The sun is beaming, your Insta feed is filled with beach shots, and—cue the violins—you’re stuck at work. Productivity experts share their top tricks for staying focused and motivated when you feel really (really) distracted.

By Kathleen Murray Harris
Updated July 11, 2017
David Lees/Getty Images
David Lees/Getty Images


Make a must-do list, not a to-do list, of three things you have to get done. Be realistic about what you can accomplish. “Limiting your goals takes the overwhelm away and keeps you focused,” says Sarah Knight, author of Get Your Sh*t Together. There’s also a secret power in the number three, says Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project: “The three little pigs, three Olympic medals, three parts of a story—our brain is wired to think in threes.” When you follow through on what you intended to do, you’ll end the day feeling great and motivated for tomorrow. And if you finish early enough, you can get a jump start on tomorrow’s tasks or spend some time outside.


The enticement of checking social media can peak in the summer, when half your office is on vacation and your energy (and motivation) naturally dips, says Bailey. “Whenever we bounce around on apps, our brain releases a hit of dopamine, which makes our phone more tempting than our actual work,” he says. Don’t fight it; instead, check social media with intention. Do a feed sweep to see what’s going on, then put your phone on airplane mode for the next hour. When you fight through distraction and get tasks done, reward yourself with a little time to chill out.


It’s natural to zone out from work, but mindless procrastinating reduces productivity. To figure out when procrastination strikes, Knight recommends starting a time journal. As with a food diary, you write down how you spent every minute of your day to see when distraction creeps in (e.g., you research dinner recipes at 3 p.m.). Don’t ignore it—plan for it. Tailor your schedule to when you’re most focused (and when you’re not) by scheduling grace periods for free mind time.


You know that drinking water and exercising are good for your body, but they may also boost brainpower. Research cited in Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism suggests even minor dehydration can affect cognition, alertness, and concentration. Studies also show that small bursts of exercise—say, 10 to 20 minutes—can make you feel sharper. “A quick walk improves memory and increases ability to generate ideas and make better connections,” says Bonnie St. John, coauthor of Micro-Resilience: Minor Shifts for Major Boosts in Focus, Drive, and Energy.


Maybe you just don’t feel like working, or you’re resentful that you’re not at the beach. That’s OK, says Sue Rasmussen, author of My Desk Is Driving Me Crazy. Own those emotions so they don’t consume you. “Most people ignore what they’re feeling and think if they buckle down and muscle through the workday, they’ll be fine,” she says. “But if you admit how you’re feeling, you’ll move past it more quickly.” St. John recommends that you try reversing your thoughts from negative to positive. For example, if you wish you were someplace else, say, “I am so glad I am right here working on this project.” Even if you don’t mean it, says St. John, “by saying it out loud, it shifts your energy, flips a switch in your brain, and tricks you into pushing your emotions in a new direction.”


Having a little something to look forward to—maybe a girls’ weekend or a day off to yourself—can increase your happiness right now, says Knight. “Setting a goal, even if it’s just to get to the beach on Friday, can bring you peace in all the weeks and days leading up to that trip,” she says. Keep your sights set on that goal, and before you know it, you too will be sharing sunset photos with all your stuck-at-work friends.