The Quick Summary
We tend to beat ourselves up for getting distracted at work, wishing we could stay focused all the time. However, being distracted is an unavoidable part of life. By being more aware of when you get distracted and planning for it, you can actually increase your focus, creativity, and productivity.
For the full story, keep reading.
Work In 90-Minute Sprints
Decades ago, the father of modern sleep research, Nathaniel Kleitman, proposed that we work best in ~90-minute cycles. He called this phenomenon the basic rest–activity cycle (BRAC). In short, it suggests that humans are most alert and focused for roughly 90 minutes, at which point our brains want to relax for roughly 20 minutes before the cycle starts again.
Of course, this isn't exact, so the time frames may vary in either direction depending on the person and situation. Still, it gives insight into how you can adjust your normal work routine to squeeze in some additional productivity. By keeping track of time and trying to stay more aware of your own attention span, you may eventually be able to figure out when your "cycle" is happening.
Just had a long meeting for 90 minutes? Take 20 off to relax and unwind, giving your mind a much needed break. Then jump right back into your work for another hour-and-a-half. For many people, these additional "breaks" are easily compensated by the increased levels of attentiveness to follow.
Let Your Mind Wander
The human mind is always thinking, whether you want it to or not. We all know what it's like to be focusing on a project only to have our mind wander. It turns out that letting your mind wander isn't such a bad thing. The important thing is not whether or not your mind wanders, but whether or not it is intentional and what you think about.
It is fine to let your mind wander while you are doing work which requires little mental effort, such as copy/pasting lots of information. Then, your mind has more energy to stay focused during more focus-intensive work like that of a complex project. If you work a job that requires staying focused for long periods of time, be sure to let your mind wander at the end of the day and whenever you take a bathroom break.
These little moments throughout the day enable us to be more creative and attentive when we need it the most.
Take Time To Laugh
Some say humor is the best medicine. It turns out, humor is also incredibly effective at reenergizing us. A study found that taking a break to watch a funny video helped participants be more engaged and productive with a tedious task. Many of us have to deal with some degree of tedium in our work from time-to-time and those moments can feel like they drag on for hours.
An easy way to help in these situations is to give yourself a break when you realize you are slowing down, losing interest, or struggling to make progress. Pull up your favorite funny videos or ask coworkers for suggestions. Many companies now have entire Slack channels dedicated to random humor. Giving yourself permission to laugh throughout the day can help you tackle your work more effectively and feel better while doing it.
If you lead a team, give your colleagues a chance to take additional breaks throughout the day. Keep an eye out for drops in attentiveness and see if intentionally embracing distractions helps them stay more engaged throughout the day. Best of all, structuring your workflows to value intentional, strategic distractions is just one of the many ways you can make honor your individuals and prioritize well-being.