Whenever someone asks me, "How was your day?" I always give a variation on the same theme:
It was crazy busy. I never have enough time to get all my work done.
But when I gave my friend my standard answer the other week, she pushed back. "Was the day actually crazy, or do you think maybe we make our days harder by being bad at focusing on one thing?"
At first I was annoyed by the pushback, but then I realized she had a good point. Trying to be a multitasking hero meant it was actually taking way longer to finish what I started.
Staying mindful at work may feel like a pipe dream if you're facing deadlines, running to back- to-back meetings, and scrambling to answer an ever-growing list of emails. Not to mention dealing with a million personal responsibilities as well.
If your mind feels like an open browser with way too many tabs open, you need to figure out how to be more engaged at work.
Multitasking may seem like a great asset, maybe even one that you put on your resume or say is your greatest strength on an interview, but if you are unable to focus completely on the task at hand, it makes it easier for things to fall through the cracks. It also leaves you open to constant frustration — project work often requires long blocks of focus, and losing steam to answer a string of "urgent" Slack messages is not helping your productivity. (But it's almost definitely adding to your stress level.)
So how can you focus on one task at a time and stay engaged at work when you have so many simultaneous demands? Or, alternatively, how can you be more engaged at work when you're feeling checked out and disinterested in your job?
Whether you're feeling overloaded or underloaded, developing mindfulness and presence at work is sure to alleviate your stress and/or boredom.
We crowdsourced some wisdom from super-engaged career women to learn how they stay engaged (and motivated) at work. Here are their tips:
To-do Lists Are Your Friend
Is there anything more satisfying than crossing something off your list? It's right up there with finding out that your favorite binge-able show is getting renewed.
When we constantly have thoughts popping up on what needs to get done, and we purge those thoughts on a physical list or digital planner, we give our brain some freedom to focus on our immediate task because we know that all of our tasks have been prioritized and will be addressed as time allows.
"I make lists of what needs to be done. That way it's visible and I can physically check off things when I get done," says Emilee Sparks, Software Developer.
And if you're in the underutilized camp, writing out everything you need to do is a very healthy way to remind yourself that there is plenty of work to be done.
Treat Your Distractions as a Treat
While sometimes we need to get focused because there is too much on our plates, sometimes we lack focus because we aren't motivated. A study of nearly 2,000 working professionals found that on an average 8-hour work day, we actually only "work" for about 3 of those hours.
If you struggle with being productive, think of what some of your favorite distractions are (i.e. checking social media, chatting with a coworker, reading the news) and put a timer on how long you have to work on your task before you get to partake in your distraction. There are even apps out there that will lock your phone for a set amount of time which forces you to stay engaged and gives you something to look forward to.
I like to set my timer for 45 minutes. After that the timer goes off, I can do whatever I want for 15-20 minutes and then come back to do it all over again. This helps me focus on my project but gives the relief to know that in just a few minutes I can do what I want.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Your Focus
When you first look at your to-do list, it might feel overwhelming, so it's important to get your priorities in check.
Desiree Wiercyski, Marketing Manager, stays more conscious of her responsibilities and what's needed by checking in with herself, "I ask myself what is necessary now? That helps break things down into smaller next steps so I don't feel overwhelmed."
A great way to figure out what is necessary is by using a visual tool like the Eisenhower Matrix. This process helps you determine if something is a priority, can be delegated, can be done later, or shouldn't be done at all by establishing how urgent or important the task is. By addressing what is truly on fire and critical we can discern what truly takes precedence and needs our complete focus.
Spreadsheet lines starting blend together? It may seem counterproductive when you need to buckle down, but a great way to get focused on your work is to step away for a few minutes.
Getting away from our desks is great for our overall wellness and can help us get out of our heads, allowing us to come back to our desk refreshed and less stressed.
Jais Curry, a Food Freedom Coach, relies on her fitness tracker to help her stay focused. "I have a corporate job as an Asset Manager, which is fast-paced and hectic, and I also own a business. My [fitness tracker] has a move alert and I'll go make a lap around the floor if I have been sitting at my desk for too long. It helps with creativity. I time block my calendar, set alerts to follow up on emails so I don't need to remember if I can't get to it right away, and have alarms on my phone to stop and breathe a couple of times a day."
Be Device Free at Your Next Meeting
Have you ever attended a meeting where everyone is on their phones or laptops and they seem more focused on drafting emails than being present in the meeting?
Even if you're just bringing a device with you to take notes, it is so easy to get tempted to respond to a ping from a coworker or client.
Sarah Painter, Head of SEO, wants to be sure that when she attends a meeting the facilitator has her full attention and if she can't, she will forgo the meeting entirely, "I leave devices in my bag when at meetings to ensure I'm fully participating. My thought is if we're all multitasking, it will take twice as long. If I have something so important I have to do it right now, I do not attend the meeting."
If you have ever been guilty of needing to ask a coworker what was said at the same meeting you just attended, this is something you're going to want to implement pronto.
Oh, and remote workers, make sure you're dialed into meetings literally and figuratively. You may not be able to leave your device behind, but close out of other programs and silence your notifications before you join.
Remember, taking some time to truly be present with your coworkers will leave you feeling more refreshed after your meeting. And if being device-free at a meeting leaves you feeling bored and distracted, it's a good sign that you've got bigger fish to fry (talk to your boss/meeting organizer about how the meeting can be more productive and if your presence is really necessary).
When it becomes hard to concentrate, there is no better gift than a meditation break to get centered and clear the mind. After starting a new position in a new city, overwhelmed with learning the ins and outs of my new position I decided to challenge myself to meditate every day for 100 days. On days that were particularly hectic, I would sneak out to my car and meditate for a few minutes. It never failed to give me clarity and it took away the majority of the anxiety surrounding my project.
If you are struggling with staying engaged at work, give yourself some structure, self-care, and grace, and there is nothing that you can't accomplish.