I’m overwhelmed).

  2. Eva*

    Meditation is really helpful too. The time investment (I meditate for 30 minutes every day) more than pays for itself in improved efficiency. Curious how many other commenters meditate?

    1. Stephanie*

      I didn’t meditate exactly. OldJob’s office was right by a cemetery. I would sometimes take quick walks around it if I was unfocused.

  3. De Minimis*

    Really want to read this, but work software blocks anything with “blog” in the title or the URL. Will have to catch it when I get home or maybe check my phone.

  4. De Minimis*

    I do 3 and 4 all the time, and to a lesser extent 5. I’m lucky in that I *always* have a lot of less focus oriented tasks that I can do when I need to.

    I also love taking walks, that helps a lot.

  5. Senor Poncho*

    Checking in. We get crazy busy sometimes and when I’m coming down from a busy period, I get these episodes where I just. can’t. focus.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      That seems to be where I struggle the most, too. If I have an impossibly tight deadline, I am laser focused, but when it’s time to just work on background work, forget it.

  6. HR Pro*

    I’ve found that taking a short walk — even simply a wide loop around my entire floor of the building — helps a lot. I didn’t believe it at first, but I’ve been doing it for months now and it really does seem to clear out the brain and help me remember what my priorities are.

    1. brightstar*

      I do that, too. For some reason getting outdoors and away for just a few minutes helps to re-energize me. I’ve started taking a short walk everyday at lunch (10-20 minutes) and find my productivity in the afternoon has increased quite a bit.

    2. TOC*

      Yep, walks (outside if weather permits) really help me. If I can’t go outside, I get some help just by sitting/standing near a sunny window and watching the outside world for a few minutes.

      I also love changing my workspace like Alison suggested. Coffee shops and libraries really increase my focus, but even facing/sitting at a different part of my desk helps. I’ll undock my laptop or switch from a computer task to one that can be done on paper.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        This also works when you can’t sleep, or at least it does for me. If I’m having trouble sleeping and then change locations (i.e., move to the guest room bed), I can suddenly sleep.

        1. LBK*

          Why does this work so well? I used to go sleep on the living room couch all the time in high school when I couldn’t fall asleep in bed. Weird.

          1. Eva*

            I’m sure there are more reasons, but I think one reason might be that the temperature in the new location is lower. Often when I can’t sleep it’s because it’s too warm in the room.

          2. Kelly L.*

            Yes! In one of my old places, I used to have trouble sleeping in my actual bed, but would be out in 5 minutes if I went to lie down on the living room couch. The living room couch was not even comfortable! It was too short for me and had hard armrests. But it was an instant trip to the land of Nod.

        2. Windchime*

          This happens to me with sleep, too. I can be wide awake and tossing and turning, but if I move to the sofa downstairs–bam. Out like a light. I haven’t tried it so much with work; what works for me best is the combination of turning off email and telling myself , “No browser!”. Then I put on my noise-blocking headphones with a white noise app. I usually can focus at that point, except that my headphones seem to serve as a signal to others that they should sneak up behind me and tap me on the shoulder.

    1. BeenThere*

      Hehe I load up the articles on my phone then find somewhere to hide. Like a random floor we don’t have offices on.

  7. Viktoria*

    Any tips for focusing specifically outside of work hours and working from home/hotel rooms? My job requires 6-8 hours on-site work most days and virtually neverending paperwork which often must be completed on evenings and weekends. Lately I’m feeling overwhelmed and utterly lacking the focus/desire to get it done. Last night I basically pulled on all nighter to finish some stuff that was past due already- I loathe being so inefficient.

    1. Rayner*

      Break it down into time periods. 20/10s work for me where you work for 20 and then rest/do something else for ten but some people like 45/15s or 30s/10s etc.

      And set a timer and work until it goes off – maybe do it on your phone so you can keep track of it. You have to really stick to it but then you essentially teach your brain that you focus hard in short bursts.

      1. Viktoria*

        This is a great idea- I need to knuckle down and try this. Preferably tonight. I always just have the hardest time starting- after a long day or week (I usually have travel time in addition) I quite simply don’t wanna! I have to figure out a way to get over that while I have this job, though.

        1. TOC*

          Try a Pomodoro Method timer; there are plenty of free ones online. They help force me to buckle down when I’m really struggling to get stuff done.

          1. Aardvark*

            I use timer-tab (.com) and I put it in the same window and in front of the tabs that distract me the most (personal email, AAM, work chat client) when I can’t focus. It blocks those from my line of sight when I tab over chrome in the toolbar (I can’t see that I have a new email) and it lets me use visiting a fun site as a reward when the timer goes off.

          2. Rayner*

            I never knew that was what it was called – I just call it unfuckyourhabitat method because that’s where I learnt it from!

  8. Artemesia*

    I have had this problem when facing major writing tasks. For that, I pick a part of the task that is easy for me — maybe the chapter I am most interested in, and go to that, out of sequence and do it backing eventually into the harder parts of the project.

    For just general ‘can’t focus, don’t wanna work’ I just make a list of everything that needs done and then knock a few of the ones that require no serious thought or effort but have to be done. Just getting a bunch done, even if it is not important or difficult, is sort of reinforcing and makes it easier to get back to the tough stuff.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I save stuff I’m most interested in for last, to motivate me to write the stuff I’m not that interested in (mostly transitional things). There’s always at least one chapter or scene I can’t wait to write, and that’s the one.

    2. I'm a Little Teapot*

      I pick whatever is closest to what I’ve done so far or has coalesced the best in my brain. Or whatever ideas are actually flowing for, even if it’s not the next part or the most important part. Often getting a bunch of ideas down will stimulate more ideas.

    3. bridget*

      I pick the thing that’s closest to being finished. I think of it like the “debt snowball” Dave Ramsey strategy (Note: I don’t actually read Dave Ramsey, but I’ve heard he recommends choosing your smallest debt and knocking that one out first, even if it has a lower interest rate, so that you can feel a sense of accomplishment and not get discouraged). That way I get to check something off my list sooner, feel good about it, and use that to motivate myself. When I’m loathing myself for my low productivity is when it’s most difficult to incrase productivity, unfortunately.

    4. bridget*

      I pick the thing that’s closest to being finished. I think of it like the “debt snowball” Dave Ramsey strategy (Note: I don’t actually read Dave Ramsey, but I’ve heard he recommends choosing your smallest debt and knocking that one out first, even if it has a lower interest rate, so that you can feel a sense of accomplishment and not get discouraged). That way I get to check something off my list sooner, feel good about it, and use that to motivate myself. When I’m loathing myself for my low productivity is when it’s most difficult to increase productivity, unfortunately.

  9. Golden Yeti*

    I’ve also read that difficulty focusing can be a symptom of burnout, so there is also that angle to consider.

  10. Allison*

    I used to hate my location – many people walking/stomping/running past (behind me) all day was really distracting, coupled with the people who would come over and chat with other members of the team about this or that thing that needed to be discussed but didn’t quite necessitate scrambling to find a conference room, and all the phone calls and chatter – it was too much! And headphones helped a little, but then I often wouldn’t know if there was someone approaching me from behind, and that made me nervous. So I talked to my manager about it, and he agreed that with the heads-down nature of my role it made sense to put me in a walled-off cubicle near the team, so I could quietly focus on my work.

    Moral of the story, tell your manager if your environment is driving you nuts. Maybe there’s nothing they can do, but maybe there is.

  11. HR Generalist*

    I have a few strategies – I get up and use the washroom, get a glass of water, or other small errand when I return I usually feel motivated.
    I also have a Tassimo in my office so making a latte or cappucino gives me a small break and then I focus while I drink it.
    Other times I just have to threaten myself and force myself to close the distraction (as usually the internet is the distraction) or remind myself that it’s likely corporate is watching my internet usage and I should *probably* spend less than 3 hours/day on social networking. Fear is a good motivator!

  12. Cath in Canada*

    I always have at least one “grunt work” task on the back burner at any given time – something that’s repetitive and not urgent – for days when I’m having a hard time focusing on anything more involved. Right now it’s backfilling some data in a tracking spreadsheet, and also reformatting some other spreadsheets following an excellent Excel course I took a few weeks ago. That way if there’s a lot of background noise or I’m feeling a bit under the weather or having a hard time settling into focused work for any reason, I can work on that task for half an hour. It usually snaps me back into “work mode” quite quickly.

  13. Not an IT Guy*

    Great tips! My problem is that I have a coworker who at times has caused me to lose up to 3 hours a day because he likes to talk. During that time my attention has to be on him, so no work, no answering phones, nothing. Any advice to deal with this lack of focus?

      1. Not an IT Guy*

        He’s senior to me but not a manager…and he’s already yelled at me and called me rude and disrespectful for telling him I need to get back to work. He’s also told me never to undermine him so I’m afraid to go to my boss for fear of losing my job.

        1. AnonPi*

          Do you share office space with him? If so could you ask to be relocated? (Not necessarily imply he’s the problem, just come up with something about the noise/lighting/etc) Or if you don’t, are you in an office you could shut the door? One of the things I’ve done before (when I had my own office) when I really needed people to leave me alone so I can work, was to shut the door and put a post it on there that said ‘conference call’ or ‘meeting’. People knew they could still knock if it was urgent, but otherwise didn’t bother me.

          If neither of those, can you wear headphones? Pretend not to hear him and he’ll go away?

          1. Not an IT Guy*

            Actually it’s only me and him in our branch so re-location isn’t exactly an option. And I can’t wear headphones because I have to be able to hear the doorbell to assist walk-in customers.

        2. fposte*

          I would be inclined to share it with my manager anyway, presuming you have a good relationship with your manager. Not in the “Make Bob stop talking to me!” way, but in the “Bob ranks high around here and he’s made it clear he thinks I should be listening to him–is the org okay with that priority? If you want something different to happen, can you help me do that without it being a problem with Bob, since he’s been pretty upset when I’ve tried to handle it?”

        3. BRR*

          Instead of asking just to get back to work do you think it would work to phrase it as “I have this tight deadline I have to meet.”

          Not knowing the organizational structure does he even have power or influence to get you fired? I imagine most managers would be unhappy that he is costing them up to 3 hours of work from you. I think you might be worrying too much. It’s not a great argument for him to say, “Not an IT Guy is insisting he work instead of talking with me.” I can’t think of any phrasing really in which he doesn’t look terrible.

          This is null and void if he is super high up.

        4. Rayner*

          Go to your manager. Just clarify what the expectation is for you to be talking with this guy and how your manager wants to handle you breaking off conversations – is this guy high up enough that for the sake of keeping the peace, it’s worth it to just let him carry on? Or is your work too important?

          The other thing I would do is keep track of it – is there a specific time that he always comes and finds you and you could then find a way to be away from your desk at that point? Like, if he always comes between 10 and 10:15, make that your time that you go and consult with another department – just somewhere away from your desk.

          1. Rayner*

            Also, figure out what’s keeping him there. Do you give lots of nonverbal feedback and get into conversations? If that’s the case, go down to being polite but quite unresponsive. Make it so a conversation is really hard work for him, but you’re not cutting it off. A lot of people go away after they realise you’re not playing ball.

            You: That’s tough.
            Him: YES BLAH BORING WORDS.
            You: I see.

  14. Grand Mouse*

    I find getting something to eat or drink really helps! It gives you necessary energy (I know I wait too long to eat), and having it as a comfort item gets me back on track. It also helps give you short breaks.

  15. Meg*

    Also, if you find yourself having a lot of days when you “just can’t concentrate”, or days when you’re tired without any real reason, or if you find yourself losing interest in projects you used to care about a great deal, get yourself checked out for depression – those are all less-well-known symptoms.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot*

      +1000. What really scared me and spurred me to get treatment was that not only did I not care about work, but I couldn’t enjoy my hobbies any more. Sadly the problem has recurred, though I think it’s starting to get better, but I was terrified that something in my brain had permanently turned off and I’d never be able to enjoy anything again. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.

      1. SerialNumber*

        The same thing has happened to me…I’m in the middle of my third bout with major depressive disorder and the first sign (though I only saw it in hindsight) was that I was utterly uninterested in my job…I love what I do, and within my network, I have gained a reputation as a troubleshooter/project fixer, and that’s what I was hired to do for Ex-Horrible Job. (Turns out no one on that project *wanted* to fix anything, but that’s another story.) Anyway, my lack of interest combined with horrible ex-boss led to me getting let go from that job. Thanks to a *very* solid network of fantastic people, I had two jobs created for me within a week…but took the depression/anxiety (and PSTD from ex-job/being fired) to the new job. I’m in treatment, and at least the PSTD is gone, but the rest is still there. If you suspect you may be depressed, even mildly, check with your primary care physician…he or she can diagnose depression and prescribe meds if needed, and also refer you to a psychiatrist if needed. It’s hard to ask for help when you are depressed but it’s sooo much more difficult to recover if you don’t, and can suck years away from you being your best.

  16. Gallerina*

    Any suggestions on what to do if you can never focus? I started a new job 6 months ago and I just seem to suffer from a chronic inability to get things done without a looming deadline or horrendous consequences.

    1. GOG11*

      Is it the nature of your role? Ex, are you tasked with handling a lot of little interruptions while trying to work on bigger projects that require focus? If that’s the case, I don’t know (I’m looking for the solution to that myself).

      If you’re distraction free and only the pressure of a deadline brings about your ability to focus, I’d recommend talking to a doctor about ADD/ADHD if you’re comfortable doing so. I was diagnosed back in college and the big thing my psychiatrist noticed was that my focus was triggered by stress.

      The way he put it, if I remember correctly, was that ADD/ADHD are treated by stimulants. Adrenaline, which is released when you’re stressed out, is a stimulant. So you’re self medicating by stressing yourself out. This is somewhat effective, but it, well, stresses you out – mentally and physically. I found a medication that works well for me and I don’t have nearly as many problems as I did before.

      Many people think of ADD/ADHD as not being able to pay attention but, really, I think it goes both ways. You can be hyperfocused at times (like when you find something really interesting…sometimes I’ll come up from the rabbit hole and realize three hours are gone and I’m really hungry) and completely unfocused during others (low stimulation/”boring” activities). It’s more about managing/controlling the level of focus.

      I don’t know if that is an option or a possibility for you, though.

    2. BRR*

      Two questions:

      1) Are you really overqualified for the position?

      2) Are you new to the working world? I find it’s difficult for some people to switch from being a student to an office.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      People get energy from different sources. It could be that you get energy/motivation from a “crisis” or near crisis situation.

      Can you give yourself deadlines? “By 10 AM, I will have completed A and B. By noon, I will have done C, D and E.”

      If you find yourself doing repetitive tasks, then time yourself. “I did ten reports in an hour and 40 minutes yesterday, let me see if I can do that again.”

      If nothing is working, ask yourself if this is normal for you or if there is something about the job.

    4. olivia*

      Ugh, I’m dealing with this. My job is changing for the next 2 years while our building is under construction, and basically all of my typical projects will be on hold. I’ve only been affected by this for a couple of months but the lack of deadlines and high-priority projects is already killing my productivity. I’ve been job searching with this new self-awareness in mind. There are other factors at play, but going bonkers from the quiet and losing out on 2 years of the work I signed up to do are both pretty unappealing.

      Your name makes me wonder if you work in a gallery or museum – I do too! It’s a field that can be extremely good for those of us who need thrive in high pressure, high energy situations, and it makes me do my best. Very much depends on the specific role and the workplace culture though…

  17. Chinook*

    I used a variation of #3 when I was teaching high school. There was one grade 11 student who was very socialable and had a hard time sitting and concentrating on his work and, as a result, would start miving around and chatting with others (interrupting their work while trying figure out how to mathematically move a SIN wave around a graph). I jokingly brought in a cow shaped timer and told him he would have to work for 10 minutes before he could say a word. It worked so well in keeping him focused that he would work until the ding, get up and stretch and then sit down and reset the time on his own, helping everyone around him also get 10 minutes of unbroken quiet time as well.

  18. The Other Dawn*

    I seem to not be able to focus at work A LOT. Not sure what my problem is. I thought it was that I disliked my job or was bored, but when the company failed and I got a job I hated, I really missed that other job. Then I couldn’t focus at the job I hated, because, well, I hated it and nothing about it was right. Now I have a new job that I really like and I love the company and people, but still find it so hard to focus. I seem to want to jump from task to task to task without ever completing anything. It’s really annoying and it worries me, too.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        Hmm. Never really thought about it. No, I don’t think I have this issue at home.

        I’m wondering if the act of sitting at a desk all day is part of the problem. Every so often I get a muscle spasm in my back (maybe twice a year), which leaves me in pain for at least a week, minimum. During those times it’s very difficult to have to sit down and focus on something because my lower back is killing me. Now that I think about it, I realize that ever since I had a very severe spasm a few years ago, I find it really hard to sit at my desk so long. Maybe I just need to get up a lot more than I do.

        1. Beezus*

          Maybe look into whether your workplace can get you a stand-up work station? I used to have one, and I really miss it. One of my coworkers actually had a desktop with a electric lift on it that could alternate between being a stand-up station and a sit-down one; I was so jealous!

        2. Not So NewReader*

          My chiro taps the muscle spasms. Try tapping it- oh, like 50 times or so. Not hard. This worked each time he did it, so I started doing it on my own. Tap the area that seems the most sensitive. Sometimes I have to pull out my hair brush and use that to tap with because I cannot quite reach the spot. Remember to tap gently, not hard. For what you are describing, I might tap in two or three places- just to make sure the thing would calm down.

    1. Rita*

      I feel the same way too. I love my job, but I can’t focus on the things I have on my plate. Mostly because there’s no major consequences if they don’t get done (for example, my company isn’t going to go under if I keep delaying getting the blog off the ground…). I move on from task to task to task without getting much headway in anything.

      The one thing that does work for me is the Pomodoro Technique. Work for 20/25 minutes straight, take a 5 minute break, then work for another 20/25 minutes, take another break, and so on. Although due to my lack of focus I usually only get 2-3 cycles of this before I fall off the rails, it really does help me. There are apps and desktop timers if you google it.

  19. INTP*

    Totally agree with changing location – somehow I wind up concentrating better at Starbucks when I can’t at home, even though it’s louder and colder and smellier in there.

    I love the Pomodoro method – set a timer (preferably one that runs continuously without needing to be reset) for 25 minutes on and 5 minutes off. You can be extremely productive but feel like you’re getting a lot of breaks. On my least focused days, I might have to adjust it to 20 minutes work with 10 minute breaks or even 10/5. But it helps me avoid taking a short break that turns into 30 minutes off-task.

    And if procrastination is just going to happen, period, that day, try to make it work for yourself. Use other work to procrastinate what you’re really, really not wanting to do. I’ll tell myself “I’m off the hook for homework for the rest of the day if I clean instead.” At work, you could use some low-energy busywork that tends to build up instead of a mentally demanding task.

    1. Rita*

      I second the Pomodoro Technique! My focus is horrible, and so far that’s the only thing that works for me.

  20. super anon*

    at my last job my desk was at the end of a hallway right outside of the kitchen and near the meeting room. the person w/ their actual office behind me never closed their door and i found it so hard to focus on my work, which often required a lot of really complex data analysis or writing duties. moving locations wasn’t an option for me – so what i did was i invested in an expensive pair of noise cancelling headphones and would listen to classical music all day. it blocked out the distractions, and helped me focus on what i needed to get done.

    another trick of mine is to put on talk radio or a tv show that i don’t really like (documentaries are good for this) in a headphone in one ear. the droning background noise really helps me to concentrate on tasks that have to get done.

  21. NebraskaLass*

    I’ve had some success using concentration grids, which I’ve been told professional baseball pitchers use. It’s a grid with the numbers 1 – 99 in it, all scrambled up. You have to put them in order as fast as you can (harder than it sounds!). The idea is that it gets your brain completely focused on the task at hand, so all the other little things you were thinking about just fall away. You then turn straight to the thing you actually want to be doing with a mind that is distraction-free. Like I said, I’ve had quite a bit of success with it!

  22. Melissa*

    I was having a lot of these lately, and what really helped me is installing and using WasteNoTime on my Safari browser. It’s like LeechBlock – the way I use it is I add sites I am likely to waste time on to the block list (sadly, this one too) and then only allow 60 minutes of browse time between the hours of 8 and 6. Then I set it to block those sites. That way I can use the rest of the web while only blocking the sites that I am most likely to waste time on. I also set it to give me a challenge to solve before I can change any settings (I have to type a long string of letters and numbers perfectly, and case matters – I tried it once for a legitimate change, to add a site to the block list, and it took some time). 60 minutes, I have found, is just enough time to accommodate a lunch break and/or some mini breaks when I need to tear my mind away, but not so long that I find myself wasting huge chunks of time.

    It’s worked so dramatically it’s kind of unbelievable. I have found myself so much more productive just making that one change.

  23. John*

    I was really unfocused this morning. I had to get something done but it wasn’t happening.
    I have two monitors (23 in) at my desk… really useful for some things, but not so much for being focused today.
    I shut off my second monitor for two hours, and I was way more focused. Now that thing is done, and I’m back to the other method… reading AAM. :)

    I’m starting to think that a single bigger, high resolution monitor would be better. I have one at home. Room for two windows at once if need to view two things, but then full size when focusing is needed.

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