How to Focus When You’re Distracted

We’ve all been there. . . You care about your career, and you want to be the best you can be, but you’re going through a stretch of time where all you can think about is anything but the job in front of you. In this article, we’ll examine five different reasons you may be unable to focus and what strategies we’ve used to combat this problem.

1. Personal Events:

This might be something exciting in your own life (like the inspiration for this article-Carly’s wedding which is now only 2 weeks away!), something minor like children being home sick from school, or a more challenging personal event like the loss of a loved one.

When you’re distracted for one of these reasons, we’ve found that you may have to go easier on yourself than you normally would.  We would never recommend slacking off or succumbing to complete distraction on the job, but you may need to try giving yourself a specified time frame in the day when you can take a mini-break and spend 5 minutes daydreaming about the vacation you’re excited for or calling home to check in on your child.

Another strategy we’ve used is to keep a running list of the items you think of throughout the day that need to be dealt with when you have personal time. Finally, if the event is too large, and you find yourself unable to get any work done, or you may miss out on important family events if you push yourself through, you should consider taking time off.

2. Poor Fit:

The could be a lack of fit with the culture of the company you work for or an ongoing conflict with your coworkers or boss.  This type of situation can feel hopeless.  You go to work every day dreading the interactions you’re going to have or knowing that you’re going to be micromanaged instead of being treated as a professional. You can become very negative and feel trapped. The important thing here if you are not in a position to move out of the company or department is to look for positives. Maybe you’ve been thinking that your boss doesn’t like you because she never stops by your desk to say hi-if you examine the situation further, you may notice that she doesn’t stop by anyone’s desk. You can try to take the initiative in building a stronger relationship or try to understand her reasons-maybe she is scheduled for back to back meetings that don’t allow her to be as active with the team.

If you feel frustrated about perceived micromanagement try to understand the company’s rationale for the procedures-perhaps you’re in a highly regulated industry (like Insurance!), and records need to be kept a certain way in the event of an audit. Generally, if you can’t or are unwilling to look for a new role in a different department or a different company, you will need to adjust your perception of your workplace to refocus. It’s all about how you decide to look at it, finding the positive things will help you look at a difficult situation with new eyes. Would it really be better to be unemployed?


3. Being in a Role that Relies on Your Weaknesses:

This is another situation that many of us have probably run into early in our careers. We may have known what industry or company we wanted to work in and taken any job to get our foot in the door. Once in that role, you may have found that actually you’re not good at thinking on your feet, and you’d be better suited to a more analytical role. Or you get energized by talking things through with coworkers and this processing role you took that sounded great when you started is starting to take a toll.

We’ve found the easiest way to stay focused and make sure you’re doing good work is to come up with a game plan for how to move into a role better suited to your strengths. If you don’t know what your strengths are or how to define them in a useful manner, we recommend taking the StrengthsFinder Assessment and reading the book. Once you know your strengths, you can look for roles in your company or another company that utilize skills related to your strengths. You can make a roadmap to getting one of those positions and use some of your unfocused time by productively trying to develop yourself for your future instead of simply worrying about how frustrating you find your job.

This one is most common at the beginning of your career but can happen at anytime. The biggest thing to remember is that you’re still a committed professional and while you made a wrong turn taking this particular position you will salvage it by learning all you can from the role and most importantly you’ll learn what kind of responsibilities are not a good match for you.

4. Work-Related Extracurriculars:

This is the opposite problem. You love your job and the company you work for. You’re trying to make lots of connections at the company, and this company supports your development and has many opportunities for you to learn about the rest of the company. You’ve decided you’re going to take advantage of all of it and try to get your hands in everything you can. Before you know it, you have 3 projects in your department, 4 interdepartmental projects, and you’ve decided you want to finish CPCU in a year.

This is awesome, and it sounds like a lot of fun to us! But you sit down at your desk each morning, and your days are filled with meetings, and your customers (be they customers, agents, or anyone else in the company) feel like they can never get a hold of you. In this case, you again need to revisit your roadmap and think about how all of these activities serve or disadvantage you in the path you’re trying to stay on. If you truly believe all the things you’ve taken on are valuable, you have a couple of options: 1) Work 80 hours a week, 2) Ask yourself if any of the projects can be shelved and come back to after another one is completed, or 3) Figure out if you are wasting time somewhere else. Are you interrupting your 2 hour block at your desk to do work with a Facebook check or an email about one of your projects? You will need to be ruthless in making these decisions and may want to ask a trusted friend or colleague for their thoughts. Because our day to day roles must come first. We must be successful at the job we are being paid to do if we want to advance our careers, at the same time those extracurriculars give you connections, experience and exposure that can payoff tenfold in the future.

5. Ongoing Change in Your Role/Department/Company:

You were hired at the company 3 years ago, and your role started out looking like X but now looks like Y. You’ve had 5 different supervisors, and there are no team members who have had the same length of tenure as you. Hearing about changes can be distracting. You need to try to understand how the change will affect you and why it’s being made. You may be surrounded by colleagues who are frustrated about the change. In this case, try to get on board with the change as quickly as possible. The more open you are to change, the more focused you can be on getting the job at hand done and quickly understanding what it will look like for you. The reality is you can’t keep things from changing, and those who adapt quickest do better and get more opportunities for growth!

We are reminded of a leader Carly worked for who always said “If it’s not unethical, immoral, or illegal, I am going to do what the company asks of me, and I will do it happily.” It can be frustrating and take you out of the flow of your day to day work if you don’t understand why the change is being made or if the benefits aren’t visible to you. Carly finds that it helps to remind herself that the people making these decisions have more and/or at the very least different information than her. Try to react quickly and stay focused on your end goal which is to do well in your job and move forward on your roadmap.

For all five of these situations, we find that having your own understanding of what you expect from your career and what you expect of yourself in your current role will help you to persevere through the distraction. What other strategies do you use?  Have you recently had an acute example of distraction?  What did you do?

About Carly Burnham

Carly Burnham began her insurance career in 2004 as an office assistant at an agency in her hometown of Duluth, MN. She got licensed as a producer while working at that agency and progressed to serve as an office manager. Working in the agency is how she fell in love with the industry. She saw firsthand the good that insurance consumers experienced by having the proper protection. When Carly moved to Des Moines in 2010, she decided to commit to the industry, and she completed her CPCU in one year finishing it in 2012 and attending commencement in New Orleans. She completed her MBA at Iowa State University in 2014. During this time, she and Tony founded a Gen Y Associate Resource Group at Nationwide in Des Moines. After they had both left Nationwide, Tony recruited Carly to co-author and manage She has the difficult task of keeping his constant flow of crazy ideas focused and helping to flesh them out into useful articles. Carly enjoys sharing knowledge and ideas about the future of the industry and finds the website a good outlet for this passion. Carly is involved in the the CPCU Society Underwriting Interest Group. She also writes "Next Wave" a monthly column in the "Perspectives" section of Best's Review.

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