We’ve all been there: It’s 2 p.m. on a Wednesday and you’re struggling to stay focused on the huge project due Friday. Even though the pressure is on, it’s becoming a struggle to stay on-task… and feelings of frustration or overwhelm are mounting. Luckily, there are strategies for staying focused and motivating yourself that don’t involve eight cups of coffee or, as most people tend to do, beating ourselves up. If you find yourself feeling distracted and scattered at work, here are 12 tips for increasing motivation and improving your focus.
Let’s begin with your “why.”
How to get motivated at work
1. Start by identifying your motivation
Look at the big picture to figure out what motivates you. In the midst of a big task or a close deadline, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Try coming back to the question, “Why am I doing this?” Your answer can rekindle the spark of what truly drives you, helping you get back to the work with a renewed sense of purpose.
Staying and getting motivated might mean going back to the basics and figuring out what you get excited about and why. According to business psychologist Dr. Camille Preston, leaders rely on “autonomous forms of regulation” to stay motivated, meaning they are guided by their inner values rather than by shame or fear.
We all have different things that motivate us at our jobs, but it often boils down to one or more of the following: Future career goals, a team you care about, and/or doing work that truly fulfills you.
Here are some tips on figuring out your big picture motivation.
2. Write down the big-goal behind the items on your to-do list.
Big goals are things that take longer to achieve and require a long-term strategy, while smaller goals take less time and energy to cross off your to-do list. Big goals might include winning a promotion, landing a big account, or getting that raise so you can finally invest in that alpaca farm you’ve had your eye on. They’re often a more effective motivator than smaller goals like, “Email Wendy about the Q2 report.”
Thinking about the big picture can help you stay motivated when you’re on a tight deadline, dealing with high-demand clients, or learning a new role. Not only that, but writing down your goals can be a crucial step in actually achieving them. Think about how each task on your to-do list fits into the big goals and dreams you have for your future.
3. Identify the heart behind your big work goals.
Most people’s purpose in life isn’t to “Work 9 to 5. Retire early.” What are your deeper goals and values in life that get closer to the heart of who you are? Some of these values might be things like kindness, empathy, and candor (check out Gary Vee’s new book about the softer side of success). Your deeper goal might be to help others and change lives, for instance.
Whether your job is in accounting, social services, or teaching scuba diving, getting in touch with the heart behind your work goals can help you connect to your core values.
One way to do this is to spend some time journaling about what’s important to you. Think about a project you worked on that gave you both a sense of accomplishment and a deeper sense of who you are. Think about what it was about the project that felt so personally fulfilling. Write down your thoughts and reflect. Facing important tasks with a sense of purpose will help give you the motivation you need to stay focused and on-task.
How to stay motivated at work
Once you get in touch with your higher purpose and long-term goals, how do you stay motivated over the long haul?
4. Pay attention to your mental health and ask for help when you need it.
Overwork can be a huge drain on your motivation and focus. You might need to have some candid conversations with your boss about feeling overwhelmed and overcommitted. Talk to them about your workload and ask to focus on the tasks that truly contribute to your organization’s goals.
These conversations can be tough, so if you’re looking to gain clarity on how to have kind and candid conversations, check out this guide. Your work life is a big part of your overall mental health, so don’t ignore signs that you’re about to burn out. The dangers of workplace burnout are real and very scary. A workplace that’s invested in employee engagement would be sensitive and receptive to your feedback.
Pro-tip: Check out this post for help with ADHD time management.
How to stay focused at work
Performing well requires motivation and focus. Here’s how to avoid getting distracted as you pursue your goals.
5. Practice good time management and schedule time for important tasks.
Managing your time well is key to protecting your focus and maintaining motivation. Once you’ve established your goals and have a big-picture view of how you want to spend your work day and the amount of time you want to devote to complete tasks, it’s time to organize your calendar accordingly.
6. Block time wasters and eliminate distractions.
Sometimes it seems like our collective attention span has been completely shot by social media and the constant stream of new content. Studies show that humans don’t actually have the ability to multitask—what your brain is actually doing is switching (very quickly) between different tasks. And that’s a huge focus-killer.
Luckily, there are many great focus apps that will block access to distracting websites for set periods of time to eliminate potential distractions that might interrupt your work flow. A time management tool like Clockwise can help you stay focused and motivated by giving you space in your calendar to focus on what matters.
Blocking out distractions can also be as simple as closing the door to your office or investing in noise-cancelling headphones.
7. Create blocks of time in your calendar for focused work
The goal, should you choose to accept it, is to get into a flow state. As defined and developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a flow state is one in which you are “in the flow” or so focused on the task that time and place fade away. Your sense of focus becomes effortless, although the task or activity itself might be challenging or difficult. It’s important to note that you can’t force yourself into a flow state. However, there are things you can do to make it more likely that will achieve flow. Let’s dive into some of them.
8. Give yourself time to get in the zone.
Being pulled in five different directions at once is detrimental to focus and motivation. It’s hard to achieve flow if you only have 10 minutes here and there to complete tasks. A smart calendar assistant can find those crucial blocks of time for you and open up the space you need for creative thinking. Clockwise will automatically batch together your meetings and other commitments to free up time for focused work. Protecting your time means protecting your focus.
9. Try a timeboxing app.
A timeboxing app can also help boost your motivation. Think of a timeboxing app as a task management tool with built-in time-tracking features—a productivity tool with teeth. It will help you figure out how long you are spending on tasks so you can adjust your calendar accordingly. Plus, having a specific goal or work task for a particular time slot can help increase focus, like giving yourself a mini-deadline for completing important tasks.
10. Try taking a break
Finally, don’t forget to take breaks when you feel overwhelmed or scattered to help avoid burnout. Rather than pushing forward and forcing yourself to focus on a task, consider taking a short break in your work day to stretch, grab a sparkling water from the fridge, or otherwise move your body.
Our culture puts a huge premium on looking busy, but taking breaks can actually make you more productive, not less. Remember, this is not about pushing through even when you are struggling to focus. This is about best practices that will sustain your mental health in the long-run.
Here are a few ideas about how to best use your downtime:
If you have the time, go for a walk. Walking for just ten minutes can boost creativity. If you’re working on a tough problem that demands a lot of brainpower, a short jaunt can be the perfect way to find a solution. I know, we’re suggesting actually stepping away from your computer (and all other screens), but taking a break and moving your body can be the perfect way to come back with renewed focus.
Talk to a friend or colleague. Human beings take our social and emotional cues from other people. Hopefully there’s at least one person in your office or home that has a calming presence. Go talk to them. You don’t have to talk about work—you can talk about your cat, how that one Ted Lasso episode made you cry, your favorite brand of pen—anything. Brief, casual social connection is a key factor for mental health.
Meditate or daydream. You might be thinking, how am I supposed to meditate at work? If you can, build it into your day. Mental health apps like Headspace and Calm have 1-3 minute meditations for busy people. Meditation can increase focus and boost higher levels of concentration, which is great news for your brain and your productivity.
Help someone else solve a problem. This one might seem counterintuitive, but when you help others solve their problems it can often help you approach your own problems with new ideas. Plus, taking on the role of expert or helper will help you see your value and feel good about yourself. Offer to help a colleague with a tough email. Volunteer to take out the trash. Bring someone else a cup of coffee and ask how they’re doing. These small actions can make a big difference in your mental well-being and that in turn can have a positive effect on your focus and motivation.
11. Keep your eye on the prize.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you’re struggling with staying motivated and focused right now, you’re definitely not alone. Hopefully some of these strategies will help you get back on track. Remember to take care of yourself. Mental health at work is a long game, so stay hydrated and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.