Between social media, email, and office gossip, it’s already hard enough to stay focused at work. But when you throw in a personal crisis on the home front, it becomes even more challenging to stay on task. You know you have to put personal issues away and deal with your work responsibilities, but how?
The Challenge of Staying Focused
In his book titled Thinking, Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman discusses how the human brain is split into two systems, which he calls System 1 and System 2.
“System 1 is the involuntary, always-on network in our brains that takes in stimuli and process it. It’s the system that makes automatic decisions for us, like turning our heads when we hear our names called or freezing when we see a spider,” explains Belle Beth Cooper, who has spent time reading Kahneman’s book. “System 2 runs the voluntary parts of our brains. It processes suggestions offered by System 1, makes final decisions and chooses where to allocate our attention.”
In other words, System 1 largely operates independently of our free will. System 2, on the other hand, takes charge whenever there’s an element of self-control or willpower in play.
“Although System 2 is running our attention and our concentration, there’s only so much to go around, and it takes a lot of effort to stay focused on something,” Cooper mentions. “We’re bombarded all the time by distractions, which the System 2 part of our brains has to fight against.”
While most people spend a lot of time avoiding external distractions (and there’s something to be said for this), the reality is that most distractions come from inside our own minds. System 2 becomes so overloaded with distractions that we find it challenging to focus on what really needs to be dealt with. And, according to experts, emotional distractions rooted in personal crises — such as a breakup, death, or financial debt — are the strongest distractions of all.
How to Focus at Work During a Personal Crisis
The world doesn’t stop when you’re going through a personal crisis. Sure, you can take a couple of days off from work, but you eventually have to return if you want to cash your paycheck. So how can you stay focused on work without letting the weight of personal issues lead you astray?
1. Hire Someone to Handle Personal Issues
Sometimes personal issues are just too much to handle on your own. In these situations, it’s worth every penny to hire someone to take care of them for you. For example, let’s say you’re going through a bitter divorce with your spouse and child custody is on the table. You can save a lot of time and stress by hiring an attorney who specializes in family law. Or, perhaps you’re dealing with the death of your mother. Hiring a funeral director will allow you to focus more on work and grieving and less on logistical decision-making.
Hiring an experienced professional to deal with your personal issues isn’t a cop-out. It’s a smart decision, allowing you to deal with all of the complicated matters that go with the issue without compromising on work.
2. Turn Off Your Phone
Staying focused is all about removing triggers that lead you astray. If you’re dealing with a personal issue, then people will probably be calling or texting your cell phone to get your input on certain issues or problems. While the occasional call isn’t a big deal, it becomes a problem when you’re phone is continuously buzzing.
The best thing you can do for your focus and sanity is to turn off your phone. If you can’t turn it off for the entire day, at least turn it off for a few hours at a time. This will allow you to focus on work without having to constantly check your phone to see what’s happening at home.
3. Create a Schedule
We often let distractions infiltrate our minds because we don’t have anything else going on. If you’re just going through the motions at work without any sort of strategy, you’ll get distracted by stray thoughts every couple minutes. The best solution is to create a schedule for your day.
Even if you don’t normally schedule out your time, now is the perfect time to start. By giving yourself objectives and goals, staying focused suddenly becomes a necessity. If it helps, give a coworker your schedule and tell them to hold you accountable by checking in at different intervals throughout the day.
4. Stop Venting to Coworkers
Venting to coworkers is a favorite pastime of many professionals, but it’s not very helpful when you’re dealing with a personal crisis. Contrary to popular belief, venting isn’t constructive. Instead of offering relief, it keeps your mind on the problem and doesn’t allow you to “escape.”
If you have a coworker who you’ve been venting to over the past few weeks, gently tell them that you’d prefer not to talk about the issue any longer. Explain to them that you’re interested in focusing on work and that your personal issues can be discussed outside of work.
5. Remove Distractions
Distractions are ever-present in the average office. It doesn’t matter if you have your own personal office with a door or if you work in an open layout. (Though open layouts do tend to present more distractions.) It’s up to you to remove these distractions from the equation and instead focus on simplicity.
For example, let’s say you’re currently in a big fight with your parents over the way they’re treating your children. Having a bunch of framed pictures on your desk of your parents with their grandchildren probably isn’t a good idea. It may be helpful to put those pictures away in a desk drawer for the time being so you don’t get distracted every time you glance at them.
6. Take on a New Project
You may be so comfortable at work that it’s possible to do your work and still be totally focused on your personal issues at the same time. This isn’t healthy and can lead to obsessing over these problems.
What you may need to do is volunteer to take on a new project at work. By putting yourself out of your comfort zone, you suddenly don’t have the luxury to just go through the motions. You actually have to focus on work, which pushes your personal issues to the back burner during office hours.
Don’t Let a Personal Crisis Become a Professional Crisis
Everyone has personal issues that arise from time to time. Some are more serious than others, but they all have an effect on the way in which you’re able to focus. As soon as System 2 becomes overwhelmed, you have to call all hands on deck and create a game plan for staying on task.
What works for one person may not work for you (and vice versa), so be sure to try a variety of techniques to see what’s effective in your situation.