360° Answers: When You Can’t Stay Focused At Work

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view.  For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

Do you have any tips for concentration or productivity in the office? I’m more than a year into my first full-time position in marketing, and I’m either experiencing burnout or a newfound case of ADD. My company is small, and sometimes I get to the office and am alone for several hours of the day. I seem to get sucked into checking blogs, wanting to sleep, texting friends, thinking about coffee breaks, etc. I put off my work, thinking that I’ll tackle it later that night, but when I get home, I am so exhausted that I barely move from the couch.

When I do have a deadline, I am able to meet it, but it’s not because I work ahead – more like I rush until the end. The work my company does is very meaningful, but I just stopped caring recently and don’t know what to do. I want to be successful, productive and energized but it seems my mind and body are fighting against me. How do you stay motivated?

Answer from Eva Rykrsmith:

A lack of focus can be due to one of two things: overstimulation or understimulation. Neither is desirable, but both are fixable. To get a handle on it, figure out which one is more likely.

  • Overstimulated: You are stressed, frazzled, overloaded, and experiencing burnout. There is too much pressure, you are involved with too many projects, and feel very busy in many areas of your life.
  • Understimulated: You are bored and don’t feel challenged. You are stuck doing repetitive tasks, your goals are not motivating, or you have lost interest in your work.

As you describe it, it sounds like understimulation. The best way I have found to combat that is to get involved in more projects, take on more responsibility, set more challenging goals, and fill up your schedule with activities that move you toward them.

If you can do this at your company—great! Talk to your manager about the company’s strategy, business needs, and what you can do to support their mission. Sometimes this is not possible. In that case, get involved with professional organizations in your industry, volunteer your talents in your community, or direct your focus toward new or existing personal hobbies.

Feelings of apathy are common, usually temporary, and most easily addressed when you catch them early, as it sounds you have done. Adding more busyness into your life will help you feel more productive. Make sure there is at least one important action item on your to-do list each day, and make it a priority to start your day by completing that task. As your schedule fills up with meaningful activities, you’ll find more and more things that are interesting and worth pursuing. This shift in energy will get you back on track—at work and in general.

Answer from Alexandra Levit:

Although you ask about productivity, I’m going to focus your last statement on motivation because I believe this is the crux of your issue.  Getting motivated isn’t easy in today’s professional world, which is stressful and chaotic even in organizations with meaningful missions.  However, the good news is that your own level of motivation is in your control, and you have the power to change it.

The lowest hanging fruit here is to read (or re-read) a few of the great business classics – I recommend Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People/How to Stop Worrying and Start Living and Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – and posting some of your favorite inspirational quotes in your cube or office. Share the concepts that resonate with you most with others, and you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to believe in them yourself.

Sign up for any personal development or leadership courses your company offers, and stay busy so you don’t have time to sit around and think about your lack of motivation, or waste time, which just makes you feel worse.  If you haven’t already done a self-assessment or thought carefully about what you really want out of work and how you can get it, now’s the time.  Once you formulate a big picture, don’t let it out of your mind.  Do something every week, like mastering a new skill or taking on a new project, that brings you one step closer to your overall career goal, and celebrate your little successes along the way.

There will still be days when you just can’t get it together.  When that happens, be patient and wait for the mood to pass. Pretend it’s your first day of a new job, and imagine approaching every task with confidence, eagerness, and enthusiasm. You can do the same thing by imagining that this is the best day of your working life.  When you get home from work, you are still full of energy because you have accomplished so much and touched so many people.  Keeping these types of thoughts at the forefront will help you battle the malaise that inevitably creeps into everyday life.

Answer from Anita Bruzzese:

Since I’m a mom, my first inclination is to tell you to get yourself to a doctor. You need a thorough checkup to ensure that there’s not an underlying physical problem that’s causing your fatigue and lack of focus.

Next, I’d suggest that you really give some thought as to why you’re procrastinating. I recently interviewed a psychotherapist on procrastination, and he says the root cause is often a fear of something (such as not doing a task because you fear failure) or as a form of rebellion against being told what to do. He suggests thinking about your childhood and what might be causing your behavior today, and then realizing your procrastination in your job is an overreaction to an overly critical parent when growing up, for example.

He also suggests a buddy to help keep you on track. You promise to check in with this person regularly to discuss your progress, and often that can spur you into getting more done because you know someone is going to hold you accountable. If your office is sometimes empty, it could be that you just need to feel like someone cares what you do and will hold you responsible.

Another suggestion is to get a copy of Getting Things Done by David Allen. This is a time-management bible for many people, and I think many of his suggestions would be helpful in getting past your productivity problems. Or, you might consider using an online tool like RescueTime to help you stay away from Facebook and other sites that have nothing to do with work and suck up time like a Dyson vaccum.

Answer from Alison Green:

Well, I’m going to be the curmudgeon here, I guess.

But first let me say that you really might have a disorder like ADHD, and it’s worth getting checked out, especially if this behavior isn’t new for you.

However, assuming that’s not the case, I’m going to be blunt with you: None of the productivity tools above will work if you don’t change your mindset. You sound like you’re suffering from lack of clarity about what type of person you want to be – as well as lack of clarity about how your choices affect who you are. Have you tried doing some real soul-searching about what type of worker you are and what you aspire to be?

In the simplest terms, if you want to be someone who produces at a high level and doesn’t goof off at work, you need to align your behavior with your aspirations. You might think that’s easier said than done – but at its core, this is about using your time in ways that align with your goals. What ARE your goals? Assuming you don’t want to spend your work day checking blogs and texting friends – and that you don’t want to have a reputation as someone who does that – then you need to get clear on that in your own mind, and then align your behavior with those values. And you can do that no matter how boring or unfulfilling your job is, if you really care to.

I know this sounds simplistic. But there’s no magic pill. Who you are and how you operate is based on what choices you make. If you want to be someone who produces at a high level and isn’t known for goofing off at work, you need to make different choices. Right now, you don’t want that enough – and you need to figure out why. Good luck!

What are some tricks or tools you use to stay focused?

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Jeanne

    I think a checkup with your doctor would be good. This happened to me. I thought it was because of some bad politics at work and I was reacting badly. Turns out I was sick. If it turns out you’re fine that’s one less thing to worry about.

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  • SarasWhimsy

    I have to agree with going to a doctor. If this work style is new to you, get a check up. To me, your letter sounds like someone dealing with mild to moderate depression. Talk to your doctor. I would also look at your work space. I’m a consultant and go from company to company all the time. Right now I’m working with a very progressive company, but the work environment is industrial with white and silver accents. It looks clinical and the employees are suffering from it. See if you can add a bold color to your work space that suits you. I bought a sheet of teal poster board, cut it, and put it up behind and around my computer. It’s made a world of difference. But still, talk to your doctor!

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  • Christina da Silva

    Thank you thank you thank you for the great answers! I have the exact same problem and will definitely be following this advice!

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  • Sherry

    Eva Rykrsmith said that overstimulation can be a problem. If that is the case then how would one go about fixing that type of problem,

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    Eva Rykrsmith Reply:

    Hi Sherry!
    We had some posts in the past about overstimulation/burnout/being too busy. Check them out and see if they help:

    Here are two on burnout:
    http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2011/12/16/are-you-burned-out-deal-with-it-before-the-new-year/
    http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2012/08/15/360-answers-when-youre-burned-out-at-work/

    When you feel too busy/frazzled:
    http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2012/08/13/are-you-too-busy/
    http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2012/09/18/10-ways-to-maximize-your-energy/

    How to handle it when the overstimulation is coming from others:
    http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2012/11/30/how-can-i-handle-interruptions-when-im-concentrating/

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jennifer.hofstetter Jennifer Hofstetter

    I was a paralegal for 4 years after college. I found myself feeling pretty much the same way as the person who posed the question after about 6 months. It was horrible. I tried working in different fields of law, tried new jobs with new office environments, even negotiated more money so I could make my non-work life more interesting, and eventually I took a hard look at myself and realized I was in the wrong profession. So I quit, and took the first job I could find in a more creative field (contract work doing Development for a non-profit). That eventually lead me to a full-time marketing position, and I haven’t felt nearly as desperate and without motivation since. When we’re in our slow season, yes, I find myself under stimulated, and when we’re at our height, I find myself over stimulated, but as the people above mentioned, these are sort of easy fixes. You can use tips and tricks to get out of these kinds of funks. But if you’re in the wrong job, nothing will work.

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  • Anita Bruzzese

    So glad to see everyone weighing in with their thoughts and ideas. It’s not an uncommon problem, but it can be so frustrating. Hopefully, all this advice will make a real difference!

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  • Constance’s

    I am going threw something with work right now.I had a mild heart attack last February and yes I have slow my pace down and am not very motivated .Been with this job 19 years and the boss said to me on Monday I have noticed a different in your speed

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  • Braj Bhushan Dangi

    Nice Article. Good Options to avoid lazyness

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  • Rosalind Joffe

    I’m with Anita on this — but my hunch is that the ‘lack of motivation’ is not due to a health issue. I work on career and employment with people living with chronic health problems and when this issue, procrastination, is the problem, it’s never been due to health. When it’s a health problem, typically people are always late or always stuck — or only late and stuck when they feeling poorly. I work with clients to separate the issues and typically, this is a long standing pattern. It becomes especially clear with your first job.For some, school provides the structure you need. I’ve found that even people who like what they do and want to do well, struggle with this. Anita’s suggestions for tackling procrastination are good ones. It is something that you can change – and that’s where the motivation is key. You must want to change.

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  • http://twitter.com/wcyeong Woon Chin Yeong

    Thank you for your great answers. Just what I need for myself at this stage of my work too. :)

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  • CantExplain

    Jennifer Hofstetter’s comment is on the money. Some professions require a very special type of person. I’ve worked in IT for a big company for nearly 5 years and I’ve stuck with hoping things will get better, but it hasn’t. At first I was bored and under-stimulated, then I started to zone-out, I can look at a piece of work and suddenly fall asleep mid-way through reading it, or just power down in a meeting unexpectedly. Not much helps, in fact its probably got worse as I’ve become more worried about it. I’ve kept it to myself for so long, I’m even worried to talk about it because most people would think its ridiculous that I cant control myself, I would have thought that before it happened to me. I’d been in other much tougher jobs before and I’m pretty fit, I run regularly, I cycle and go for walks, so its still something I can only put down to some kind of complete disconnect with my working environment. I’ve studied graphic design for 2 years part time to try and develop a way forward and that’s helped me to realise that if I can spend over 8 hours working away without ever feeling weird on a design project, there’s probably nothing wrong with me, its the situation I’m in that’s not right for me in my day to day employment. I think I’m going to stick it out for a while but I now recognise I need to leave as soon as I can and do something else where I feel more useful and busy.

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