Ready to try a game?
I learned this exercise in frustration from my friend Pete at Digital Detangler: On a piece of paper or note app, make a “column A” and a “column B”. In column A, you’ll list as many animals as you can. In column B, you’ll try to name all the state capitals. The goal is to list as many as possible in 90 seconds. The catch is that you have to switch lists/tasks every 7 seconds.
You likely don’t need to play the game to know that very shortly you’d become quite frustrated. Whenever your mind settles on one task, it is time to switch to the next. You’re never really allowed to focus on a singular task.
Reality check: we do this to ourselves ALL. THE. TIME. I’ll bet you won’t read straight through this article without turning your attention elsewhere for a short period of time: another browser tab will call to you; an ad will catch your eye; you’ll feel the strong pull of email; a phone alert will divert your attention… When you come back, you’ll likely need to re-read a portion of what you’ve already read in order to remind your brain of what was being communicated.
Thousands of us experience that frustration in new ways as we shift to a work-from-home environment. While I type away on work tasks in one room, my tweenage son engages in online school in the next. Sometimes his behavior is disruptive to my attention. I put music on my headphones to try and drown him out. Meanwhile, I have 9 different browser tabs open on my desktop AND my tablet on displaying my Slack feed. I look at each email notification that pings my smartwatch. While my computer labors over certain data-crunching tasks, I might pop open a gaming app on my phone. What was I working on? Where was I?
More often than my kid interrupting me, my own behavior disrupts my attention and piles on feelings of frustration–which I sometimes express towards him.
I’ve found that the biggest source of frustration for my new work-from-home reality is that I rarely focus on singular tasks and items. I jump from one task to the next, often trying to focus on three different tasks at one time. It’s truly frustration-inducing. By mid-afternoon I’m mentally worn out and short-tempered. When the work day is done I feel led to disengage from everything else for a while–including my family.
My brain needs a rest.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, I’ve discovered a few practices that alleviate the frustration and allow me to be twice as productive during my working and resting hours. The practices revolve around focus. Focus is a tremendous gift we give our brains. If you’re feeling ultra-drained and irritable throughout the day, your brain might benefit from the gift of focus, too.
Here are some ways to deliver focus and alleviate frustration:
One browser tab open at a time.
I’m a compulsive tabber. I’ll pop open a tab, look at it for a bit. Then I’ll flit on to another tab, convinced that I’ll return to my previous tab. By the end of the day, I’ll have a dozen or more tabs open on my browser–including Facebook, my work’s social media tracking platform, our website editor, Slack, an article or two, my Gmail account… Most sit neglected.
But the problem is that when I run up against a challenge on one tab, or I become a bit bored with it, I immediately click over to one of the other tabs (probably in some mammalian search for a dopamine boost). That’s a disruption to work flow and, deep down, is causing me frustration and stealing my focus.
When I don’t allow myself to have extra tabs open, I don’t mindlessly click away for the dopamine hit on another tab.
Check email at prescribed times
Our email apps work just like the extra tabs open on our browsers: when we want the rush of dopamine, we’ll compulsively click into the inbox. The added danger with email, though, is that many of the messages we receive deserve action and response. So when we open our email inboxes, we scrap whatever we had been doing and turn our focus onto the questions and challenges presented through our email messages.
The workaround is to only check email at certain times–and to close the email app the rest of the time. I’ve been clicking open Outlook around the top of each hour. I’m not late on responses, and I’m not disrupting my workflow for the rest of the hour.
Check social media at prescribed times, too
We treat social media just like email. We click over to Facebook and scroll until something excites our dopamine centers in the brain. Often those posts lead us on a counterproductive rabbit trail.
Strengthen resolve against the compulsion to scroll by allowing yourself prescribed, dedicated blocks of time to scroll social media. Maybe it’s 10 minutes each morning and afternoon. It could be more if you’re really a responder. Just make sure it’s a prescribed time–so that when you feel the compulsion to click over to your Twitter feed, you can assure yourself that there will be time for that in just a little while–but now it’s time to focus on your task.
Use one screen at a time
I have a two-monitor setup in my home office. During the work day, I found I always had my main task open on the larger monitor, Microsoft Outlook open on the smaller monitor, my phone sitting next to that (often pinging me with notifications from news or social media), AND my tablet within arms reach. All of these devices were like little kids yelping for their mother’s attention: “Look at me! Look here! See me!”
Parents, dog parents, cat parents, roommates–we all know how frustrating it feels when we’re trying to focus on a task and someone wants to pull our attention away. Extraneous screens do just that. There are posters, advertisers, and bots on the other side of those screens who want to steal your attention. Shut them down by shutting down extra screens and notifications during important work hours. Your temperament will thank you.
Listen to music, with regulations
Some of us listen to music as a way of shutting down distraction. My day generally has a soundtrack. But I have to be careful about the music I choose. Music that is too surprising can pull me away from my tasks at hand–especially if I find something new that I like. In that case, I’ll turn my attention to finding out more about that artist or album.
A safer practice is to listen to familiar music. The workday is a great opportunity to utilize Spotify’s “Repeat Rewind” playlist. Enjoyable, familiar music is much less likely to divert our attention from the task at hand. When I need something new during the workday, I try to listen to classical music. For me, it needs to be something without words–as I can easily get derailed by trying to decipher lyrics and meanings.
Finish what you start
I write for a living. Within the course of each project, I encounter a moment when I’m not sure what to write next. This is my most vulnerable moment–a moment when I’m most prone to put my work aside and go after a dopamine boost through Twitter or a news site. When I lose the mental battle and surf away from my writing, I grow frustrated by the nagging feeling associated with having unfinished work.
Perhaps you’ve been in those situations in your work: when you run into a challenge and surf away on a “quick” internet break. When we do this, we’re actually adding to our frustration–because we know that we should keep after the task at hand.
When I was training for distance running, I often used visual markers to coax myself along. So when I wanted to take a running break, I’d scan ahead, spot a tree or sign post, and then resolve that I would run past that marker. We can do the same with our work: when we hit the challenge we want to escape from, we set the marker or working through the challenge–THEN we get to take a break.
Set time limits
For those tasks we know are challenging and tiresome, it helps to work in “sprints.” Sprints are short blocks of time when the task gets 100% focus. I often resolve to work in sprints on blog posts…and for reconciling credit card receipts. I use them for any task in which I’m prone to let my mind wander.
Breaks are not always counterproductive. They refresh us for the work ahead. They are necessary. We’ll just want to plan for them. Even if you make your own schedule, plan breaks within your day. Like running, if you wait until you need a break to take one, you’ve likely waited too long.
Practice some mindfulness
Wondering what to do on your breaks? Utilizing mindfulness practices can be incredibly refreshing.
Right now, I utilize the simple practice of keeping a mindfulness journal. Actually, my “journal” is a post-it note. I fill up one per day with items and people for which I’m thankful. The post-it journal then sits on the frame of my monitor as visual reminder of the good things around me.
In the past, I’ve utilized a prayer practice called Ignatian Examen. The Examen is a series of prompts inviting us to reflect in a spiritual way. Some might consider it a kind of guided meditation. I eventually adapted the practice to include some questioning prompts of my own design:
- When did I feel most alive today?
- When did I feel energy draining from me today?
I’ve also used a kind of guided meditation called centering prayer. It involves focusing on a holy word or mantra, and then trying to hold focus on the word or mantra for a determined period of time. When the mind wanders, the word or mantra helps us to pull our focus back in. I made a video tutorial for my day job–check it out along with other spiritual practices.
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