Can’t Focus at Work?

How to Help Employees Focus


Your deadline is approaching, and you’re engrossed in your work. Suddenly, a colleague stops by to ask a quick question. While that interaction may be helpful to your colleague, your work has been derailed. You might be able to get back to your work relatively quickly, but your frustration grows because you can’t tolerate many more disruptions. Far too often this scenario plays out in our work lives. Not surprisingly, inability to complete focus work continues to be a top employee complaint. Why can’t we solve this problem?

Focus work, it turns out, is difficult to define. It’s more than just doing work by yourself. Lucky for us, science is hard at work pulling apart how we all do our best work. To better understand how focus work gets done in the workplace and what can sabotage it, we conducted a series of experiments in Haworth’s Human Performance Lab. Here’s what we’ve learned.

The Download
Depending on the specific task and the level of expertise the person has at it, visual and auditory distractions—combined—can create drops in performance anywhere between three and 23 percent, on average. Wowzers! Why such a large range?

Our results and existing research tell us that successfully completing focus work depends on the person and the task, in addition to the environment. How so? Our brains are like prediction engines. Newer research is providing evidence that our brains continuously gather and assess information about ourselves, our world, and our place in it via our senses—much of it under awareness. It is hypothesized that, when what our senses are gathering easily fits with what we already know, our brains predict what is about to happen. When we get better at predicting what is about to occur, we need to pay attention to less and less outside information to achieve our goals—eventually allowing us to move through our world with relative ease.

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The Upside of Your Prediction Engine for Focus Work: Efficiency
How does that translate to focusing at work? Well, the more you know about a task, the easier it is for you to accomplish it. Take reading in your native language, for example. You can zip through a two-paragraph email quickly. (Sometimes we read so quickly, we may skip over details and end up misreading it. Still, reading a two-paragraph email well can be done easily.) On the other hand, pretend you’re planning a vacation abroad and you’re learning that language. If that same email was in that “new-to-you” language, it would take much more time and effort to accurately understand its meaning. You’d have to pay attention to how characters form words, recall meaning for those words, then place that meaning in the right order to fully comprehend it.

This illustrates the difference between working from a place of learning versus working from a place of expertise. What may take an intern one hour may take a more seasoned employee 15 minutes. Both can complete the task well and with similar results, but one has more experience, so the task is more predictable, automated, and expedient. Now, layer in the appropriate amount of time a specific task requires, or how long you need to sustain attention to the task. This also varies. One person may plod along to prepare a report well before its due date—working on it in chunks and taking natural breaks in that work—while another may have a looming deadline for that report and needs to complete it all in one sitting. Each of our “prediction engines” function differently, but as long as those predictions are good, it’s smooth sailing. It’s when our prediction engine detects an error that things go awry.

The Downside of Your Prediction Engine for Focus Work: Distractions
When something unpredicted occurs, our brains are designed to bring that unpredicted event to our awareness—our attention is captured. For example, sirens and alarms keep us safe because they are designed to capture our attention. However, not everything that captures our attention is necessary (e.g., when a coworker sneezes). Anything that captures our attention is a “distraction” from our task and will reduce task performance. Not only that, distractions can come from both our internal and external worlds. We have our own internal chatter and states like stress, fatigue, or hunger to contend with.

Managing Distractions for Better Performance
Leaders have the power to help us manage distractions. While we are best at managing our own internal distractions and can control some external distractions, we do better when we have autonomy, freedom to choose where to work, and some control over features of our workspaces. Creating appropriate barriers, work zoning, and neighborhoods, and providing cultural approval for using tools to manage personal distractions can go a long way to assist with our efforts to focus. When these are available, we can choose the right things that best suit our personal and task needs.

“Leaders have the power to help us manage distractions … we do better when we have autonomy, freedom to choose where to work, and some control over features of our workspaces.”

—Rebecca Johnson, Senior Research Specialist at Haworth

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Maximizing Focus Work Efforts
For internal distractions:

  1. Learn how you work best and be intentional about setting yourself up for success. What time of day do you seem to sail through difficult tasks? Right away in the morning, just before lunch, or later in the evening? Do you manage better when working off lists? What type of distraction is most problematic for you?

  2. Take care of yourself. Rest or take a break when needed. We all perform well when we have more resources. Often, choosing to skip a brief break at work in favor of “pushing through” will result in lower quality work and increased stress. Also, when we have internal chatter, it’s best to acknowledge it, take note of how you’d like to deal with it, and then set the task aside for a time that you can devote to it. Other useful tactics are mindfulness, briefly engaging in an activity you enjoy, and acceptance.

For external distractions, interference, and interruptions:

  1. Utilize boundaries: Select workspaces that have physical boundaries such as walls or partitions, or choose zones that are meant for focus work. (These spaces present fewer unexpected events.) Orient yourself or use tools (such as headphones) that prevent unwanted visual and auditory distractions.

  2. Create boundaries: Block off time in your calendar to complete your work the ways you do it best—this prevents others from scheduling events that could disrupt that work. Accept calendar appointments that clearly define why your presence is being requested. That idea is gaining traction, according to one LinkedIn article that touted this mantra: No agenda, no attenda.

  3. Set clear boundaries: Those who aren’t efficient while at work can feel the need to take tasks home at night to complete them. This kind of “work creep” is an issue and can contribute to burnout. Some companies find reducing the work week increases productivity because it motivates workers to find ways to be more efficient with their time.

  4. Last but not least, have conversations with colleagues about how each of you works best. When we know and understand each other, we’re better at managing our expectations.

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Different work activities often compete with one another, focus work tasks themselves can differ, and people's abilities differ. There are lots of these little things we can do to stay focused. It gets back to my philosophy that the person doing the work is best at deciding what kind of work environment they need to perform well. So, we need to know how we best work, and organizations need to honor that we’re all not the same and will have varying needs. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Knowing the ways that focus work is task- and person-specific can help organizations create a workplace—its culture, policies, and workspaces—to meet employees’ focus work needs.

Dive deeper into the research by reading our white paper "Why We Can't Focus at Work".