4 ways to improve your focus at work

Molly Talbert contributor headshotMolly TalbertFebruary 24th, 20205 min read
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At work, every day is different. However, more often than not, you and your team members likely feel disorganized and unable to focus at work. With growing workloads and growing distractions, it’s more difficult than ever to be effective at your job.

According to Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index, which surveyed over 10,000 knowledge workers across Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S., 31% of respondents reported feeling tired or agitated because of the amount of work they have to do. Plus, 14% of respondents to say they’re unable to switch work off due to stress and feelings of burnout—meaning that no matter where they are or what time of day it is, they feel that they have to be “on” or at the ready to take on a task or respond to a message. It’s no wonder people have trouble focusing at work.

If this is where you are, at least you have company, but at the end of the day, you still have to get the job done.

Believe it or not, it isn’t your fault. The way the modern work day is set up—with endless emails, messages, and siloed projects—fails to set many people up for success and isn’t built for focused, productive work. On average, the Anatomy of Work Index found that employees spend 60% of their time on work about work—searching for information, attending meetings, and chasing approvals—instead of the actual skilled work they were hired to do.

That doesn’t mean the skilled work ends. It just means you have to do your job—plus all the extra busywork that comes with it.

There is a silver lining though. Joshua Zerkel, Head of Global Community at Asana and Certified Professional Organizer, says that with a few simple tweaks, you can restructure the way you and your team work, allowing you to be more effective and less stressed out. In this article you will learn about Joshua’s top four reasons for why you and your team have trouble focusing on work and how to fix it.

1. Responding to too many emails

Many people end up regularly working late. What’s the culprit? Responding to emails and notifications. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, the biggest driver causing people to stay at work late was responding to constant emails.

While email and messaging tools are essential to work, they are being misused, causing office mayhem and pushing people to the brink of burnout. Rather than bringing teams together, they can create silos as information gets spread throughout multiple apps and groups.

Additionally, these tools are meant for communication, not for large-scale (or even small-scale) project management. When projects at work are managed through email or messaging, neverending notifications and scattered information are the end result, making it difficult for teams to concentrate at work.

Finally, siloed email chains and message groups create bottlenecks throughout a team and organization, impacting agility, visibility, and cross-functional alignment—all it takes is for one person to get left off a thread to unspool a project. In other words, if you’re accidentally left off of an email chain, you never know what you missed out on. And, depending on the project, that can have wide-reaching consequences.

Solution: Establish boundaries

When you work in an email and messaging-centric world where the notifications never seem to end, it’s easy to fall into the trap of adopting an always-on mindset. But by establishing guidelines within your team about when to respond and where to manage projects and tasks, you’ll be able to reduce some of the pressure on individuals to reply at all hours of the day and night and limit the volume of incoming pings.

2. Too much work to do

In the Anatomy of Work Index, 88% of knowledge workers say that time-sensitive projects and large initiatives fall behind due to the number of tasks they have. It’s a universal problem, but especially acute in Japan, where respondents said work volume is the main barrier to productivity.

Unbalanced workloads and simple overwork add up to have real consequences on you and your team. According to a previous study Asana did of 6,000 knowledge workers, more than 80% or respondents felt overworked and close to burnout, with nearly three-quarters (74%) experiencing burnout twice a year or more. If both individual and team workloads aren’t managed well, this can hurt employee retention and performance. In fact, four in five respondents say they feel less engaged with their job due to burnout and stress.

Solution: Use technology to plan for busy periods

Burnout affects nearly every knowledge worker—in every industry. However, keeping workloads in check can relieve stress at work and bring everyone back to focus. Many organizations rely on employees to flag when they’ve got too much work on their plates, but often they don’t speak up. There are tools that allow businesses to map out projects and help managers and their teams understand how much work everyone has on their plate.

3. Approvals and feedback

Chasing down approvals and feedback is another kind of “work about work.” It’s a critical part of almost everyone’s job but takes up too much time. In fact, the Anatomy of Work Index found that, for 34% of respondents, chasing teammates for approvals was the main reason for staying late at work.

But when you dig into the data more, other related roadblocks float to the top as well. Two top drivers causing people to work late are lack of clarity on tasks (23%) and lack of clarity on ownership (18%). From another angle, one of the biggest drivers of stress among survey respondents were unclear tasks or priorities (15%). Those tangential pieces of the puzzle contribute to the neverending search for approvals and feedback. Sometimes it’s hard to know who to go to in the first place, much less actually get the information you need.

Solution: Create clarity

Clarity throughout an organization and team is a must. When people know who owns what piece of a project, you can eliminate most of the guesswork around approvals. With a clear, documented structure—knowing who is supposed to do what by when—it’s obvious where to go for approvals and feedback, eliminating the wild goose chase. It also empowers people to keep moving work forward to hit their larger goals, instead of running into roadblocks.

4. Chasing teammates to complete work

Herding cats. Twisting arms. We’ve all been there. Most projects involve multiple people, but it can sometimes be difficult to get teammates to complete their part of the project on time or to see how they’re progressing.

Some of the biggest causes for stress at work, according to the Anatomy of Work Index, are unrealistic deadlines (15%) and lack of support from colleagues and management (16%), which can lead you to constantly chase after your teammates for unfinished work. Although you may have mapped out a great project plan, if you don’t have insight into what cross-functional teammates are working on, then you have no clue if the deadlines you set for them are realistic. Those misaligned goals cause tensions on both ends.

Solution: Train everyone on the same tools

Because we manage so many projects in emails, messages, and spreadsheets, it’s impossible to get a holistic view of what’s going on in your team and organization. Work management platforms bring everyone together in the same work environment, opening up transparency and communication. But it’s not enough to simply introduce a new platform. Training is critical, especially if you plan on having your team manage projects, coordination, and communications through the platform. Structure the rollout of new tools, explaining how they are going to help, to get your team on board.

Re-learn how to focus at work

In the end, many of these tweaks boil down to knowing how you and your team fit into the bigger picture and creating new ways of working that reinforce that understanding. Just because the way many of us have been trained to work is broken doesn't mean you have to stick to the status quo.

Give your teammates the tools and daily practices to work smarter. With that support, they will feel empowered to collaborate more efficiently, take control of their workloads, make faster decisions, and bring back concentration. That’s how you make work more rewarding, productive, and impactful for everyone.

Download report: The Anatomy of Work Index to learn more

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