Staying Focused When the World Around You Isn’t

By Dr. Mac Hafele, PhD, Licensed Psychologist, NGHS Employee Assistance & Wellbeing Programs

In the midst of the COVID-19 of social distancing, avoiding touch, and often working from home, it can be really difficult to stay focused, get work done, and manage stress. There are challenges for supervisors as well as those on the front lines of work. There are a number of strategies that can be effective in helping you to stay focused, stay motivated, and encourage your team or peers. Among the best strategies include alternating focused work with quick stress-breaks, engaging in mindfulness techniques, reducing saturation of news and social media, and making sure you get adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise.

Especially when you are working from home, there is a strong temptation to leave the news on in the background, answer personal calls or emails, or sneak into the pantry for a quick snack. While all of those things are generally fine, during times of high stress they can become barriers to remaining focused on work. Consider only checking in with news programs a couple of times during your day to reduce ruminative anxiety about the latest update or news briefing. Consider taking 10 minute mindfulness breaks every couple of hours. Mindfulness techniques help ground you during stressful moments.

Mindfulness simply means being aware and engaged in the moment that you were in. It reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and reduces the physical impact of stress on the body. Mindfulness can be found through simple activities such as breathing, looking at something, touching or feeling, listening, smell, or even other simple activities. If you are able, walk to a window or step outside and look at the sky or even a tree. Instead of looking while you run your worries through your thoughts, try focusing fully on the color of the sky or the color and sway of the trees. Do this for a full moment without returning to the day’s stress. Alternatively, make a small jar of fresh coffee grounds, cinnamon, or lavender. When you need a mindful moment, pause and put the jar under your nose while you close your eyes. Take a moment to get lost in the scent and allow your body to relax while you do.

Mindfulness based breathing is also quick, easy, and you don’t need any supplies. Relax your face, let your eyebrows droop limply, and slowly take a full breath in. Notice how the air feels as it goes in through your nose and fills your lungs. Notice how your full lungs tighten your chest and push out your abdomen. Now observe the sensations as you release your breath, feeling the air move out of your lungs and out of your nose. That was a mindful breath. Now repeat a few times. Consider mindful tasting. Find a little bite such as a chocolate kiss or a raisin. Place it in your mouth and focus fully on how it feels in your mouth. Avoid the quick instinct to chew and swallow. Instead, notice how the taste spreads across your tongue. Notice how the texture of it feels. Swirl it around your mouth and slowly begin to use your teeth and tongue to taste. Only swallow after you have fully engaged in the experience of tasting it. Mindfulness based touch is also quick and needs little equipment. Find a soft fuzzy thing like a soft blanket, jacket, or a puppy if you can find one. Run your fingers over it and feel the texture while you focus fully on how it feels against your fingers and hands. Avoid thinking of other things. Only focus on the feelings in your body. If you get creative, many things around you can be done mindfully.

Also make sure you are getting enough good nutrition. Working from home shifts how we think about meal times, getting up times, and even how we pace ourselves through the day. Consider getting up with enough time to eat a nutritious breakfast and have a moment for exercise or reflection. If you have exercise limitations, consider stretches as a focused alternative. You can find scripts and directions for “chair or desk stretches” all over the internet with a simple search. Getting and remaining focused during these challenging times is easier when our bodies have had a chance to move.

Finally, consider transitioning the “marathon” of the work day into more of a series of little relay races or sprints. Give yourself a goal that will take an hour to an hour and a half. Stay focused and then when you reach your short goal, take a stress break to engage in stretches or mindfulness based techniques.

For leaders, it is a good time to send little reminders of appreciation, motivation, and support. A short email with a few brief words of sincere support and gratitude can go a long way for most employees who are eager to support their organizations in this giant community effort. With a little attention to creating and sticking to good coping strategies, we will find ways to thrive as individuals and as teams.