What to Do When You’re Feeling Distracted at Work (2024)


Sometimes there’s so much going on in your life, and the broader world, that you can’t focus. What can you do when every time you sit down at your desk, you feel distracted? Start by understanding the impact distractions, like a constantly pinging phone or even a quick Twitter break, have on your brain. Multitasking doesn’t work and has high cognitive costs. When you find yourself distracted, use a simple breathing exercise to break the immediate cycle of anxiety and frustration. Acknowledge those feelings, but don’t get swept up in them. Think about how you want to act as a colleague and a leader and let that self-image guide your behavior. Be sure to set clear boundaries for yourself around when you’ll go on social media or check email. And be mindful of whom you spend time with. Because of social contagion, colleagues who are overwhelmed and distracted are likely to make you feel the same way. Try to make your relationships supportive: Ask coworkers for advice and commit to keeping each other on task. Finally, don’t neglect self-care. Take breaks, eat healthily, and get sleep.

Sometimes there’s so much going on in your life, and the world, that you can’t focus. What can you do when every time you sit down at your desk, you feel distracted? How can you get back to feeling focused and productive?

What the Experts Say
Feeling distracted and unproductive is something most people struggle with, says Susan David, founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and author ofEmotional Agility. Especially because most of us are constantly bombarded by news alerts, text messages, and other interruptions. And even on days when you might feel industrious, you have to contend with what’s going on with your coworkers. “We very subtly pick up on others’ behaviors and emotions,” David says. “When this happens, we can start to lose our way.” Rich Fernandez, CEO of the nonprofit Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a global mindfulness and emotional intelligence training organization, notes that we’re actually wired this way. “One thing we all have in common is a fundamental neuroanatomy that orients us toward stress that isn’t always productive,” he explains. To overcome this and regain your focus, take the following steps.

Understand the dangers of multitasking
Start by understanding the impact that distractions, like a constantly pinging phone or quick Twitter break, have on your brain. Fernandez explains that we have anetwork of brain structures related to focus. There’s the default mode network, which is responsible for analyzing the past, forecasting or planning for the future, and reflectingon oneself and others. “We’re in this mode at least half of the time,” he says. But when you need to focus your mind, you tap into the direct attention network, which allows you to put aside ruminations and stay on task. Distractions, in whatever form they take, pull you back into default mode, and the cognitive cost of regaining your focusis high. “Some research shows it can take 10–18 minutes to get the same level of attention back,” Fernandez says. This is why it’s critical to reduce interruptions.

Allow for your emotional response, but stay in charge
Feeling overwhelmed can bring up a lot of emotions— frustration, anger, anxiety—that take a further toll on your productivity. So you have to “break the cycle,” David says. To “regain a sense of agency,” so you don’t feel “at the mercy of the events going on in the world or in your office,” label your feelings and then ask yourself questions about them. You might say, “OK, I’m feeling angry, but who’s in charge—the anger or me, the person having the emotion?” Fernandez agrees with this approach: “You want to acknowledge that these feelings are there — they’re legitimate and significant — but not get swept awayby them.”

Gather your attention
When you do find yourself distracted, “Pause, take stock, be aware that you’re being triggered,” Fernandez says. “Then switch the spotlight of your attention.” This might feel easier said than done, but remind yourself that most of the things we worry about “aren’t immediate existential threats.” To reconnect with the logical part of your brain, focus it on “something more immediate or visceral, like your breath.” You might say to yourself, “I’ve become consumed by this Twitter thread. I’m going to pay attention to my breathing” to pivot away from what’s causingthe anxiety. Fernandez says this isn’t the same as trying to ignore the distraction: “You don’t have to stifle it or suppress it. Make note of it, acknowledge it, and put it ina mentalparking lot to think about later, when you can discuss it with someone else, or when you’re not at work and have lots to do.”

Rely on your values
Once you’ve gathered your attention, you can choose where to focus it. David says that concentrating on your values gives you a sense of control. “When you’re overwhelmed, it feels like a lot of power and choices are being taken away from you,” she says. “But you still get to choose who you want to be. If one of your core values is to be collaborative, focus on that. How can you help people feel like part of the team?” And consider how your lack of focus is affecting your sense of self. “If fairness is important to you, how is your distraction contributing to your ability to be fair? If you’re on Facebook for three hours a day, how fair is that to your team or your family?”

Put up boundaries
Once you have more awareness about what distracts you, set rules for yourself. If you realize that checking news in the morning means that you’re upset and unfocused when you get to the office, tell yourself that you won’t catch up on world events until lunchtime. Or you can decide that you’re going to get a certain amount of work done before you go on Facebook. If you don’t have the self-control for this, there are apps you can install in your browsers or on your phone to control how much time you spend on particular sites. You also have to practice. “There’s a lot of research that suggests the difference between elite focus and non-elite focus is deliberate focus,” Fernandez says. He points to athletes who train by telling themselves, for example, “I’m not going to leave the free-throw line until I make 10 free throws.” So spend time training your brain to stay on task.

Choose whom you interact with wisely
Social contagion is real. “We’ve all had that experience when you go into an elevator and everyone is looking at their cell phones, so you start looking at yours,” David says. She points to recent research that shows that if someone next to you on an airplane buys candy— even if you don’t knowthe person— you’re 30% more likely to make a similar purchase. The same goes for productivity. If you have colleagues who are constantly distracted themselves, or who tend to pull you away from work, try to spend less time with them. You don’t have to be rude; you can say something simple like, “Can we continue this conversation later? I want to get this report done and then I can take a break.”

Give and get support from your colleagues
Instead of avoiding your distracted colleagues, you could try to encourage each other to stay focused. Make a pact with your coworkers. Set up a time where you will work without interrupting each other or without getting on social media or Slack. The team I work with at HBRdesignated Thursday afternoons as uninterrupted work time after listening to this podcast. You can take this collegial support one step further and actively support each other. “Your peers are in the trenches with you and they can relate because they’re in the same culture and organization,” Fernandez says. Go out to coffee with a coworker and “ask for advice, counsel, and coaching.” They may have tactics that have worked for them that you haven’t thought of. Make a commitment to one another that you’re going to change your behavior and check in regularly on your progress. When you tell someone else that you want to reform your ways, you’re more likely to follow through.

Take care of your body
If you’re tired and wornout, you’re going to be more vulnerable to feeling overwhelmed, David says. It’s important to get enough sleep and exercise. Also, she suggests making “tiny tweaks in your environment” that improve your well-being. Take breaks, eat a healthy lunch, put your phone on silent. “If you normally spend your lunch hour on Facebook, leave your phone behind and go outside for a walk instead,” she says.

Principles to Remember


  • Use breathing to break the immediate cycle of anxiety and frustration with being distracted
  • Think about how you want to act as a colleague and a leader and let that self-image guide your behavior
  • Set boundaries around when you’ll go on social media or check email


  • Fool yourself into thinking distractions aren’t harmful to your focus— they have high cognitive costs
  • Spend time with people who are distracted— you’re likely to end up feeling the same way
  • Neglect self-care—take breaks, eat healthily, and get sleep

Case Study #1: Schedule time to focus
Over the past year, Emily Lin, a vice president at a financial services company, had a lot on her plate. She was building her private coaching practice and had received a promotion at work. Because of the expanded scope of her responsibilities, she was dealing with a whole host of new distractions. “I got so many more emails, instant messages, and phone calls. And people were coming by my office much more frequently,” she says.

Emily was having trouble getting her work done. “I would see all these instant messages or email alerts popping up, and even if it just took a few seconds to read them or send a quick response, it would take me away from what I was doing,” she says. And it was affectingher mood. “Certain messages would stress me out. I was becoming very short-tempered with my coworkers.”

She had previously learned to set boundaries for herself around social media by scheduling in time for distractions. “I gave myself pockets of time when I could go on Facebook. It might be a 10-minute break between meetings or while I was waiting for the elevator to go to lunch. Once I baked those breaks in, I found it a lot easier to control the impulse to check social media while I was working,” she explains.

She didsomething similar to address the work interruptions: allow herself time to read and respond to messages, but only after getting her most important work completed. “At the beginning of each week, I ask myself, ‘What are the most critical things I have to complete?’ And each day, I ask, ‘Today, what is the one thing I absolutely have to do?’” She says that helps her determine how much time she needs to focus and then she blocks that out in two-hour chunks. “For a two-hour window, I turn off email, put ‘do not disturb’ on instant messenger, and send my phone directly to voicemail.” She even puts on headphones as a way to signal to would-be visitors that she’s busy.

Two hours seems to be the right amount of time, she says. It gives her enough time to get deeply involved in a task, and it’s a “tolerable amount of time to be unreachable,” she says. “After that, people start to call back or email again.” Plus it gives her a sense of urgency. “I have the adrenaline to get things done.”

Emily says this approach has worked: “It’s had a noticeable effect on my productivity.” And she feels less stressed. “Because I’m not constantly looking at my email throughout the day, my blood pressure isn’t always escalated. I’m a lot more patient now when I am interrupted.”

She points out that getting more sleep has also helped her resist distractions. A few years ago she was only sleeping three orfour hours a night, but she has drastically revamped her sleep schedule and is now gettingfromsix and a half tosevenhours a night. “I went from feeling overwhelmed andunableto focus to being able to think clearly,” she says. “When I’m well rested, I have more perspective. I know I don’t have to respond to an email right away.” She’s even become “a huge sleep evangelist” with her coaching clients.

Case Study #2: Set boundaries
Sarah Taylor (not her real name), an HR manager at an international humanitarian organization, struggled to stay focused at work for several months before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She says she couldn’t stay away from the news. “I was spending several hours a day— throughout the workday, not just in the evenings— compulsively checking for updates on various sites, like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN.” Because of these distractions, she would get behind and found herself working late into the evening and on weekends to try to keep up.

“I was miserable because I wasn’t getting sufficient rest — not to mention I was being continually exposed to bad news every day.” While she knew this wasn’t good for her, she struggled to set limits on her own.

She saw a reference to StayFocusd, a browser extension that sets time limits for selected websites. She checked online reviews and saw that it had helped others like her, so she decided to try it out. “At that point, I was desperate to find ways tofix my bad habit, which I was clearly unable to do through my own willpower,” she says.

She put a 10-minute daily limit on the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN. Once thatlimit has passed, a window pops up that says “Shouldn’t you be working?” She says it “definitely helps” — though she does find ways around it. “My sneaky mind starts looking at sites that I haven’t yet blocked, such as the BBC.”

She’s set other rules for herself as well. When she works from home, she keeps all of her personal devices out of the room where she’s working. She stillstays up-to-date oncurrent events, she says, “but at least I’m no longer risking being seriously behind on my core work duties.”

What to Do When You’re Feeling Distracted at Work (2024)


What to do when you feel distracted at work? ›

12 tips to consider if you're distracted easily at work
  1. Keep a clean workspace. Keeping your workspace tidy is essential for eliminating distractions. ...
  2. Turn off notifications. ...
  3. Limit social media. ...
  4. Remove noise. ...
  5. Close irrelevant windows and tabs. ...
  6. Set timers and take breaks. ...
  7. Work when you're most productive. ...
  8. Prioritize tasks.
Feb 3, 2023

Why am I so unfocused at work? ›

Our brains tend to lose focus rapidly when we're tired. Ensuring that you're able to get a good night of sleep before a long workday is essential. Not only is it important to get seven to eight hours of sleep, it's also crucial to eat a fulfilling meal when you're hungry and to make time for exercise.

Is it normal to be distracted at work? ›

Workplace distractions are a large obstacle to workplace productivity — studies show that as much as 70%-99% of office employees feel distracted, with an average employee experiencing as much as 56 disruptions per day.

How do I overcome lack of focus at work? ›

There's no one answer for how to improve focus, but the following tips can help.
  1. Eliminate distractions. ...
  2. Reduce multitasking. ...
  3. Practice mindfulness and meditation. ...
  4. Get more sleep. ...
  5. Choose to focus on the moment. ...
  6. Take a short break. ...
  7. Connect with nature. ...
  8. Train your brain.

How do I force myself to focus at work? ›

Try now!
  1. Organize your workstation. Our brain gets directly influenced by the things in front of us or immediately next to us. ...
  2. Create an hourly-work plan. ...
  3. Get in the 'flow' ...
  4. Take short breaks. ...
  5. Stop procrastinating things for tomorrow. ...
  6. Take up one thing at a time. ...
  7. Keep that phone in your drawer. ...
  8. Organize your mailbox.
May 26, 2023

Is having trouble focusing at work ADHD? ›

The primary symptoms of ADHD are inattention and lack of focus. The reason for this may lie in your brain chemistry. Research suggests that people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine and norepinephrine — neurotransmitters in the brain associated with attention and focus.

What is brain fog in employees? ›

It is also important to adjust the work environment to the needs of employees with brain fog. This may mean reducing distractions such as noise and bright lighting and building in more breaks to reduce mental fatigue. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is also crucial for employees with brain fog.

Is it ADHD or am I just distracted? ›

Bottom line: General distractibility doesn't typically impede one's ability to go about their day, get important tasks done, or fulfill commitments, Dr. Naylon notes. On the other hand, ADHD typically impairs a person's functioning, including their ability to work, succeed in school, or maintain personal relationships.

What is the biggest distraction in life? ›

Seeing what others have and do and basing your purchases and activities on them serves as one of the biggest distractions in your life. You're not doing yourself any favor by following what others do instead of pursuing your own goals that matter to you.

How can I stay focused for 8 hours at work? ›

6 Ways to Make an 8-Hour Workday More Productive
  1. Give yourself deadlines.
  2. Take frequent breaks to relax.
  3. Improve your memory.
  4. Divide tasks into small manageable chunks.
  5. Create a clean workspace.
  6. Try to remove as many distractions from your environment as possible.
Jun 8, 2022

Why can't I focus and have no motivation? ›

Low motivation can be a common symptom of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. You can practice self-help and self-care as much as you can, but you may find that seeking professional help is more helpful for your emotions. Online therapy is beneficial, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How do I shift my focus from anxiety? ›

In addition to getting professional help, here are some things that can help you reduce your trouble concentrating despite feeling anxious.
  1. Try sensory stimulation. ...
  2. Write down your thoughts. ...
  3. Use your “do not disturb” function. ...
  4. Manage your time with alarms. ...
  5. Break down your tasks. ...
  6. Relax and breathe. ...
  7. Switch tasks.
Sep 14, 2022

At what hour does productivity peak for most of the people? ›

For example, we know that the human body has two productivity peaks in the day. The first takes place mid-late morning: after waking-up, the brain activates gradually and becomes very active before noon (up to 1 p.m. on average). There follows a period when the brain is not very productive (until 3-4 p.m.).

How do I focus on work and nothing else? ›

23 Incredibly Good Ways to Stay Focused at Work
  1. Get in the “flow” Before you blame it on others, take a minute to evaluate your productivity. ...
  2. Plan ahead. ...
  3. Create an hourly work plan. ...
  4. Write down all your ideas. ...
  5. Keep your to-do list organized. ...
  6. Set deadlines. ...
  7. Organize your work environment. ...
  8. Split time-consuming tasks.

What does ADHD look like at work? ›

"People with untreated ADHD face a number of issues in the workplace. They may include interpersonal conflict, tardiness, high absenteeism, high error rate, inability to change and lack of dependability. Consequences for these behaviors could include reprimands, suspensions, demotions, loss of pay and termination.

Should I tell my boss I have ADHD? ›

You must disclose your documented diagnosis, and show that ADHD “substantially limits a major life activity” — in this case, your job. Formal requests for an accommodation must be made in writing, and the accommodation(s) you ask for shouldn't place an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business.

What are the signs of ADHD in female adults? ›

  • Impulsiveness.
  • Disorganization and problems prioritizing.
  • Poor time management skills.
  • Problems focusing on a task.
  • Trouble multitasking.
  • Excessive activity or restlessness.
  • Poor planning.
  • Low frustration tolerance.
Jan 25, 2023

Is brain fog a symptom of burnout? ›

Burnout and stress can impact your brain's ability to concentrate and stay focused. It's what some people refer to as 'brain fog' where you can't quite bring your thoughts to the surface and make sense of them.

How do you outsmart brain fog? ›

Staying physically active and keeping a good diet have many health benefits, and that is no different when it comes to brain fog. Studies have shown that getting regular exercise and eating a diet high in vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains can reduce cognitive decline.

Is brain fog part of anxiety? ›

Anxiety brain fog happens when a person feels anxious and has difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly. Many conditions may cause anxiety and brain fog, including mental health diagnoses and physical illnesses. It is normal to experience occasional brain fog and anxiety, especially during high stress.

How do you hint that you have ADHD? ›

  1. You're often late. Time management is an ongoing challenge when you have ADHD. ...
  2. You have trouble concentrating. ...
  3. You leave things undone. ...
  4. You had behavior issues as a child. ...
  5. You lack impulse control. ...
  6. You can't get organized. ...
  7. You're fidgety. ...
  8. You can't control your emotions.
May 15, 2023

What are the obvious signs of ADHD? ›

Some specialists have suggested the following as a list of symptoms associated with ADHD in adults:
  • carelessness and lack of attention to detail.
  • continually starting new tasks before finishing old ones.
  • poor organisational skills.
  • inability to focus or prioritise.
  • continually losing or misplacing things.
  • forgetfulness.

What can seem like ADHD but isn t? ›

If your child seems hyperactive--fidgety, impulsive, and inattentive--don't automatically assume that they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Anxiety, depression, learning disorders, physical health, and many other conditions can cause symptoms that look like ADHD but aren't.

How do I stop being distracted by thoughts? ›

Strategies to Redirect Your Thoughts and Distract Your Mind
  1. Play a Memory Game. ...
  2. Think in Categories. ...
  3. Use Math and Numbers. ...
  4. Recite Something. ...
  5. Make Yourself Laugh. ...
  6. Use an Anchoring Phrase. ...
  7. Visualize a Daily Task You Enjoy or Don't Mind Doing. ...
  8. Describe a Common Task.
Apr 24, 2020

What is the root cause of distraction? ›

Distractions can be external (such as noise) or internal (such as fatigue, rumination, or stress). Distractions may be caused by a number of factors, including the loss of interest in the primary activity, inability to pay attention due to various reasons, or intensity of the distractor.

What is an unhealthy distraction? ›

Some examples of unhealthy distractions include: Food. Alcohol. Drugs. Drama.

How often do people get distracted at work? ›

On average, 84.4% of people are distracted at work. The most common distractions are email (26%), phone calls/texts (55%), co-workers (27%), and The Internet (41%). The constant barrage of interruptions actually makes 34% of employees like their jobs less.

What is being distracted a symptom of? ›

Being easily distracted is a common indication of persistently elevated stress such as that from behaving overly apprehensively and the semi emergency readiness state it can cause. There are many more reasons why anxiety can cause the easily distracted symptom.

What kind of people get distracted easily? ›

People with ADHD are especially prone to distractions — external and internal. Whether it's a coworker interrupting you when you're on deadline, your wandering mind, or stressful emotions, distractions get in the way of getting things done. Take these actions against distractions.

How long does it take to recover from a distraction at work? ›

A research study at the University of California at Irvine found that, on average, it takes around 23 minutes for most workers to get back on task after an interruption.

What is the number 1 workplace distraction that kills productivity according to Microsoft? ›

A Microsoft study says the #1 work distraction that kills productivity is the meeting. In fact, we're in 3 times as many meetings and calls per week than just 3 short years ago – an increase of 192%. As the Outcome Engineers, we're experts in *meeting* your workplace technology needs!

Why is my mind so easily distracted? ›

Stress can also play a major role in our inability to focus or overcome distractions. Too often, we find ourselves trying to work while feeling overwhelmed. This leaves us frazzled and exhausted, easily distracted and unable to focus. If you're easily distracted, it can indicate that you're under elevated stress.

Why do I feel distracted and can't focus? ›

This may occur due to factors such as stress, ADHD, or fatigue. If you have trouble focusing when reading, meet with your healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and treatment. Imbalances in certain hormones—including testosterone, estrogen, and thyroid hormones—can contribute to trouble focusing.

How do I stop getting distracted by thoughts? ›

Strategies to Redirect Your Thoughts and Distract Your Mind
  1. Play a Memory Game. ...
  2. Think in Categories. ...
  3. Use Math and Numbers. ...
  4. Recite Something. ...
  5. Make Yourself Laugh. ...
  6. Use an Anchoring Phrase. ...
  7. Visualize a Daily Task You Enjoy or Don't Mind Doing. ...
  8. Describe a Common Task.
Apr 24, 2020


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