A few weeks ago, a co-worker asked me what I thought about an idea another colleague proposed in an online meeting. I was embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t answer—not because I hadn’t thought it over enough, but rather because I had been writing an email instead of paying attention.
I am grateful to work in an environment where we laugh at this sort of bad behavior, and generally recognize that it’s difficult to maintain focus when your co-workers are on the same screen as all of your work. However, I don’t want to get into the habit of drifting away, and I’ve been making a point to be more present during working meetings.
Here’s how I overcame and avoided digital distraction, and how to stay focused during virtual meetings.
Minimize external distractions
When is the last time you paid attention to your attention span?
Take note of what distracts you so you can make interventions to keep yourself on track. In virtual meetings, I used to wander off whenever the number of messages in my inbox increased. This would tempt me to open my inbox, open an email, and only many clicks later realize that I had missed something someone said, again.
To combat this, I experimented with shifting my meeting view to full screen and disabling email notifications. Though I would still find myself minimizing the full screen and seeking distractions, reducing the number of incoming items that could snatch my attention was helpful. Here are a few things you can do:
- Eliminate extra screens and devices. If your work and personal life don’t require you to be accessible by or attentive to multiple devices, don’t be.
- Track and reduce your clicks. When a meeting starts, take note of how many times you move your cursor for reasons unrelated to the meeting. I started covering my keyboard and trackpad with paper so that I would have to take an extra step to click anything. This has helped me become conscious of, and reduce, how often I actively reach for distraction.
- Talk to yourself. It sounds silly, but it's a great way to learn how to stay focused. Whenever I am about to open a new tab, I make myself announce my intentions aloud. Having to say “I’m opening a new tab so that I can scroll aimlessly through LinkedIn,” and then ask myself why I’m doing that, usually prevents me from delving back into unproductive behaviors and habits.
- Chime in. Make a point to support or comment on someone else’s remarks, raise questions about information shared, or offer insight. Active participation requires active listening, and active listening requires paying attention.
- Schedule breaks and stick to them. Give your eyes a break and be sure to get away from the screen. Try to block time between meetings or ask meeting facilitators to consider scheduling break times and grounding exercises, such as allotting two minutes for attendees to write down their preoccupations and thoughts, helping to clear their heads so they can fully (re)join the meeting.
- Optimize your home office. Experiment with essential oils, lighting, furniture arrangement, sound machines, and whatever else may help to figure out what keeps you the right mix of alert and at ease. Consider adding pillows or blankets to your chair if it isn’t particularly comfortable. It’s much easier to concentrate when you’re comfortable.
- Write notes by hand and recap what others are saying in your own language. Using your hands is a great way to stay focused and retain information. I often doodle and jot down notes quoting things people say in meetings. Even if I don’t need to refer to these notes in the future, the very act of taking them helps me stay more present during the discussion.
- Try to learn three things. Sometimes I get pulled into meetings where I don’t need to contribute to the discussion, and I’ll ask myself why and how this meeting has landed on my calendar. If there is going to be information shared that relates to my work, I’ll challenge myself to see how many useful bits of information shared I can write down, or how many relevant questions I can come up with about the meeting topic.
- Step away occasionally. Similarly, sometimes there are entire portions of meetings that have no relevance to my work; this is when I step away to make tea, stretch, and, to be honest, check my inbox.
- Keep trying. It takes a lot of willpower to focus when so many other things are constantly demanding our attention, especially as we’re experiencing burnout from being on video all day. Still, the more we pay attention to our level of focus, the easier it will be to bring it back when it wanders away.
Minimizing internal distractions
There are concrete ways to make physical and digital spaces more conducive to concentration. But resisting the urge to glance at our phones, refresh our feeds, and drift away from the present can be more challenging. Experiment until you find what works best for you and be gentle with yourself when your attention goes astray. Useful things to keep in mind:
- If you’re in a meeting, just be in that meeting. Multitasking isn’t good for you, especially if you're trying to learn how to stay focused. Sometimes I try to convince myself that I can complete more automated, administrative tasks while also in meetings, but it’s not true. Multitasking can harm our work and effort; it impacts our memories, slows us down, and decreases our productivity.
- Commit to respecting the time of others. When we’re in person, our minds may wander, but being online makes it even easier to tune out. Showing up all of the way and practicing active listening is one way to demonstrate respect for your colleagues.
- Find an accountability partner. If you have a colleague you trust enough, start a conversation about your struggles with learning how to focus (when you’re not in a meeting, of course) and find out what helps them. Talking about my behaviors and learning that I’m really not alone helps me stay aware of my wandering mind and challenges me to keep trying to do better.
- A little mindfulness goes a long way. Find a contemplative practice that works for you and see how your ability to be present in meetings and other work shifts. Minding my breath always helps me settle back into the current moment.
Is having to make tough calls at work causing you to lose focus? Be sure to check out our two-part post, How to Improve Your Decision-Making Process for tips.
Sheena Daree Miller is based in Brooklyn and divides her time between working in faculty development at a university and managing a black heritage center at a library. She is committed to promoting equity, with an emphasis on supporting graduating students and career changers.