There are days when I am not feeling sick, tired, and not distracted, but I am just unable to focus. I want to do work, but when I sit down to start, I can’t bring myself to actually do it.
I’m simply stuck “in a fog”. You’ve probably felt it too, and found a way to re-gain focus, but more likely, you struggled all day and only succeeded in doing mediocre work as a result.
I can’t tell you there is any way to avoid this feeling completely, but I can say that it is possible to overcome it when it happens.
1. Figure Out What’s Going On
There could be a concrete explanation—you barely slept all weekend, you’ve been working on one particular project for too long. You don’t know where to begin, and now, you don’t really want to begin. Or there could be no real reason at all.
Though it’s helpful to know why you’re in a fog, I believe it’s even more important to know what kind you’re in. When you focus solely on the reason why, it’s more of a blame game—”I hate having to wake up this early for work,” “This assignment is too difficult for me”—and you end up complaining rather than fixing the problem at hand.
But when you explore the what—the physical (your head feels heavy, you can’t stare at one place for more than a second, you have an actual headache) and the mental (your thoughts are jumbled, you can’t pinpoint your emotions)—you can more easily target the problem head on and become more in-tune with yourself. And once you’re at that state, you’re able to move forward with how you’re going to tackle it.
2. Try the “Talking Cure”
First, I suggest talking out what you discovered in step one—to a friend, to a co-worker, even to yourself (just be sure that if you’re in the office, there’s no one else around). As you probably learned from experience, saying stuff out loud helps you process. When we verbalize our thoughts aloud- out in the open it becomes more tangible and easier to manage.
So sit down with a colleague and tell him or her what you’re struggling with, or go for a walk and talk it over with yourself.
3. Eliminate (Extra) Distractions
While you process, you’re going to want to remove each and every distraction. Right now, while writing this article, I minimized social media tabs, killed any unnecessary programs, and increased my document to full screen.
This way, the only thing in front of me was the document, and the task at hand. I may have started out feeling all-over-the-place, but as I narrowed my attention to this one, simple project, my mind became clearer and more alert.
And science supports this! Studies show that external distractions negatively affect both the quantity and quality of your work.
So, take a few moments to see what’s taking your mind off the main goal—is it your chatty co-workers or your current playlist? Whatever it is, eliminate it.
4. Use Your “Get Out of a Fog Free” Card
If you’ve covered the first three steps and you still feel foggy, I encourage you to take a much-needed break. Even if you just got to work, you are inundated, and even if you have a deadline.
Because nothing good is going to get done if you continue feeling this way, so you might as well be productive by focusing on you. And the thing is, a break doesn’t mean taking the whole day off. It might not even mean taking an hour off.
So, disregard everything I recommended above and give in to all your distractions: listen to that song, play with your favorite desk toy, grab a cup of coffee with your friend, text that person you’ve been waiting to hear back from, really nothing is off limits. Consider these things part of your “Get out of a fog free” card.
Here’s the catch: You need to give yourself a time limit. And no, all day is not an option, either. Try 15, 30 or 60 minutes at most. Because even when you’re in a fog, you still have work to do—which brings me to the final tip.
5. Give Up[For Now] and Move On
When all’s said and done, you’re still at work, that deadline is still drawing nearer, and your boss still needs that presentation. I can’t tell you to give up completely and go home.
But I can tell you that maybe today’s not the day you want to take on that particular task. Instead, handle the mundane—emails, scheduling, quick to-dos that don’t take a ton of thought—and you can come back ready for focused-productivity tomorrow morning.
When you eventually clear your mind and get the job done, make sure to pat yourself on the back. Because it’s not an easy thing to push through, and you want to remember for the future that you can do it. Remind yourself how you felt going in and how much you achieved despite that. Then, cherish the feeling of accomplishment and challenge yourself to stay this confident again tomorrow.
Oh, and know this: Even the smartest people have off days, it’s how they work through (and around) them that makes them able to create truly exceptional work.