Now that many meetings have gone virtual, you might find yourself grappling with yet another challenge of remote work: losing focus.
You try to force yourself to pay attention. But powering through only wears you out even more.
The issue: Aside from the usual issues with kids learning from home, roommates or spouses in their own meetings, and dishes in the sink, virtual meetings put you in a “passive observer role,” says Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., a productivity coach and author of “Reduce Interruptions…You Don’t Have to be a Victim.” Similar to watching TV, we expect to be entertained instead of being engaged and participating, says Gratias.
Another attention crusher? Stress. Research consistently shows that continuous stress can make it harder to learn and recall important information. For example, a study published in 2018 in Neurology found that participants with high levels of cortisol had poorer memory than participants with normal cortisol levels.
Here are 6 ways to sharpen your focus:
1. Create a Focus-Friendly Environment
While eliminating some distractions simply isn’t possible—like your neighbor’s snowblower—you can work on obstacles that are within your control. Reflect on your biggest attention hurdles and how you can minimize or remove them altogether. This can be as simple as positioning yourself so you don’t see the dishes, finding the quietest spot in your home, and closing the 50 tabs on your computer, says Jones Loflin, a corporate trainer and time management coach.
2. Clear the Decks
It’s hard to focus when you’re ruminating about unfinished tasks, upcoming deadlines, and anything else that feels overwhelming. Before your meeting, carve out 10 to 15 minutes to check in with yourself, says Loflin, who recommends this for both virtual and in-person meetings. Review your calendar and task list, jotting down anything you need to attend to after your meeting.
According to Loflin, this “keeps your brain from constantly tapping [you] on the shoulder and saying, ‘Hey! What are you going to do about _______?’”
3. Manage Stress
If you find yourself becoming stressed during your meeting, try tensing and relaxing your muscles, says Lara Honos-Webb, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of the book, “Six Super Skills for Executive Functioning: Tools to Help Teens Improve Focus, Stay Organized, and Reach Their Goals.”
Use the 4-7-8 breathing technique, which also can be done in a meeting: Inhale for a count of 4, hold it for a count of 7, and then exhale to a count of 8. And consider incorporating other simple, stress-relieving practices into your day, such as a guided meditation.
4. Use Focusing Tools
Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, use tools that are known for increasing attention. One such example is the stability cushion, an inflatable disc that sits atop your chair and is often used in schools for kids with ADHD. According to Honos-Webb, it not only boosts focus, but also builds core strength, recruiting your muscles to balance.
Like fidget toys, a stability cushion can sharpen focus by increasing dopamine and norepinephrine, she says. Or go old school: “A cold drink can jolt you out of a virtual meeting stupor,” says Gratias.
5. Contribute to the Conversation
To become an active participant in meetings, ask for the agenda in advance and make a list of things you’d like to know that are related to those topics, says Loflin. Asking questions also helps you stay engaged. For example, you might say: “Walk me through how that might work,” or “I’m curious. What do you see as the reason for ______?”
6. Encourage Yourself
The way we talk to ourselves also plays a critical role in breaking—or making—our attention, performance, and mood. For example, thoughts like “I can’t handle one more meeting” make you feel discouraged and defeated.
Instead, says Honos-Webb, use encouraging, empowering language, like: “I can do hard things” or “How could I make this more interesting? Maybe I can bring up a topic that’s especially relevant to my team.”
You can also encourage yourself when negative thoughts arise during your meeting, she adds. Start by labeling your worries and creating a supportive, solution-focused statement, like: “I notice that hearing the project deadline is making me overwhelmed. However, I can handle it and will brainstorm small steps after the meeting’s over.”
While virtual meetings can fracture your focus, they also provide challenges you can meet by shifting your environment, rethinking how you contribute, and talking to yourself with self-compassion—something all of us can use at any time, anywhere.