3 Steps To Regaining Your Focus

Deadlines looming? Put down the smartphone. Here’s how to limit distractions and increase productivity at work.

3 Steps To Regaining Your Focus
[Photo: Flickr user Rennett Stowe]

It’s 9 a.m. on a Thursday. Your inbox has 61 unread messages, you have three meetings before 1 p.m.–not to mention a report due tomorrow. You’re feeling overwhelmed, distracted, restless, and unable to focus.


Instinctively, you reach for your smartphone. Are you the latest undiagnosed case of attention deficit disorder (ADD)? Not likely.

Only 5% of the population actually has ADD, says Dr. Ned Hallowell, an expert on ADD and author of the new book, Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive. What you’re probably suffering from is attention deficit trait (ADT), a term Hallowell created 20 years ago to describe the phenomenon that 60% of the population experiences at certain times–characterized by feeling distracted, falling behind, an inability to concentrate, and a plethora of other unpleasant feelings.

ADT is situational–you may experience it at work, but not on the weekends or at home. With the average person spending 20 minutes of each hour handling unplanned interruptions, it’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed. The good news is that we can fix it, Hallowell says, by taking back the control we’ve inadvertently surrendered to technology. Here’s his advice for how to do it.

1. Incorporate Discipline

That means turning off your smartphone and not checking messages every few minutes. You have to discipline yourself like you would when it comes to your diet, Hallowell says. “Turn it off; you’re in charge of it,” he says. Otherwise, he notes, it’s in charge of you.

Hallowell suggests paying attention to where you’re spending your time. What are your time sinks? Where can you gain some back? “We need to re-create boundaries,” Hallowell explains. “It’s not hard if you realize you have the permission to do it.”


2. Give Your Brain A Break

Turn off your electronic devices. Shut the door. Get enough sleep. Exercise. All of these are common sense, but they’re critical to reducing feelings of overwhelm and distraction, Hallowell says.

A one-minute burst of exercise instantly changes the chemistry of your brain. Take a brisk walk or run up and down the stairs for a minute. Hallowell also suggests having photos on your desk of the people and places you love–it’s an instant pick-me-up. “Give yourself permission to set conditions to do your best work,” he says.

More and more leaders are taking an enlightened approach. For example, Hallowell writes in his book about Tim Armstrong, AOL CEO, who mandates his executives spend 10% of their time thinking. “It’s been a total game-changer for me and for AOL,” Armstrong said. “The companies that take this seriously will have a major strategic advantage in the years to come.”

3. Regulate Your Mood

Many people live in a state of high anxiety, Hallowell notes. If you fall into this category, follow his three steps:

  • Don’t worry alone. When you’re stressed out about something, instead of worrying, talk to a friend or coworker, Hallowell suggests. It can be about anything–the weather or sports. It doesn’t have to be the issue you’re worried about. You need to get out of your head, and spending a few minutes talking to someone can make a big difference.
  • Get the facts. The point here is to focus on the facts, instead of thinking about what you don’t know or engaging in toxic thinking, which leads to more stress.
  • Make a plan. You’ll feel more in control if you have a plan, Hallowell says. The plan can always be changed if necessary.

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in,,, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, and Fox Business.