Train Your Brain to be Focused at Work

June 26, 2017 Author: Noelle Menendez, M.A.

Are you self-aware of your work habits when it comes to remaining task focused? Do you find yourself checking Facebook “real quick” or getting sucked into an email, text, or tweet when a notification pops up? It is important to understand how our brain works when it comes to attention, how we identify our distractors, and how to then get back on track.

Are you distracted reading this?

Many, mistakenly, believe we are wired to multitask. Our attention is limited and can only be in one place at a time. In terms of multitasking there’s a difference between doing and performing. How do we even do multiple tasks then at all? It is likely one of the tasks is so well learned it doesn’t require as much thought, as would a new task. Or you have the ability to deliberately shift your attention to where it needs to be at any given moment. Attentional shifting is a smooth process in which we encounter constant specific demands in our ever-changing environment and we are in tuned to where our focus must lie to perform our best regardless of the many demands and timing. Increased productivity is a result of efficiently shifting attention and doing only one task at a time.

It is best to recognize what diverts your attention at work whether in a meeting, at your desk, or during a conference call. Once you’ve pinpointed your distractors you can set yourself up for success by turning them “off” or purposefully structuring your surroundings so your full attention can be on that single task. If you work in an open office set up with cubicles or open door policies consider utilizing noise-canceling headphones if others’ conversation are distracting for you. Social media and other communication networks such as your phone are more than likely the primary source of distraction. Turn off your notifications or put your phone face down and on silent when working on a task. Better yet, put your phone in your purse or desk drawer so you have to go out of your way to retrieve it. If you are known for your quick response amongst your team be sure you have a plan in place to share this anticipated change if you are restructuring your work environment to improve upon your focus(2). You can designate a note in your email signature stating a certain window of time (i.e. by COB or within 24 hours) in which you would reply. This way other team members know what to expect.

The Draugiem Group conducted a research study looking at the amount of time people spent on various tasks and their productivity levels(1). The researchers found that how employees structured their day made all the difference in their ability to be productive. Those who consistently took short breaks exceeded productivity levels of those who worked longer hours. “The ideal work-to-break ratio was 52 minutes of work, followed by 17 minutes of rest. People who maintained this schedule had a unique level of focus in their work.”(1) The results show that our brain can handle and desires approximately an hour of focus with 15 minutes off. Our attention is dependent on our energy levels and without the right energy to focus on the task at hand we surrender to our distractions. In the study, the short breaks taken by the more productive employees consisted of complete removal from their work, not answering emails or making phone calls. It’s easy to excuse oneself from a certain project and consider a “break” to be starting another smaller task that needs to get done that day. For your 15 minutes off, what can you do to remove yourself from your work? Consider taking a walk, meditating or doing stretching exercises.

Be deliberate about your workday.

Segment your day into hourly intervals. Instead of just making a to do list for the day, create a routine with a break after every hour of uninterrupted work. A routine takes you from training to execution and allows your attention, energy, and thoughts to be allocated where they need to be. Distractions are going to happen and you might find yourself succumbing to them. Instructional and motivational cues can be used when this happens. Cues serve as signals, letting you know you are off track. Instructional cues focuses and directions your attention to where it should be, providing a statement of command on what to do (i.e. “start the show”, “keep writing”). Motivational cues psych you up; help maximize effort, building positivity and confidence. These statements express how you want to be (i.e. “make an impact”, “smooth and confident”).

Training your brain will require practice of your routine. Your routine should include those cues to get your attention back to where it needs to be and diminish any distractions you may have when working on a single task.

If you want to learn more about how you can remain task focused feel free to reach out to HigherEchelon for more specific ideas.


  1. “Why the 8 hour work day doesn’t work”: available LinkedIn, Dr. Travis Bradberry, May 10, 2017
  2. “A psychologist shares his number one tip for staying focused at work”: available Business Insider, Natalie Walters, November 11, 2015