How to Focus on Work (When Other Things are Going On)

How to Focus on Work (When Other Things are Going On)So: it’s been almost a week since the U.S. election. Like many of you, I’m finding it hard to focus on work in the wake of the election results, and I thought it might make a great open thread today. (As I noted earlier, politically I’m left of center, but all of my friends, on both the right and the left, seem to be having these problems focusing.) How DO you focus when you’ve got heavy things on your mind? We’ve talked before in general about ways to improve your focus and how to deal with heavy personal things like post-interview anxiety, as well as miscarriage and infertility — but this feels different to me. So — if you’re feeling less than laser-focused these days, what are you doing to focus on work? Some thoughts:

  • Step away from Facebook — particularly friends who may be posting triggering things. Check the sources you trust, too, on FB — fake news exists on both the left and the right.
  • Prioritize. Pick three things that absolutely need to get done today, and cross them off the list one by one.
  • Work on paper, or in a place you don’t usually work. For the grad students reading, now is the time to pick a new cubby at the library. For those in the workforce, it may mean taking your work to a conference room, or even just picking a new place within your own office, like working on the opposite side of your desk where visitors usually sit. (Bonus points if you can get away from your computer.)
  • Commit to focusing in short bursts of time. My preferred time management tactic is the Pomodoro method, where you break the day into chunks of 25 minutes followed by 5-minute breaks, but there are lots of other systems out there. I’m also trying to focus on completing the tasks in front of me — if I start a project, instead of letting myself get wrapped up in research paralysis, I’m trying to finish it. Reward yourself with each completed project or focused block of time by taking a quick walk around the office or the building.
  • Practice self care when you’re not working — but recognize what you need. As commenter Shots.Shots.Shots noted on Friday, alcohol may just make you even more sad. Personally I’ve found that “relaxing” things where I normally multitask (like watching TV while I surf the Internet) haven’t been helpful, but totally absorbing, 100%-focus things (like reading a book) are better. I just finished Eligible and would recommend it, particularly if you’re an Austen fan.
  • A corollary to self-care: focus on what you can do. Maybe it’s donating money or time to causes you believe in — maybe it’s getting involved in local politics. Readers have had a ton of great ideas in recent days.

Ladies, how’s your focus these days? What tips and tricks do you have to focus on work and get things done in a timely fashion?   

Pictured: Pixabay.

How To Focus On Work When Other Things Are Going On


  1. I downloaded a Chrome extension called StayFocusd. It allows me to put websites on a list and set a time limit for how much time I can spend on them during work hours. All social media sites, news sites that I frequent that I don’t need for work, this site and other blogs I read went on it and I limit myself to 30 mins per day on them.

  2. Macademia :

    I thought it was just me! I haven’t solved this (or I’d be working not commenting) but like the no multi-tasking idea. Sleep and exercise helps too. PS I really liked Eligible!

  3. It’s so hard to stay focus when you have lots on your mind or things that are bothering you. I’ve had lots on my mind lately which makes it hard to do work. I can’t force myself to stop thinking about the things that bother me because I feel these thoughts are a natural process and allows me to “move on” eventually. What I do to still get work done is break work up into small tasks that is 15 minutes, 30 min or even one hour long. It is easier to stay focus for a short period of time and get some work done then take a break and come back for another 15 minutes to get more work done. I feel it’s better to do some then nothing at all. Part of the uphill battle is thinking that the work is daunting and takes hours and hours to get done. If I tell myself that the work is only brief, I can stay focus.

    • Agreed. Between the election and men bothereing me, I have difficulty getting all of my billeables in. I told the manageing partner that I would be takeing a week off and he went wild b/c he needs my 6800 hours this year to be able to build a new pool at his house in the Hamton’s. FOOEY! What do I get out of that other then a swim or 2? NADA! I figure that if I start my own firm, I can buy my OWN house in the Hamton’s. YAY!

  4. Loved Eligible!

  5. Anonymous :

    I just stopped reading the news (except for local news). I was refreshing CNN and political websites constantly and it was really getting me down. I feel remarkably better after sticking my head in the sand!

  6. I work in a political science department, teach politics, and my friends are either fellow academics or work for the parliament. It’s tough, even in the U.K. which theoretically should have a bit of distance. I’ve found that it’s brought the Brexit trauma back up. A few strategies:
    – designating space for processing – I taught on Wednesday morning and gave my students the first fifteen minutes to talk or not talk before moving on. For my continuing ed students it was slightly easier, I felt like I didn’t need to be as reassuring and could ask for their patience,
    – with friends, we get a certain amount of time to moan and then move onto other things
    – with myself, I don’t check twitter or the news first thing, my husband and I drink our tea in bed in the morning and it was getting angsty. Now we look at pictures of wildlife on instagram. I also block social media during the day using freedom.

  7. Fill in the blank!

    When the all-male team you work with wears suits without ties, you should wear . . .

  8. Totally behind on a compliance project due to the election results last week. I force myself to focus on something for 1/2 an hour and then treat myself with 5 minutes of internet time (I kind of swiped this idea from the book ‘The Pomodoro Technique’)

  9. Jitterbug :

    Oh, I need this! Not only am I still processing the election results, I’m job hunting, and it’s in that phase when I have some leads but things are moving slowly, and one of the hiring managers has gone dark on me and I just know I could hear from him any moment, but I might not hear from him for a few days, or ever again. Happens every time I need a new job, and I know that the people who do this have their reasons but guhh it drives me bonkers.

  10. Guessing that anyone who has been good at focusing this week is not on this s!te right now to grant us her wisdom!

  11. I think I accomplished exactly one productive item on Wednesday. Most of the day was spent trying and failing not to burst into tears in my cubicle. (I’m a federal employee whose agency has the potential to be very affected by the new administration, so we’re all pretty on edge.) I was lucky to have had Thursday/Friday off, because I feel like they would have been more of the same. I did set up CFC donations to ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, so I could feel that I was doing SOMETHING.

    The point about self care when you’re not working is always important, but exponentially more so this week, I think. The only time this weekend that I felt truly at peace was Sunday afternoon, crocheting an afghan while watching The Crown on Netflix (ironically about the struggles of being a female ruler).

    • Yeah I don’t think I did anything at work Tuesday and Wednesday, first from nervousness and then because everyone was crying

  12. P.S., On the Austen adaptation thread, I’m revisiting The Lizzie Bennet Diaries this week as a source of comfort (modern P&P adaptation in the form of a webseries, all episodes on Youtube). Specifically I’m listening again to the Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet novelization because it’s something I can do while I’m doing mindless work tasks, and I love the narration. I have some big problems with the adaptation itself, as I did with Eligible (which I also mostly enjoyed), but the characters are delightful.

  13. SoAnon4This :

    I would love advice from some professional women on this.

    In addition to the election, the beginning of the last week had me feeling like I had been hit by a truck with some traumatic things from my past rearing their ugly heads (via text). I was away from my family for work the whole week, and drank too much at night and had panic attacks in my hotel room between meetings, though as far as what anyone saw professionally, I held things together (if a little grumpily). I really thought that being home and back in my office would help — and it has! But perhaps not enough. I fear that the fact that I am distracted and on the verge of tears will be very obvious to everyone.

    I work with a woman who is great — kind and wise. She’s not technically my supervisor but she’s very high ranked in the company. Is there anything to be gained by saying something to her like, “I am sorry if I was a bit out of it at [thing]. Some bad stuff unrelated to work happened last week and I am working on getting back to an even keel.”

    …probably not, huh?

    (Therapy is tomorrow night, but it feels like an eternity away.)

    • Anonymous :

      Least said, soonest mended?

      I think if there wasn’t anything that went egregiously wrong while you were off, it’s better not to mention it.

    • I think everyone was a bit fragile last week. You won’t have been noticeably different to anyone else.

    • If you’re hesitating or asking about whether or not to confide in this woman, something deep inside you is already uncomfortable with the idea. (Not always true, but in this case I would honor your hesitation.) Write it down to yourself–at home–and find ways to keep yourself feeling safe and cared-for until you can get to your therapist tomorrow night.

      BTDT myself–not with the election (although it is not helping) but with another source of sadness in my life. Hugs.

    • Wildkitten :

      Also – xanax.

  14. Green Queen :

    I feel like I have been reasonably successful in getting myself back together and focused after the election, by the grace of having the time to make myself okay.

    I was heartbroken and literally sick with anxiety on Wednesday. I work from home and just today opened my solo law practice as a newly sworn-in attorney. I live in an extremely Catholic, conservative small city and, although my family goes back generations here, my feminist lawyer thing makes me stick out like a sore thumb. I called my Mom because she was going to be watching my son Thursday morning anyway, and she picked him up from the babysitter and kept him overnight. I cried and watched Parks and Rec all day Wednesday after I got myself through a Chamber of Commerce new business interview. I spent the evening with a friend, we painted our nails and tried to talk about other things.

    On Thursday, I had to travel to deep southern Illinois to be sworn in to the bar in the afternoon. I left early, drove two hours alone, listening to “How I Built This” (cannot recommend enough!) podcasts, and I spent several hours alone in the Shawnee National Forest, climbing rock structures and making a plan to improve recycling in my community. I care a lot about the environment, and so I’m going to further my agenda in my conservative town at a grassroots level.

    Thursday afternoon, I walked across the stage in a ceremony with 60 other new lawyers (very few of them that I knew), in a sharp navy blue skirt suit and bright red Chuck Taylors. Tears in my eyes and fire in my heart. Friday morning, I created a coalition of forward-thinking young entrepreneurs dedicated to improving recycling access and awareness in our community. The mayor’s response to my email asking to meet was dismissive, so we’re moving forward on our own. I’m feeling very optimistic about what we’re going to be able to accomplish as a group of young business owners working together.

    I’m still avoiding the news like the plague and my appetite is slowly returning. I’m now finally a practicing lawyer, and I get to be my own boss. I’m focusing on the great things in my life and trying to do something good. I like living near my family, but it sure is hard to live in this town sometimes.

    • Anonymous :

      Good luck. You can do it!!

      Chicago is always here if you need us, but I’d recommend Oak Park instead.

      • Green Queen :

        A friend who lives in Oak Park is constantly Instagramming the gorgeous homes near her and I die of jealousy every time.

    • I’ve been thinking so much about how important work at the local level is going to be now. Kudos for you for getting right to work! What an amazing way to channel your pain.

      Since you’re a lawyer, you’ve probably already thought of this but get in touch with the ACLU/similar, before too long some protestors supporting causes you believe in are going to need your services.

      And kudos on the new business!

  15. I could use some advice on this. I received scary results on one medical test and am now waiting for the next level medical test to be scheduled. (PET scan). I’m not getting much done at work and I don’t feel well. Unfortunately I just changed jobs so I don’t have a ton of sick days available. What would you do?

    • I’m so sorry to hear this, hugs and rawrs. Is there someone who could be there for you, who you can at least talk this through with?

  16. There is this Forest app (chrome extension and an app), where you set it to block certain sites for a period of time. If you do, a “tree” grows (bigger trees for longer times. If you do the blocked activities, your tree dies. You’re trying to get a forest.

    It’s a cross between Farmville and “doing something with my life.”

    it works sometimes, but I’m a hot mess and just open Explorer as a workaround (don’t kill my digital tree!)

  17. I am reading just one news site, and only once a day. I took walks outside and also did things to reach out to family and friends. I also watched a movie with a strong female lead.

  18. Related topic Kat, how do you navigate workplace chit chat when your co-workers are on different points of the political spectrum, but assume you agree with them? This is something both my husband and I struggle with. His office assumes he is more conservative (like them) and mine assume I am liberal (like them). We both avoid the topic where possible of course, but lately it seems that conversations are more political. By not correcting assumptions, it feels a little like being complicit. I used to be able to joke my way out, but humor has left the building.

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