Struggling to focus? Find what works for you
Don't fall for articles suggesting "THIS ONE THING ALWAYS WORKS" or the "MUST DO TECHNIQUE USED BY ALL CEOS"... Finding things that work for you takes a bit of exploration and support.
If you’ve had a block of time off during the summer period, can be hard to get back to up to speed and feel into the swing of things, especially if you’re working from home, and there’s not much of tangible difference between where you’ve been resting and where you now need to start working.
It can be tempting to just ‘push on through’ and hope that you’ll just get back into the mindset, but sometimes our brains need a physiological and psychological jumpstart to get things running.
Here are our seven suggestions for rebooting your working brain.
It might be the standard response for most things when they aren't quite working, but there's a science behind it too. Resetting things to their most basic state and starting it up again means you are working from a good foundation.
Whilst a holiday can be a rest, we might not have truly put work behind us - so returning to work can sometimes feel like you're picking up some half-finished projects after a break, rather than a proper fresh start, adding to the odd sluggish feeling.
Take some time to hard reset, and start up properly by:
+ Taking a day to ‘boot-up’: Don’t aim to work on the first day, but spend time preparing for returning to work, clear out your inbox, prioritise your todo list, get rid of anything which is no longer relevant.
+ Make a fresh start: Consider tidying up your computer’s desktop, sharpening your pencils, chucking out any paper lying around, and even simple things like changing the background on your computer, and starting with a new notepad help to give yourself that ‘fresh start’ feeling.
+ Reviewing each project: Take some time to review what you’re working on and brief yourself again - ask what is the intention, what have you been asked to do, how are you progressing, and what is left, so you have a clear picture of what’s next.
As we’ve mentioned in our boundary setting technique, the “Put it away box”, combining a physical act and a mental act helps to really make things tangible, and returning to work is no different. Returning to the computer and just firing up your emails is a physical task, so introduce the mental aspect.
Before you start your first full day - either the night before, or in the morning before you start, say out loud: “I’m returning to work now! I’m back to my first full day, and it’s going to be a great first day back!”
You can take this further and spend a little time either meditating or intention setting for your first day back, and truly help your mind transition from holidays to productivity - there’s a couple which Headspace offer for free.
And don’t just say it to yourself - let your clients and colleagues know you’re back. Drop them an email letting them know you’re returning to work, and what you’re excited to be working on, or perhaps check in on their summer breaks.
Whilst the first day back might be full of energy, getting up a little earlier might be hard - and certainly will get harder as the week runs on. It’s possible that you’ve had a very relaxed, inconsistent or completely lacking schedule over the past weeks, so now is a great time to reconsider what your working schedule could be.
Don’t make the mistake of just assuming that what was working back in Spring is going to work for you now we’re moving towards Autumn. You’ll have different energy levels, you might have different projects or new ways of working. Take some time to reflect upon what your schedule could be now, and re-establish it.
If you didn’t already, consider when you’re taking breaks, what your energy levels are like right now, and time for connecting with others. Not everyone needs to stick to a rigid schedule, but it can help having a sense of when you’re choosing to be working and when you’re not. Communicate that to others too - perhaps using your email signature, or even blocking out your calendar.
Whilst your energy levels are higher, consider adding a little time in your schedule for those things you were promising you’d do - like personal development, training, reflection and feedback, creative exploration, or just watching cat videos. Protect time to invest in you, not just the thing you’ve committed to do for your clients.
And finally - consider breaking your schedule in to smaller chunks, so you’re not blocking out whole days or half-days for specific tasks, but shorter bursts, like 45 minute or 90 minute sprints. Not only might it help your brain whilst it is reeling with having to work again, it’s also a proven more effective and sustinable way of working, using techniques like Pomodoro to work in smaller periods with rest between.
Whether or not you’re working from home, from an office, a shop, a farm, the beach or your sofa - the idea of a mental commute is a really powerful way of introducing a clear and tangible boundary between working and not working.
We don’t mean getting on a bus or train for 45 minutes, but rather blocking out a period of time in your diary where you are clearly transitioning from ‘home’ to ‘work’ (no matter where you’re working from.
Whether you use that time to listen to a podcast, to exercise, to daydream about the next holiday period, to internally argue whether hobnobs are superior to ginger nuts, or physically move from one space to another - the block of time is your physical and mental switch to move between states.
We’ve got a longer guide on how to use this technique, but adding it back into your schedule is another marker that you’re returning to work with meaning.
Adding a commute is a way of establishing your boundaries - but not the only way, consider what techniques you have in place to clearly 'start' and 'end' the day - not matter what time your day starts and finishes. Having a clear boundary is one of the most essential ways to ensure you're able to wind down and don't end up burned out.
Now spaces and places are opening up again, there’s more opportunity to work from somewhere that isn’t your home. Even if you’re a die-hard WFH fan, and have your own space set up to work from, if you’ve been spending a great deal of time at home over the summer - consider boosting your return to work by spending a bit of time in a completely different space.
Try working from a space like a coffee shop or shared workspace for perhaps just the first full day of work, and use it like a mini ‘offsite’, where you’re taking time to plan ahead, get on top of your first day of tasks, reconnect with your clients, and focus on those first big steps. You could use this offsite with fellow freelancers to share your intentions, discuss opportunities and worries, or just help each other focus for the day.
You could establish a new routine where perhaps you work offsite for the Monday for focus work, Tuesday is back at home for meetings and emails, Wednesday could be face to face meetings - whatever works for you best. But moving to a new physical space can really help with resetting and switching from holiday to work.
Start to build up a personal portfolio of options for a variety of ways of working - so if you feel the need to get out of the house, you’ve got a shortlist of places which you know you can turn to, rather than having to figure it out in the moment.
Even if you’re 100% working from home, use the time to reset your own working space. Perhaps move to work from a different location, tidy up the desk and rearrange the seating a little bit. Get yourself that new chair or monitor you’d promised yourself.
Don’t throw yourself back into business as usual from day one - try and use the restart as an opportunity to think ahead beyond this week, beyond this month - look towards the rest of the year, and establish a number of goals and milestones you’re looking to accomplish. They don’t need to be huge - we’re only three months away from the end of the year, but having some tangible goals to focus on can help you focus and prioritise your efforts.
If you’ve already got goals in place, how are you tracking against them, and is there anything more you can do to keep pushing towards them, or do you need to reconsider things and adjust them to something more realistic?
You can set yourself smaller weekly goals too - in fact, if the goals have shorter time-frames, you’ll have more of a sense progress as you move through them, but don’t overload yourself! Make sure they’re achievable and have realistic deadlines. Have a listen to this episode of Squiggly Careers for some useful tips on goal setting that works.
Whilst goal setting isn’t for everyone - having tangible markers to know whether you’re doing well is important. Without it, we don’t know if we’re doing okay or not, so even if you’re happy with rolling with what life throws at you, setting some understandable milestones and objectives just helps you feel like you’re making progress.
Finally - don’t do it alone. Whilst you might work for yourself, that doesn’t mean you have to work by yourself, and joining a community is one of the many ways of sharing and setting intentions and helping to keep yourself on track.
Try joining an accountability group - a daily or weekly session with others where you set and share your intentions on what you want to get done, perhaps deliver a specific project or move forward to your next goal; and then with the group, check-in over a period of time with updates on how you’re getting on, roadblocks or hurdles you’re navigating, concerns and worries you might be having, and then reviewing and celebrating how you got on.
It can be a transformative approach if you’re struggling to focus, and many of our members use various forms of accountability groups. Perhaps you can set one up with your fellow freelancers within communities you are already a member in, or sign-up for Pods - Leapers own accountability groups, which bring together a small support group to help you focus on getting things done.
Even just writing down your intentions and reviewing them at the end of the week can help, research studies show that it’s an effective approach for goal setting and achieving those goals - but it’s even more effective if you’re sharing those goals with a group. Check out Pods for Leapers.
What techniques do you use to return to work after a break, to restart your brain and get back into the working week? Let us know in the comments, as we’re always keen to hear from our members of techniques which work for you!
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