In this March 26, 2020, file photo, senior Olivia Murphy, who works as a third-grade student teacher at Asa Adams Elementary School in Orono, works remotely from home. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Focusing on work can be challenging even in the best of times, but the pandemic has made focusing even harder than it once was because of the stressors and uncertainties that surround it. Fortunately, there’s help.

Psychology shows us that even a few simple changes can improve focus even in stressful times.

“We are hard-wired to focus on things that are potential threats to our safety and security, from a survival standpoint,” said John Agee, licensed psychologist at the Gardiner Center for Stress Management. “During the pandemic, a lot of people are having increased difficulty focusing because of both feeling overwhelmed by increased demands, [like] trying to work while taking care of children and increased focus on basic safety.”

Lauren Dattilo, licensed psychologist at Psychology Specialists of Maine, said that it is like you are trying to watch a YouTube video, but you have 15 other videos opened and playing at the same time.

“We have a lot of tabs open right now,” Dattilo said. “They’re taking up energy and space. Now that the light at the end of the tunnel is visible, it somehow feels even harder to slog through this last part.”

David Prescott, associate professor and the director of health care studies at Husson University’s College of Science and Humanities, said that working from home adds to it as well. There are no boundaries between work and home life, which lends itself to innumerable distractions. There is also a lack of group or community support that would normally come from an in-person working environment, leading to better focus.

“The group makes you articulate that this is your part [and] that gives you that goal focus,” Prescott said. “I worry that in the pandemic that people have lost a little of that they don’t have that group support group reminders [that] this is what I’m supposed to be doing for my team.”

What you can do to improve focus in the moment

In order to maintain focus, eliminate distractions.

“Research has found that once we are interrupted from a task, it may take us up to 15 minutes to fully get our minds back to focusing completely on what we were doing earlier,” Agee said.

Prescott said to avoid multitasking.

“Multitasking really doesn’t help you focus,” he explained. “If [you] have things like alerts on [your] phone or background distractibility, focus really goes down. You really have to be diligent about turning [your phone] completely off for 15 or 30 minutes. You lose a lot of momentum. Even if you’re not going to respond to a notification, your eyes just go there.”

Simple background noise may aid in focus, though. Studies suggest that certain kinds of music may improve focus.

“For some folks, it’s actually easier to focus on a task if they have a little background noise, especially something like instrumental music,” Agee said.

However, Prescott said that even if that is the case, you have to be careful not to fall down a rabbit hole of distractions.

“Once they start listening they want to listen to something else,” Prescott said. “They’ve got playlists and things like that. Once you take that music break, you get lost in it.”

Setting yourself up like you’re ready for work also helps you focus.

“Put on real work clothes,” said. “That signals to your body that it’s now time to work. When you’re finished, put on your home clothes.”

If you feel yourself losing focus, Dattilo said to bring yourself back into the present moment by taking a moment to “check in with yourself” about how you are feeling.

“[Try] to focus on something that’s happening in the present moment,” Dattilo said. “Notice physical sensations, or [notice and name] a couple objects you can see in the space in front of you. Reorient you to what’s happening in the here and now.”

Prescott said that another way to help focus is to write down your goals.

“The act of writing it down or stating out loud, that really helps you when your attention starts to drift, reminding you what you’re trying to accomplish,” Prescott said. “That really seems to give you some staying power in terms of focus.”

Dattilo recommended linking tedious tasks to more desirable ones.

“We think about something like, ‘I need to fold this pile of laundry on my bed,’ that’s not an attractive task,” Dattilo said. “Frame it as, ‘Once I have this done, I’ll be able to go on a nice long walk outside,’ or ‘At the end of the day, I’ll be able to come home and get into bed.’ [Tying] tedious activities into something that valuable can make it easier to get started on those things.”

Taking breaks also helps with your productivity. Prescott said that it is important to be realistic about how long you can focus on any given task — even the most diligent, focused workers can only about 30 minutes.

Breaks don’t have to be extensive, just stop what you’re doing, stand up and stretch for a few minutes or take a short walk.

“That’s enough to reset most of us our concentration and focus mechanisms so you come back pretty refreshed,” Prescott said. “A 30 second or one minute break seems to restore that. It replenishes really quickly. My metaphor is kind of like a tank that’s slowly draining but when you fill up your focus or concentration reservoir, it’s like you turn on a spigot really fast.”

Prescott said that caffeine can help with focus, but only for short bursts and only for people whose anxiety is not exacerbated by it. Dattilo said that she wouldn’t rely on caffeine to help focus, but it could be incorporated into other good habits.

“Something like drinking a cup of tea mindfully really paying attention to the five minute experience of drinking the tea you may get the benefits of a low dose of caffeine and brings you back into the here and now,” Dattilo said.

You might have to experiment before you find the focus tips that work for you.

“[It’s] kind of like a science experiment,” Dattilo said. “It’s about trying different things and figuring out what works best for you.”