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How to do thoughtful work when you just can’t focus

Telling yourself to snap out of it and get to strategic work is not so easy. Turn to a few of these tips to help you reset and absorb the bigger picture around you.

How to do thoughtful work when you just can’t focus
[Source images: geralt /Pixabay; holdentrils/Pixabay]

For leaders navigating unpredictable times, one attribute is critical to thinking strategically: focus.

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For many entrepreneurs, leaders, and creatives, focus has never been more difficult to achieve. According to the U.K.-based New Statesman magazine, Google searches for “how to get your brain to focus” jumped by 300% between February and early May 2020.

Disrupted routines are partly responsible for derailed attention spans, but biology is also part of the cause.

When your brain detects imminent danger, the prefrontal cortex—the area responsible for critical thinking, impulse control, and focus—gives way to more primitive functions that protect you in the present moment. The pandemic is an ongoing threat, but most of us are not in immediate danger. Yet this often-chaotic situation demands clarity. To keep a business afloat or plan for an ever-changing future, you need to think strategically—not frantically.

The good news? Strategic thinking is a practice. Even as the world shifts below our feet, we can cultivate the ability to generate new ideas and make ingenious, unexpected connections. Here are three ways to focus on the big picture.

Make time to reflect

Jumping from task to task inhibits your ability to process new information. Your mind needs time to let ideas sink in. “Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle, and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning,” leadership consultant Jennifer Porter writes for Harvard Business Review. “This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions.”

Since the earliest days of my entrepreneurial journey, I’ve taken time off to help my family with the annual olive harvest in my home country of Turkey. It’s an opportunity to reflect on what matters, what’s possible—and how our company can do better. Few of us are taking vacations right now, or spending a week knee-deep in olives, but we can still pause and reflect.

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If you’re struggling to pull back from day-to-day details, block off an hour in your calendar. Treat it as a nonnegotiable appointment. Minimize distractions and ask yourself questions such as “What will success look like 2, 5, or 10 years from now?” In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, shorter time frames might also be appropriate. Think 6-8 weeks or even six months into the future and ask about your company, “How do our current projects contribute to our mission?”

Strategic thinking is essential, but it’s not always comfortable. You might have creative breakthroughs and feel inspired to blaze ahead. You might also feel vulnerable, scared, irritated, or even bored. Take a deep breath, sit with those feelings, and persevere.

In my experience, there’s always something valuable on the other side of discomfort.

Aim to embrace change

The pandemic has already been devastating for millions of people worldwide. From job loss to human loss, there’s no sugarcoating this crisis. At the same time, there are always glimmers of hope in difficult moments. Consider how you can adapt to the economic, cultural, and social changes of the past several months—even if they’re shifts you didn’t welcome.

For example, can you develop an offering that blends digital and in-person delivery? Could a physical product evolve into a virtual service? As an employee, how can you add more value? And most importantly, how can you help others adapt to our new realities?

At my company, we chose to offer free accounts to first responders, healthcare workers, and nonprofit organizations. We’re not looking for applause; it was the right thing to do. As we support local responders with accounts and COVID-19 templates, we’re also learning more about our customers. Thanks to support-line calls and communication with subscribers, we’re discovering what people need now and how we can provide it.

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Broaden your perspective

Travel is always one of the best ways to cultivate fresh ideas, whether you’re attending a conference or seeing the world. Most trips aren’t in the cards for a while, but you can still connect with people who challenge and engage you. Set up a brainstorming session with a friend or colleague. Read about topics outside your normal range of interests.

If you have the time, take an online class or view live presentations. You’ve probably watched some great TED Talks, but I also recommend Creative Mornings, the breakfast speaker series that launched in New York and spread around the globe. These newly virtual talks put the world at your fingertips. Tune in for live presentations from Barcelona to Baltimore or choose from almost 9,000 archived videos.

You can also explore strategic relationships. Many top companies collaborate with employees, customers, and other organizations to expand their thinking. For example, Nike and Apple teamed up to create Nike+, while Barnes & Noble bookstores invited Starbucks to create in-house coffee shops. “Partnerships are transactional. Strategic relationships are transformational,” says David Nour, author of Co-Create: How Your Business Will Profit From Innovative and Strategic Collaboration

In other words, with a wider range of viewpoints, you can create something completely above and beyond your individual efforts.


Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.

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