Coming back from burnout: How to improve focus and find flow

Welcome to our new series on Coming Back from Burnout where we explore the realities of coming back to work after burning out. Help us understand how you deal with burnout by filling out this short survey.

One of the worst symptoms of burnout is losing your ability to focus. As you start to feel overwhelmed, it gets harder to sustain your attention, which means your productivity slips and you’re more likely to work longer and take your work home with you.

It’s a deadly cycle. Our fractured focus is often what causes you to circle the drain of burnout. But what can you do?

Once you’ve dealt with the worst symptoms of burnout, it’s time to learn how to improve focus and attention so you can hit your goals, feel accomplished each day, and not get drawn back into its cycle.

Burnout actually changes your brain and makes it harder to block distractions

Focus is something most of us struggle with on a daily basis. But focus isn’t just about being able to maintain attention on a single task. It’s also about being able to suppress distractions, ignore negative emotions, and stay on course. 

A 2015 study found that people struggling with burnout are actually neurologically disadvantaged when it comes to staying focused.

In the study, researchers compared a group of subjects with formally diagnosed burnout symptoms (recruited from the Stress Research Insitute at Stockholm University) to a similar group with no history of chronic stress. 

The two groups were asked to look at photos and then either suppress, intensify, or maintain their emotional response to it. As they focused on the photo, a loud burst of sound was played to try and disrupt them. 

While both groups showed a similar startle response, the group suffering from burnout found it especially difficult to regain their focus after. As the researchers explain:

“The group suffering from burnout had dramatically stronger reactions to the startling noise than the control group. In addition, they self-reported having a harder time modulating their negative emotional responses.”

Burnout actually alters your neural circuits in the brain and makes it harder to bounce back from negative situations. Not only does this make you more vulnerable to depression, apathy, and a lack of purpose, but it also makes it harder to deal with regular workplace disruptions like interruptions, notifications, and distractions. 

5 ways to improve focus after burning out

In order to bounce back and improve focus, we need to learn to control our attention. Here are some strategies and tips to get started with.

1. Think of focus as a muscle (and train it accordingly)

You wouldn’t jump into the gym and start squatting if you’d spent the last 6 months sitting on the couch. To avoid injury, you need to start small and build your strength over time. 

This is called progressive overload—a gradual increase of stress put on your body during exercise. Training your focus muscle is no different. 

When you come back from burnout, you need to slowly build back your focus. This means starting with realistic goals and slowly ramping up week after week.

In a blog post, entrepreneur Helen Tran describes her process of tracking progressive productivity using RescueTime:

“My program consisted of four-week ‘levels’ which were measured in weekly sprints. Weekly goals had to be met consistently met for four straight weeks before adding another level of difficulty. This process allows me to build on strong habits without overwhelming myself. The goal here is sustainability.” 

Her first week started with 25 hours of deep work (which was measured as Very Productive time in RescueTime). Here’s what her first round of progressive overload looked like:

After hitting these goals, she switched her focus and started to work on removing other distractions from the workday. For example, Helen switched her focus to four weeks with 25 hours without Slack or meetings.

If you need extra help, RescueTime Goals and Alerts can track these numbers automatically and tell you when you’ve gone over them. 

Writing goal

2. Schedule your day to work with your body’s natural ebbs and flows of energy

We all go through natural ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day. Researchers call this our Circadian Rhythm—a 24-hour internal clock running in the background of your brain that cycles between alertness and sleepiness.

It’s why you’re (most likely) more focused in the morning and have lower energy in the mid-afternoon. 

When you’re trying to improve your focus you want to give yourself every advantage you can. So it only makes sense to try to align your day with those energy highs and lows:

  • Focused heads-down time during your moments of peak energy
  • Meetings, calls, and email when your energy levels are naturally lower

Discovering your own daily rhythm takes a bit of time, but one of the easiest ways to do this is with RescueTime.

To view your Daily Patterns, change your RescueTime dashboard to Monthly and then head to Reports > Productivity > Time of Day.

Looking at your Daily Productivity Report by Time of Day report gives you a quick breakdown of when you’re naturally more productive each day. 

3. Start with a single “anchor task” each day

Once you know when you’re most likely to be focused it’s time to make the most of that time. 

When Harvard’s Teresa Amabile looked into the daily habits of hundreds of knowledge workers across industries, she found that out of all the things that can boost our mood and motivation during the workday, “the single most important is making progress on meaningful work.”

To see that daily progress, set what author James Clear calls an “anchor task” for each day:

“Although I plan to complete other tasks during the day, my priority task is the one non-negotiable thing that must get done. I call this my ‘anchor task’ because it is the mainstay that holds the rest of my day in place. The power of choosing one priority is that it naturally guides your behavior by forcing you to organize your life around that responsibility.”

Choosing your anchor task requires prioritization as well as being honest about what work is most meaningful. If you’re unsure, take time to clear up your priorities with your boss or manager. 

You can even use RescueTime’s Highlights feature to keep track of the anchor tasks you complete each day. 

You can log highlights manually, prompt yourself to enter highlights a few times a day, or use an integration to automatically log highlights from other apps. 

As you improve your focus, you might want to add more tasks and keep track of them throughout the day. This means more than just writing a big to-do list (as we’re notoriously bad at estimating how long a task should take to do). 

Instead, try writing out the tasks you want to complete each hour or each portion of the day. As entrepreneur Neil Patel writes

“By writing out your key tasks each hour, you will refocus your brain on most important projects, and by timing yourself, you will add a sense of urgency that will help you stay focused.”

Again, don’t push yourself too much, too quickly. Instead, give yourself time to feel confident in your abilities before adding on too much. 

4. Remove distractions (both physical and digital) from your work environment

The easier it is for you to get pulled away from what you’re currently working on, the more likely you’ll be to do just that. Even the basic things you keep around you can destroy your focus (like your phone, email inbox, multiple browser windows, and to-do list). 

To single-task, start by putting your phone away in a bag or another room. Toss on headphones if your coworkers are chatting nearby. And while you’re at it, remove yourself from other distractions. Close your email client and IM or put your computer into Do Not Disturb mode.

If you find your willpower slipping, you can always use a tool like RescueTime’s FocusTime feature to block distracting websites while you single task through your day.

FocusTime is a RescueTime Premium feature. Sign up for your free 14-day trial!

Unfortunately, these aren’t the only distractions you need to worry about when it comes to improving your focus. 

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Power of Excellence, there are actually two kinds of distraction:

  • Sensory distractions (External). These are the things happening around us like colleagues talking, phones ringing, people moving around us, music playing, etc…
  • Emotional distractions (Internal). These are the thoughts that make our attention drift from what we’re doing. For example, remembering a phone call you need to return or thinking about an upcoming meeting.

While there are plenty of ways you can protect yourself from sensory distractions, the emotional ones can be trickier to solve. But not impossible. Which leads us to…

5. Fight the urge to multitask by time-blocking and setting clear expectations

single-tasking multitasking

As Catherine Price explains in her book How to Break up With Your Phone, focusing for long periods of time is unnatural for our brains. In fact, according to UC Irvine’s Gloria Mark, most people average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching to something else (and only 2 minutes on a digital tool before moving on).

This context switching is terrible for our productivity and focus. And we can’t place all the blame on notifications and alerts.

We’re just as likely to distract yourselves as to be distracted by something else. The FOMO of missing out on a piece of communication or forgetting to send an important doc can turn our day into Swiss cheese. 

To get over that FOMO, you need to be in control of how you spend your time. And that means not just reacting to other peoples’ needs. 

One of the best ways to do this is with time blocking.

Simply put, time blocking is when you plan out every moment of your day in advance with specific blocks for specific tasks. This means scheduling ‘blocks’ for:

  • Meaningful work
  • Email/chat/meetings
  • Breaks
  • Lunch
  • “Shallow work” like admin and catch up
  • Anything else you regularly do each day

Time blocking sets a focus for each moment of the day so you’re not pulled in a million directions. Plus, it helps others understand your priorities and expectations. Finally, it helps get rid of the FOMO of not checking your inbox as you know you’ll have time to do that later on. 

You can even set up RescueTime to automatically start a FocusTime session (block distracting websites) when you’ve scheduled a session of meaningful work.

Using our new Google Calendar integration all you have to do is write #focustime in the title or description and you’ll trigger FocusTime for the duration of the calendar event. 

Finally, don’t discount the power of a healthy lifestyle on improving your focus

Rebuilding your focus after burning out is a long process that involves more than just what you do during the workday. Our mood, energy levels, and even happiness all impact our ability to stay focused on a single task. 

As you go through this process, don’t discount the small things outside of work that will help: 

  • Get enough sleep
  • Take more breaks during the workday (a minimum of one every 90 minutes)
  • Eat the right foods to promote long-term energy (not spikes) like protein and healthy fats like nuts, avocados, eggs, and coconut oil. 
  • Drink more water
  • Get exercise in the morning 
  • Spend time in nature
  • Read long books or articles that interest you
  • Practice active listening with the people you care about
  • Try meditation and daily mindfulness

Lastly, be patient. Focus is a lot like a reputation. Hard to make but easy to lose. It’s frustrating when you feel like you can’t improve focus, but by following these tips, you should be able to start rebuilding it.

Have you lost your focus from burnout? Share your story with us for a chance to be featured on the RescueTime blog.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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