Strategies for Staying Focused at Work When There’s Stress at Home


Maybe you’re having marital problems, or getting a divorce. Maybe your teen has been getting into more and more trouble lately. Maybe your spouse is struggling with depression. Maybe you are.

Maybe you have to move out of your beloved home. Maybe your close friend passed away.

Either way, focusing at work is becoming increasingly difficult. And you’re becoming increasingly frustrated—namely at yourself. Why can’t I get it together? I’m such an idiot. Seriously. I’m being ridiculous—and weak.

But having a hard time with focusing is absolutely understandable.

“You may have heard the expression, ‘everywhere you go, there you are,’” said Austin Houghtaling, Ph.D, a marriage and family therapist. This, of course, applies to work, as well.

In other words, we bring “our same brains, hearts, emotions, baggage, experience with us everywhere we go.”

It’s also understandable because of our physiology. According to clinical psychologist Therese Mascardo, Psy.D, “When we’re experiencing a threatening emotional situation, our brain’s survival systems kick into high gear. Instead of thinking from the rational, logical frontal lobes of our brain, the survival-based amygdala can take over and make everything feel like life or death.”

So if you’re beating yourself up about not performing at your best—or anywhere close—while you’re struggling with something stressful, take heart.

As Houghtaling said, “It really is unrealistic to expect that personal situations, relationships, losses, stressors at home, would not impact us at work. We are human beings.”

He noted that “our bodies are designed to get our attention and help us deal with what we need to address. If we don’t slow down and pay attention to those cues, our bodies will eventually slow us down and force the issue.”

Below, you’ll find a variety of suggestions to help you focus at work and care for yourself when there’s stress at home.

Share your pain. Houghtaling, chief clinical officer at Onsite Workshops, encouraged readers to talk to someone they trust about what’s going on. After all, “We are wired for connection.” He calls sharing our pain with others “the universal treatment plan,” which leads to powerful things, such as receiving empathic support and realizing you’re not alone.

Stay in the moment. When your mind drifts to stressful thoughts, focus on your breath. To help you practice, check out mindfulness videos on YouTube or apps such as Calm and Headspace, said Mascardo, who offers therapy and leads courses and groups to help individuals thrive in the life of their dreams. This also is a great way to care for ourselves in general.

Set boundaries around work. This isn’t easy to do, especially in our always-connected culture. But setting boundaries can save our sanity, especially during more difficult times. Unless your job requires it, don’t check email or make phone calls after hours. Doing so is an “example of a stressor we put on ourselves,” Houghtaling said. We tell ourselves that if we don’t reply to our email, it’ll only pile up, and we’ll get behind, he said. “However, if you do constantly check your emails from home, never disconnect from work, your residual stress will pile up.”

It’s also important to reexamine what you say yes to—particularly if it’s everything. “Employers will learn from you—and often respect—boundaries around hours worked, projects taken. If they don’t, you have learned critical information about your employer and can make more educated decisions about future directions and conversations,” he said.

If you work from home, setting boundaries might look like scheduling regular breaks, not working through lunch, and incorporating some type of human connection, such as choosing a Skype meeting over a phone call, Houghtaling said.

Practice mini self-care. For instance, according to Houghtaling, “A regular, simple physical exercise such as just a few minutes of stretching, or 2 minutes of intentional breathing, can be surprisingly refreshing.”

You also might spend a minute reading something meaningful (a short poem, Scripture, a favorite quote). You might get up and walk around, focusing on the sensation of your feet on the floor. You might put on your headphones, and listen to a soothing or energizing song.

Be productive in bursts. There are many effective strategies and tools we can use to sharpen our focus and increase our productivity. For instance, when it’s tough to focus for prolonged periods of time, Mascardo suggested using the “Pomodoro method.” It involves working for about 20 to 45 minutes and then taking a brief break of about 5 to 15 minutes. “Be sure to set timers so you don’t keep checking your clock,” she added. 

Journal. “Journaling has been shown to be very cathartic and productive,” Houghtaling said. You don’t need to write for hours to enjoy these effects. “Just brief entries about your emotions, challenges, attempts, successes, perceived failures, can help you process and work through trying times.”

Prioritize sleep. We tend to dismiss sleep, but sleep can help us to cope effectively with whatever is going on (plus, it feels good!). Houghtaling noted that “we often shortchange ourselves by staying up late watching TV, surfing the web, or some other mind-numbing activity, which can inadvertently compromise our coping ability.”

How can you prioritize sleep? How can you create an environment where sleep becomes (fairly) simple? One example is having a short, soothing nighttime routine and a clean, calming bedroom.

Try the compartmentalization technique. According to Mascardo, this involves designating “a 15- or 20-minute window outside of work where you allow yourself to think exclusively about the distracting thoughts.” Any time outside that window, you don’t focus on those thoughts.

So if a thought does arise outside your session, she suggested picturing a big red STOP sign, and saying “Stop” aloud or in your head. “Remind yourself that you have an appointment to think about the thoughts at the designated time and refocus yourself on the task at hand.” 

Take a social media break. “Social media is fraught with the temptation to compare our insides with other people’s outsides, which is always dangerous, Houghtaling said. And it becomes especially problematic when we’re in an already vulnerable place, he said—becoming “a one-way door to increased pain or discouragement.”

You can even make your break into a game: Every time you pick up your phone to scroll, instead, close your eyes, and take several deep breaths—or do something else that’s restorative.

Consider talking to your boss. “More and more employers these days are supportive and willing to be flexible with employees going through a tough time,” Houghtaling said. Which is why he suggested reaching out to your boss or HR department to discuss a possible leave of absence or vacation, or ways to temporarily reduce your workload. “We are often the ones that put unnecessary expectations or fears on ourselves.”

See a therapist. Both Mascardo and Houghtaling stressed the importance of working with a therapist—even if it’s for a short amount of time. According to Mascardo, a therapist can “help you process your thoughts and feelings in a proactive way. Acknowledging your emotions can help you feel more in control of them.”

Houghtaling noted that going to therapy in itself is a form of self-care. “Knowing you have an appointment where you will meet with a supportive professional in a safe space, for a designated amount of time, can help you get through the day or week.”

Whatever is going on at home, try to be gentle and patient with yourself. After all, you are struggling. And being kind to yourself is one of the best ways you can cope at work and anywhere.

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