23 Surprising Things Causing You to Lose Focus at Work

Some day it feels impossible to stay on task. And there could be some surprising reasons why it feels like you can't focus at work.

By Shelly Vance, Best Life

Some days, it feels impossible to stay on task. Your phone keeps blinking. Your mind keeps wandering. There's a really cool airplane outside the window. We get it—staying focused at work is hard. Especially when there are so many more exciting things to think about. Like airplanes.

But here's the good news: It's totally possible to get your productivity back on track. To help you eliminate distractions and do your best work, we've rounded up the surprising things that might be derailing your focus.

1. Your tasks fall into one of these five categories.

According to Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project, we’re most likely to procrastinate if a task falls into one of five categories: It’s boring, frustrating, difficult, unstructured, or unrewarding. “The more of these attributes a task has, the more likely we are to put it off,” he says. If an assignment is mind-numbingly dull, escape to a cafĂ© and treat yourself to a coffee while you buckle down, he suggests.

2. Your phone’s color settings.

With their bright icons and flashy photos, apps like Instagram and Facebook are designed to pull you in—and keep you coming back for more. And obviously, scrolling through Twitter is no way to stay focused at work. But there’s a simple way to fight back without deleting the apps completely, says Bailey. “Turn on grayscale mode on your phone,” he suggests.

“That way, it becomes significantly more boring and less novel. It’s like Instagram is an old black and white book.” More boring means less temptation to scroll. 

3. Your love life.

There’s nothing more exciting than a new romance—and it’s certainly more exciting than work. Trish McDermott, a Meetopolis dating coach who helped launch in 1995, says that even then singles were logging on at work. And with loads of dating apps at your fingertips, the temptation is even greater now.

“It gets worse if you’ve been meeting your matches in person and now have a flirty banter going on through texts,” she says. Set a few ground rules for yourself and turn those dating-app notifications off. That way, you won’t be distracted by a new match while you’re trying to write that memo you’ve been working on.

4. The busy work you assign yourself.

“One major office distraction is ‘make-work,’ or work that you create to avoid other work that’s usually more important,” says Samuel Johns, career counselor and human resources manager at “This could include checking for new emails, creating to-do lists of your work instead of actually doing it, or reorganizing your filing system.” He recommends making one solid to-do list (filled only with your most important tasks, of course) at the beginning of the day, and trying not to stray from the goals you made.

5. Your empty water bottle.

A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that even mild dehydration can impair cognitive performance, especially in attention-heavy tasks. “Most people wait until they are thirsty to drink water, but typically that means you’re already experiencing mild dehydration,” says Wayne Anthony, a water expert at He recommends drinking 0.5 to 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight every day.

6. Your stress.

This one goes out to those of you who “work best under pressure.” It turns out, feeling overwhelmed probably isn’t going to help you focus. A study of 425 adults found that stressed workers are less productive, especially if work is carrying over into an employee’s personal life. Even if you feel like you’re in over your head, do as much as you can to leave work at the office, and spend your evenings unwinding.

7. Your attempts to multitask.

You’ve got a million things on your plate—why not get them all done at once? Actually, there’s a very good reason not to: It kills your focus. One Stanford University study found that people who multitask often have worse working memory and are more likely to be derailed by tasks that aren’t important to their current goals. Instead of shooting an email while you’re in the middle of writing a PowerPoint slide, make a note to self to send the note when you’re done.

8. Your phone.

You already know your phone is a distraction, but you might not realize just how bad. One study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found that simply being around a smartphone—even if it’s sitting face-down on your desk on silent—can reduce cognitive performance.

You’ll probably never be convinced to leave your phone at home for the day, but at least put it out of sight. Study participants whose phones were in their pocket or bag did better at cognitive tasks than those who kept their mobiles in sight.

9. Your high expectations of yourself.

When you have a tough three-hour assignment ahead of you, it’s no wonder you end up busying yourself with menial tasks instead. Instead of telling yourself you’re going to concentrate for the full three hours, promise yourself you’ll get just a 15-minute chunk out of the way, suggests Bailey.

You’ll build more momentum than you’d think. “That resistance is always stacked at the beginning of the task,” he says. “It might take three months to get the courage to start, but after three minutes we could go for hours.”

10. Your sad desk lunch.

Gobbling down your lunch in front of your computer might seem like a time-saving move for an ultra-focused employee, but it actually has the opposite effect. Research shows that taking an actual lunch break helps you refresh your energy and boost your productivity later in the afternoon. If you refuse to leave your desk, you could end up in a hazy afternoon slump an hour or two later.

11. Your daily news check.

Staying on top of the news is important, but when we read updates online, we tend to just skim the articles and get distracted by pop-ups and “Read Next” links, says Bailey. He recommends subscribing to a paper version instead. “You dive into articles more deeply and you spend less time on stimulating distractions that are programmed to take your attention,” he says.

12. Your messy desk.

Maybe you think you do your best work in a bit of chaos. But more than likely, it’s just taking your focus away from your job. “The untidier your desk, the more tempting it is to procrastinate by tidying it,” says Johns. He suggests limiting your desktop to items you need to use constantly, like pens, a notepad, your mug, and a clock. Anything else should be filed away or tucked into a drawer. 

13. You have no idea where to start.

An unstructured task can make you feel paralyzed because you have no idea where to start. If you’ve been avoiding a project because it’s too overwhelming, try making a step-by-step list of what needs to get done, then start attacking your new to-do list.

14. You’re checking things off your (personal) to-do list.

“For some employees, the thought, ‘Oh, it’ll just take two minutes to order some more dog food’ or such-and-such is a frequent occurrence,” says Johns. “It’s really up to employees to decide whether this is an appropriate way to spend their time. As long as they are not procrastinating or behind in their work and their boss doesn’t object, it might be OK.” But if you spend twice as long as you meant to waiting on hold or deciding which brand of paper towels to order for your kitchen, it’s probably a sign you should save those tasks for after hours.

15. Your jam-packed schedule of back-to-back meetings.

It’s easy to get off track during meetings, meaning your whole team (including you) start chatting about your kids’ birthday parties and where to go for the next office happy hour. “We put time limits on our social events,” says Jeff Rizzo, CEO of RIZKNOWS. “If we have a meeting, we make sure it ends promptly, and employees are off to their desks.” When you’re leading a meeting, try to do the same, and bring the conversation back on topic if your team members are straying from the point.

16. Your office’s setup.

If you’re side-to-side with another coworker, there’s a good chance that background noise is making you lose focus. “The new open space concept that many companies adopted has proven to be distracting,” says HR professional Paula Goldman. You might not have much control over where you sit, but you can take steps to help it work for you. Put on headphones if you have chatty coworkers, or seek out a private space if a coworker’s phone call is putting you over the edge.

17. Your late bedtime.

Sure, you wouldn’t expect to feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after a bad night’s sleep, but you might not realize that your regular bedtime habits still aren’t up to snuff. More than one-third of adults consistently get too little shut-eye, according to the CDC. “Lack of sleep can definitely have a negative impact on concentration, alertness, and productivity,” says Chris Brantner, certified sleep science coach with SleepZoo. He recommends taking an afternoon power nap to refresh your energy, though you should also start heading to bed earlier if you feel groggy on a regular basis.

18. Your lack of proper nutrition.

Fatigue and difficulty concentrating are symptoms of anemia, and a lack of other nutrients could also be to blame. “Low iron levels, vitamin D deficiency, and inadequate B12 can all have profound effects on memory and attention,” says Arielle Levitan, MD, co-founder of Vous Vitamin and author of The Vitamin Solution. Take a look at your diet if you’ve been feeling sluggish.

19. Your chatty co-workers.

Chatting with coworkers is one of the biggest distractions in the office, says business coach Stacy Caprio. “The conversation may be about work, or something non-work related, but no matter what the subject, it breaks the employee’s concentration and takes a very large chunk out of their total day’s work,” she says. Unless you need to have an in-depth discussion, you’re probably best off shooting a quick email to a colleague when you have a question or need to share some information.

20. You have pain you thought you could ignore.

Whether it’s an achy back or tight shoulders, chronic pain could be distracting you more than you thought—even if you’ve grown a tolerance to it. “It’s very common for pain to hurt your concentration especially when you get tolerant to the pain,” says Febin Melepura, MD, interventional pain physician with the Sports & Pain Institute of New York. “For example, you can have muscle spasms in your neck that you can get used to but it can trigger headaches that you won’t be able to ignore.” Don’t let those problems build up. If you haven’t already, talk to your doctor about pain management options and how to address the root of the pain.

21. Your depression.

If you’ve been ignoring your mental health for the sake of your career, it’s time to rethink your strategy. An Australian study found that job strain, along with bullying, make symptoms of depression worse, leading to a drop in productivity. If you think you might have depression, it’s important to seek help; your doctor can recommend therapy or medication that can get you back on track.

22. Your notification settings.

You probably realize your phone is a distraction, but it wouldn’t be such a time-suck if you turned the notifications off during the workday. “The things that derail our attention are usually the most novel things we surround ourselves with. It’s our phones, the news, and email that comes in,” says Bailey. Turn notifications off on non-work apps if you can, or at least go into the day with an awareness that checking your phone every time it lights up is a surefire way to lose focus at the office. 

23. Your thyroid is acting up.

If an under-active thyroid isn’t producing enough hormones, your metabolism slows down and you might feel a dip in energy. In addition to fatigue and a lack of focus, you might feel cold, constipated, depressed, or hoarse, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ask your doctor about thyroid problems if you’ve been feeling tired for seemingly no reason.


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Career Magazine: 23 Surprising Things Causing You to Lose Focus at Work
23 Surprising Things Causing You to Lose Focus at Work
Some day it feels impossible to stay on task. And there could be some surprising reasons why it feels like you can't focus at work.
Career Magazine
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