by Maddi Butler
Published on: Nov 9, 2020
Have you ever started working on a project, only to find your mind wandering uncontrollably? When you constantly feel overwhelmed by the news cycle and other events going on in your life, it can be hard to set those things aside and focus on work. Studies show that it isn’t just you, either. The good news is, there are some things you can do to reclaim your focus.
Research has proven that humans falter when we encounter negativity because our brains are primed for negativity bias. It doesn’t just affect our moods, either. Anything from rude words to negative events can affect how efficiently we’re able to process and recall information. It can also cause us to shut down and communicate less effectively while increasing dysfunctional and aggressive thoughts. In short, negativity outside of work may still impact your ability to focus on work.
According to Christine Porath, researcher and professor at Georgetown University, the solution to negativity is “thriving.” Though you’ve surely heard the word before, in this case it means reaching a specific psychological state of “vitality and learning.” She argues that by prioritizing growth and development in a career (or other areas of life) people are less likely to feel depleted by negativity.
Of course, learning a new skill won’t make negativity disappear, and it may not help your focus all that much, either. This is why it’s necessary to build strategies for countering negativity into your routine. The best place to start is by paying attention to the sources of negativity in your life. For example, do you fall down bad-news rabbit holes? Start doomscrolling every time your mind wanders?
It’s important to stay informed, but it’s also important not to sacrifice your mental health every time you unlock your phone. Set aside a specific time each day for catching up on the day’s events, preferably when you can follow it up with something relaxing or enjoyable. If you habitually start scrolling social media when your mind wanders, try setting app timers to limit the amount of time you can spend doomscrolling.
Another strategy is to re-prioritize your work, as Sarah-Len Mutiwasekwa recommends for Psychology Today. It can be easy to get overwhelmed at the number of tasks on your to-do list, or even by the scope of a single task. In this case, Mutiwasekwa recommends prioritizing the most crucial tasks, and breaking those down into smaller, more manageable tasks. This extra step can help you get your productivity and focus back on track.
It’s imperative to take care of yourself physically, too. It’s amazing how much better remembering to eat and drink water can make you feel. If this is something you struggle with, it might be worth setting reminders for. Another aspect of caring for physical health is remembering to take breaks throughout the day.
As time management expert Laura Vanderkam explains for Forge, taking breaks throughout the day can help you feel more energized, which in turn spurs productivity. She emphasizes that it’s important to be mindful about the kinds of breaks you’re taking, too. According to Vanderkam, the three types of breaks we should be taking throughout the day are physical, social, and spiritual. Taking a few minutes to engage in physical activity, talk to a coworker, or connect with something larger than yourself (through meditation or even listening to a really great song) are probably going to be more energizing than spending that time on Instagram or Twitter.
Even if you don’t have ten minutes to spare, research shows that a break as short as a minute can benefit you, too. Of course, all of these strategies may not be effective or possible for anyone. Still, being mindful of sources of negativity and strategies for combating it can improve your focus and productivity in the long run.