April 5, 2020/Mental Health

3 Ways to Refocus and Stay on Track at Work

Sustained attention is critical to finishing tasks

Woman working at home by a window

We’ve all been there — there’s a task at work that needs to be done, but we just can’t seem to finish it. Instead, we’re checking our email, looking at Facebook or just staring at the computer while our mind wanders.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

The ability to keep control of our attention over time, known as sustained attention, is vital for many tasks we perform every day. Sustained attention is critical to focusing on and finishing tasks.

Need to refocus? Here are three tips to staying on task from clinical psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD.

Stop thinking about yourself

Sometimes we get overly involved in our own thoughts and lose sight of what’s happening right now. To regain concentration, focus on what’s happening around you instead of thinking about yourself, Dr. Bea says.

“Imagine a ballplayer. He’s had two fat ones go right past him. He starts to think about himself too much rather than just see the ball and hit it. And whenever we get overly involved with our thoughts, we lose sight of what’s happening in the here and now,” Dr. Bea says.

Even tuning in to the sounds or smells around you can help. “There are a lot of psychological and productivity benefits to getting your brain off yourself,” Dr. Bea says.

Keep family photos (or even pictures of your pets) on your desk

The faces of your loved ones can elicit happy feelings, helping you to clear your thoughts and refocus, Dr. Bea says.

But switch up your desk distractions regularly so you don’t get used to them. Their power to distract you can ebb with familiarity.

Take a walk

You also can take a walk when you’re having trouble concentrating, or just look out the window at some trees.

One study found that people who were able to look periodically at a grassy rooftop committed fewer mistakes and had better concentration compared to people who merely looked at a concrete rooftop. The researchers found that attention boosts can occur after viewing a green roof scene for as little as 40 seconds.

It may seem counterintuitive that the way to improve your concentration is to stop concentrating on the task. But research shows that sustaining attention control over long periods of time tires your underlying mental resources.

When you take a break from the task at hand, you also give a boost to your mental resources that control attention.

“All these efforts have the effect of refreshing your personal home page,” Dr. Bea says.

“If you’ve ever worked on a crossword, you know that when you get a little stumped, you step away from the puzzle for just a few moments and it frees up your thinking,” Dr. Bea says. “You can come back and all of a sudden the answer that was unavailable is now available to you.”


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person studying with headphones on, with laptop and notepad
March 28, 2024/Mental Health
Brown Noise May Help You Focus and Relax

Thunder, waterfalls and heavy rain — these low-frequency sounds might help cancel out disruptive noises and thoughts

woman with metastatic breast cancer at office desk
Working While Living With Metastatic Breast Cancer

Working has its benefits, but it may require some modifications — and that’s OK

person eating a small lunch alone at desk at the office
March 8, 2024/Digestive
How To Cope With Ulcerative Colitis at Work

Talk to your employer, ask for accommodations and manage your stress

bearded man sitting crosslegged holding clock in one hand, calendar in other
December 3, 2023/Mental Health
Are Bare Minimum Mondays Good for Your Mental Health?

Rethinking your Mondays might make the ‘Sunday scaries’ a thing of the past

person stuck choosing between a red and blue button
June 27, 2023/Mental Health
6 Ways To Push Through Analysis Paralysis

Don’t let the fear of making the ‘wrong’ decision stop you from moving forward

A couple talks while sitting on a bench in the park, with clouds in the background.
May 24, 2023/Sex & Relationships
7 Ways To Improve Your Active Listening Skills

Notetaking, intention setting and practicing with friends can help you be a better listener

colleagues at work talking and laughing while walking down hallway.
April 26, 2023/Mental Health
How To Set Personal Boundaries at Work

Decide what you’re OK sharing, respect others and speak up if you feel uncomfortable

Person working at a treadmill desk.
January 18, 2023/Exercise & Fitness
6 Desk Exercises That Help You Get Stronger While Working

You can do squats, planks, pushups or even a get in a quick run all without leaving your desk

Trending Topics

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

woman snacking on raisins and nuts
52 Foods High In Iron

Pump up your iron intake with foods like tuna, tofu and turkey