Nine Tips for Staying Focused on Work When the World is on Fire

Current events can be all-consuming and incredibly distracting. No matter what is going on in the world, one thing stays the same: work keeps on going. There are still customers with questions, meetings that need to be prepped for, and emails to respond to. So, whether it’s the latest news cycle or something going in your personal life, you must keep delivering at your job. Here are nine tips for staying focused to get things done:

Take Care of your Vital Needs

On your most stressful days, it’s essential to take care of your physical needs. Consider your health your number one priority above all else.

  • Get plenty of sleep. Aim for eight solid hours, but get at least six hours. Make it a calendar appointment, if that’s what it takes. Decide your official bedtime and an hour beforehand start winding down. If you lay in bed awake while your brain is racing, try listening to a sleep story.
  • Stay hydrated. Stress increases our heart rate, causing us to perspire at a higher rate than normal. All the organs in our body – including our brain – require water to function properly. Dehydration keeps us from performing our best. So, plan to start your day with a tall glass of water. Keep a glass or bottle full of water throughout the day to sip on. You might find that you prefer water at a specific temperature – cold, room temp, warm, maybe even hot! Whatever works.
  • Eat nutritiously. I am a card-carrying member of the stress eating club. So, if eating a kale salad on your most stressful day sounds like punishment, I can totally relate. If you can plan for a day of healthy, well-balanced meals, then do it! Otherwise, resist the urge to have a can of Pringles for lunch. Planning my meals in advance, and not stocking the pantry with snacks to begin with, sets me on a good path.
  • Take a walk. We all know the benefits of exercise. Plan to take a quick walk outdoors if the weather allows. You need not bust out the sneakers and heart rate monitor for this. A quick stroll around the block in your everyday clothes and shoes can give your body the stress-fighting boost it needs.


Do Not Disturb

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, I switched my iPhone and Apple Watch into Do Not Disturb mode. I was trying to focus on an important deadline and didn’t want to be pinged by any phone calls or texts.

It wasn’t until Friday morning when I realized I had forgotten to turn OFF my DND settings. I had the most productive week in months, all because I muted notifications coming in from my phone.

If you haven’t used do not disturb recently (or ever!), enabling it during a very stressful day can be helpful. Remember, do not disturb can be customized to your preferences.

Pomodoro Method

When you need to get focused, set a timer.

Is it really that simple? Millions of people – myself included – say yes.

The pomodoro method is great for people who…

  • Get derailed by minor distractions throughout the day
  • Have open-ended work with no definitive end like studying, research, etc.
  • Spend too much time perfecting a deliverable that is completed to an acceptable level
  • Are naturally competitive or enjoy gamification

The technique is quite simple. Pick a task, set a 25-minute timer. Then work on that task – and only that task – until time is up. Ideally, you’ll choose a task (or a set of tasks) that can be completed within the pomodoro- that’s your 25-minute block.

Here’s the kicker: once you’ve set the timer, there’s no pausing it. Not for incoming emails, not for the ringing phone, not for breaking news. Keep a notepad nearby to make a list of the things to come back to once your pomodoro is over.

I like to use headphones with focus music while doing pomodoros, which can help me feel extra zoned-in.

Accountability Partner

Those of us that work remotely do not have the automatic accountability that comes with seeing coworkers in a traditional office. And while self-discipline is a critical key to success in remote work, every once in a while, we could all use that extra boost.

Try arranging a co-working session with another remote worker. Whether you meet up in-person or virtually, the rules are the same. You’re there to work, not to socialize. I kick off coworking sessions by asking my co-worker what their goal is for the next hour. Then I set a timer, and we check in. Go for as long as you need.

Take a Deep Breath

Ultra-stressful days can envelop you and give you that feeling of being trapped underwater.

When you feel that way, step away from your desk and take a deep breath. You can use a quick guided meditation like the Breathe app on Apple Watch or a 1-minute session from Calm.

As an alternative approach, you might also pick a mantra or saying that you repeat for the day. You can also write this mantra on a sticky note that you place in a prominent spot. Some of my favorite mantras for stressful days are:

  • This too shall pass.
  • Have courage and be kind.
  • I am enough.
  • I choose peace. I choose calm. I choose content.
  • Let it be.
  • Relax, release, ease.
  • Stay calm and carry on.
  • I have done well.


Avoid Low-Payoff Tasks

Why is it that when the world is crashing down, it seems like the perfect time to tackle organizing your inbox or cleaning out your desk drawer?

Here’s my take: these tasks are low intensity. They require the least amount of mental energy to complete. And bonus: you still feel you accomplished something!

The downside is that these tasks are not just low intensity; they are also low impact. The payoff for completing the task is small, especially compared to the time invested.

If the nature of your job can allow for a full day (or week!) of low-intensity tasks, then by all means. But most of the time, you can only delay your work for so long.

Here are my tips for avoiding low-payoff tasks:

  • Understand your energy levels – On a normal workday, when do you typically have the most mental fortitude to take on an arduous task? For me, that’s first thing in the morning. The mid-to-late afternoon is my lowest energy. If I try to kick off a tough project at 2:30pm, it will take me twice as long as it would then if I push it the next morning. Use your high-energy time wisely. I keep a list of low intensity tasks for that late afternoon hour. These are things I need to do, but that don’t require a lot of focus.
  • Write it down – when you have the sudden urge to organize your bookshelf by color (or a similarly random low payoff project) note the task in your master to-do list. Sometimes writing the task down can put it out of your mind.
  • Brainstorm low intensity, high-impact tasks – Can you think of some tasks that require very little energy, but have a high impact? Maybe doing some networking on LinkedIn or watching a TED Talk? Listening to an audiobook while taking a walk can also be a good option. If you have any administrative tasks like expense reports or required training courses, your low-energy hours are a good time to knock those out. Perhaps you could write a review or LinkedIn recommendation for a colleague or small business.

Let Routines Be Your Guide

On an incredibly stressful day, your instinct may be to thwart your normal routine entirely.

Perhaps for some people, the novelty of something different is just what the doctor ordered.

But deviating from your routine will make your brain say, “today is DIFFERENT!” – which is exactly what you don’t want if you’re striving for focus.

The purpose of building healthy habits and routines is exactly for these difficult moments. Wake up at the same time, have your normal coffee order, dress the same way you always do. There is some solace and comfort in the sameness.

Add Structure

In the times I have been the absolute most stressed, the thing that helps me the most is to add even more structure to my day. I schedule my day out into fifteen-minute chunks from morning alarm to bedtime.

Then, I execute that day militantly.

I eliminate all decision-making from the day, so there is zero guesswork. I don’t allow my brain to wander or get off-track.

If it sounds extreme, you are right. It absolutely is.

But it works for me on days when I know I could be easily distracted by something outside of work.

Give Yourself Some Grace

When your world is crazy, some balls will drop. Be gentle with yourself.

Accept ahead of time that you will not be your normal self.

If you have a good relationship with your boss, you might divulge that you’re feeling extra distracted today.

You will also know when your day is done. It’s okay to call it quits early if your role allows for it. There is no use in trying to be productive if you are not in the right headspace. You don’t have to have a perfect day.